if the legendary Bart Cummings were still alive I’m sure he’d offer an opinion on the great race as it is now.
For nearly four decades, Cummings held a mortgage on the Melbourne Cup having secured his first victory back in 1965 with the four year old mare Light Fingers, and in total winning it twelve times up to 2008.
I wonder what he would say about the last two winners of the Melbourne Cup, being Northern Hemisphere three-year-olds who came into the race as cold as ice, with no Australian pre-race starts whatsoever.
Is this the new normal?
Does this now mean that horses trained in Australia and trained specifically for the Melbourne Cup no longer require a 10,000 metre training program to prepare for the race? This used to be Bart’s stock-in-trade method to get his horses into shape. Obviously with the wins of Rekindling and Cross Counter, that method is now up for debate.
Could this be setting a new trend? Is this a justification for not starting your horse prior to the Melbourne Cup and bringing them into the event without any racing?
For Australian trainers that would be unthinkable, considering the amount of Group races up for grabs, the prize money on offer notwithstanding.
It’s different for the Europeans, because they have international travel and a two week quarantine stand-down to contend with. Non attendance on race day isn’t as big a deal for them as it is for the locals. So long as they stay focused on the prize.
For this years cup, Cross Counter, Muntahaa, Marmelo and Magic Circle did not make an appearance before Cup day. Marmelo’s absence was deliberate according to trainer Hughie Morrison, and it obviously paid dividends with his second placing. So too Cross Counter, but I think you’ll find it was the light weight rather than any absence nor a terrible barrier draw which delivered the ultimate reward.
Of course non-participation pre-Cup confounds the betting form. No benchmark is provided to pundits, racing media as well as punters. Everyone is looking at form going months back. Some of the time it might be accurate, but most of the time it’s like throwing darts with a blindfold on.
Spare a thought for the handicapper, who has to try and juggle handicap weights based on form in Europe and Japan, as well as Australia. From there, he gets lamabasted for making calls on certain horses and their form. Either weighted too high or too low. The guy can’t win!
That is why you very rarely see the top European staying horses coming out to Australia, because if they’re winning and winning well over in Europe they will get weighted out of the Melbourne Cup. Three that spring to mind are Talismanic, Stradivarius and Order of St George. They all stay in Europe or go over to the USA instead.
As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, having a light weight for a horse really is an advantage.
The European Strategy
So it becomes a game of cat and mouse. European owners and trainers have to give serious thought toward a horse that could make the grade in Australia. They need to do so by ensuring that it gets into the Cups nominations with a light weight. Easier said than done.
If that’s the case then the juggling act begins. What European race to participate in and how best to qualify the horse and at the same time avoid a weight penalty by the Australian handicapper. Is winning staying races at Group 2 or 3 level the way to do it without inflicting a serious weight penalty?
Take the Ebor Hanidcap for instance. The richest handicap race in Britain, but is not graded a Group 1, 2 or 3 race. Take into accoubt the form lines of Heartbreak City, Nakeeta and Muntahaa and their appearances in Australia, and it underlines what an important race it is from a handicapping perspective. The prestige of the Ebor is more about the history of the race going back years, rather than Group winning achievements guaranteed to boost stallion prospects.
The Local Strategy
Is there an incentive to start a local horse in these races and incur a penalty in the longer term? Certainly yes if your horse is on the second tier of quality. Like a Patrick Erin or a Lord Fandango for instance.
Obviously it depends on what the motives are of the connections of a horse. It would be hard to deny that the attraction of a Group 1 win or multiple Group 1 wins for a horse has some bearing on their breeding prospects. If you’re in a syndicate, your percentage ownership might not be enough to have a say in the future pathway of your horse.
If that’s the case, leave the Melbourne Cup prestige alone and just focus on the horse becoming a great sire, and make your money that way. A recent example being Tosen Stardom, who looked like missing the boat on a life after racing, then all a sudden, he wins two Group 1’s, and a stallion career is assured.
The Unresolved Jigsaw
What about the prize money? What about qualifying races? What about changes to assessing the handicap and ballot conditions?
In the case of the local horses who haven’t won a qualifying Group 1 race, or a ballot exemption race like the Bart Cummings or Lexus Stakes, it really becomes a struggle to get your ballot ranking higher up the pecking order just to make the field, notwithstanding injuries and defections prior to the Saturday evening before the Cup.
It’s all an interconnected jigsaw puzzle, and there are far too many variables to address in this particular article but suffice to say there’s enough ammunition here to talk about the subject of Cups nominations and training methods for some time yet.
Hopefully these issues get addressed by the various factions of the Australian racing community. Otherwise, we may have a Melbourne Cup in the near future with no Australian or New Zealand horse in the field. When that day happens, it’s time to acknowledge that Australian Racing has truly lost its soul. Let us hope that day never arrives.