Cup beset by drama and controversy - but get set for a major international victory

Damian Lane, pictured winning the Caulfield Cup on Mer De Grace, goes for an unprecedented Aussie grand slam at Flemington tomorrow

The 159th running of Australia’s iconic Melbourne Cup on Tuesday is facing the raft of issues and drama usually associated with ‘The Race that Stops a Nation.’ Security at the annual Cup Parade through the city’s Central Business District on Monday was ramped up, while controversy continues on whether all Cup horses should be subjected to a pre-race CT scan to minimise the risk of injury. But that is not all.

Security at the annual Cup Parade through the city’s Central Business District on Monday was ramped up, while controversy continues on whether all Cup horses should be subjected to a pre-race CT scan to minimise the risk of injury.

At the traditional Carbine Club lunch on the eve of the Victoria Derby, Hall Of Fame trainer Lee Freedman proposed the ‘toast to racing’ with a lengthy but entertaining speech, in which he called for international participants in the Cup to be invited, rather than the present system that demands they be entered, qualified, and shipped to Australia at the owner’s expense.

Freedman’s proposal was not out of sympathy for the owners, but more a call for capping the number of foreign runners in the country’s most famous race. There is still underlying resentment among many local owners and trainers over the courting of overseas participants in spite of the undoubted boost in global status their presence has brought to the VRC Spring Carnival and Australian racing in general.

It has to be pointed out that Freedman, who now trains in Singapore, has ‘form’ in the radical ideas department.

Around 20 years back, in a newspaper column, he suggested the Melbourne Cup should be reduced in distance to 2400m (one and a half miles) and run at weight-for-age. Needless to say, nothing came of it, and the race is still a 3200m (two-mile) handicap, and remains the most sought-after sporting prize in Australia.

History is regularly made in Melbourne on the first Tuesday in November. Freedman himself was part of that history in 2005 as the trainer of Makybe Diva, who became the only triple winner of the Melbourne Cup. This time, it could be the turn of jockey Damian Lane (world-ranked #19 in the TRC standings) to create his own new chapter as the only rider to partner the winners of the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and Golden Slipper in the same calendar year.

Seven jockeys have visited Australian racing’s Holy Grail, landing the big four, but Japanese 4-year-old Mer De Glace has the chance to give Lane an unprecedented grand slam, following his triumphs on Kiamichi (Golden Slipper) in March, and Mer De Glace (Caulfield Cup) and Lys Gracieux (Cox Plate) In the past two weeks.

So brilliant was Mer De Glace’s win in the G1 Caulfield Cup many argue he could lack the stamina to run a solid two miles at Flemington, and, drawn two, there are also fears he could get locked away in the clutter of the 24-horse field. A huge Japanese entourage will be on course to cheer home their equine hero, who attempts to emulate compatriot Delta Blues, who won in 2006.

Global interest in the Melbourne Cup these days is undeniable. Mer De Glace carries the colours of U Carrot Farm (world #8), an off-shoot of the Yoshida family’s Northern Farm. Coolmore Partners (world #2) are represented by Magic Wand, Hunting Horn and Il Paradiso (very much a talented mystery contender with a major chance), while they retain a 20 percent share in Constantinople, one of the favourites. Godolphin have last year’s winner, Cross Counter, trained by Charlie Appleby, as their only runner this year.

Joseph O’Brien, fresh from his Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf triumph with Iridessa at Santa Anita, arrives to saddle four Cup runners, 2018 Irish Derby winner Latrobe, Master Of Reality and Twilight Payment, all for world #14 Lloyd Williams and associates, as well as Downdraft, for syndicators OTI (#37).

World #9 Chris Waller, the Sydney-based trainer who continues to dominate Australia’s richest races (he has won both the Everest and the Golden Eagle in recent weeks), has guided Finche, last year’s fourth, through a faultless preparation for the Cup and he leads the local challenge with this ex-French horse, who is now fully acclimatised. 

But Danny O’Brien is also confident he can land the big one, with Vow And Declare, who attempts to become the 12th Caulfield Cup runner-up in 75 years to triumph in the Melbourne Cup. The son of Declaration Of War is another who has not put a foot wrong in his prep races. Surprise Baby is another strongly-fancied local.

British trainer Richard Hannon (#50) saddles his first Cup runner, Raymond Tusk, a luckless fourth in the Ebor at York, for the 200-strong Middleham Park Racing syndicate, while the Charlie Fellowes-trained Prince Of Arran, who finished third last year, came into the field with a win in the G3 Geelong Cup, for which he received a 1kg penalty. The Ebor winner, Mustajeer, now trained by Kris Lees (world #50) in Australia, will find the two miles more to his liking.

This is an open running of the Melbourne Cup, but I am expecting a truly international outcome with a little something for everybody — Finche to win for Waller, in the colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah, one of the world’s key owners of the last 40 years, who now shares the horse with 13 Australian partners, who include the owners of Winx, Black Caviar and Everest winner Yes Yes Yes.

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