International horses have saved the Melbourne Cup
Thank god for the international horses. Some say they’ve ruined a great Australian institution. Fact is, they’ve saved it.
Last year, just one Australian horse finished in the top 10 in the Melbourne Cup. Its name was Niwot and it came eighth. The next Australian horse was Precedence in 11th spot, then The Verminator, in 13th. Between them, those three horses have since won just two of their 30 starts.
Clearly, our best local stayers are not world-beaters. They’re barely swift enough to be egg-beaters. This year’s local crop looks even weaker. Without the internationals, the 2012 Melbourne Cup would resemble a staying race at the bush picnic races.
When two international horses descended on Flemington for the 1993 Melbourne Cup, they were curiosities. The Irish 15-1 shot Vintage Crop won in commanding style, and there were cries of despair that no Australian horse would ever win the Cup again.
These proved premature. For the next decade or so, a solid contingent of four or five internationals arrived each year, most of them abject failures. The “raiders”, as the visitors were inevitably called, won neither the small gold trophy or indeed a lost ark.
When Media Puzzle made it two for the internationals in 2002, no one panicked. They were statistically overdue, and besides, the story of jockey Damien Oliver triumphing the same week his brother died was so heart-warming, they eventually turned it into a movie.
Then came three straight years of Makybe Diva dominance and all was still good in the Aussie-centric view of the equine world. Japan delivered its one-two punch in 2006, but then Efficient, Viewed and Shocking flew the flag for Australia the next three years.
The runners-up in each of those three years were imports. No one really noticed, but the northern hemisphere European trainers were beginning to get the hang of this Melbourne Cup thing.
For years, European trainers had made the mistake of sending stayers which grinded away and grinded away and grinded away. That style of running will win races in England. But you need a turn of hoof to win a Melbourne Cup.
Staying power, plus the ability to accelerate, was Makybe Diva’s weapon. That skillset is also the hallmark of the 2010 and 2011 Melbourne Cup winners, Americain and Dunaden.
Those two horses are in again this year, and there are others which may be their equal. Two of them, French horses Brigantin and Shahwardi, may not even squeeze into the final field.
It’ll be a travesty if they don’t, but rules is rules. Several Australian horses are ahead of them in the order of entry. They’re no hope, but if the owners cough up the $50k final acceptance fee, vanity will triumph over speed.
In a way, it’s sad the way the Melbourne Cup has gone. It used to be fun doing the form when it was just local horses. You’d still lose most years, but you had the glorious illusion you could crack the code.
Anyone who reckons they can line up the form from European racecourses like Longchamps and The Curragh against Randwick, Flemington and Matamata is either deluded or a liar.
Still, it’s probably not a bad thing that it’s not about us anymore. The Melbourne Cup is now a truly international event, which is good for the economy, tourism and the rest of it. It has also saved the race as as a spectacle.
Imagine if Bernard Tomic and the ageing Lleyton Hewitt were joint favourites for the Australian Open tennis. Wouldn’t be much of a tournament, would it?
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