It has been one of the strangest Melbourne Cup weeks in my experience, and I have attended 36 Cups. Attitudes are different, and the public perception of racing and Cup Day in Australia is changing dramatically. It is still a public holiday in Melbourne, and it may as well be for the rest of the country, but with social media delivering a message from the anti-racing faction so strong about the alleged ‘cruelty of racing,’ it is having an effect. It is very worrying.
The Victoria Racing Club reported the Cup Day crowd at 81,408, down on last year’s 83,471, and a long-way short of the modern-era high 122,736, who watched the marvellous Makybe Diva win the first of her three Cups in 2003.
The attendance has dropped around 20 percent over the past five years, and while factors other than social conscience are at play — many are struggling to cope with the downturn in the economy and the devastating consequences of a six-year drought in rural areas — there is no doubt a crisis point is looming for Australian racing.
And, of course, there is the fickle Melbourne weather. The old cliche that this capital city serves up four seasons in a day is certainly applicable this week. The Oaks Day crowd (Thursday), 57,296, was down around six percent on last year and owed as much to the wind and rain as any social trends.
One of the most disturbing stories reported this week was of a wine shop owner in a trendy Melbourne suburb, Brunswick East, who had run a Cup sweepstake for his customers for the past six years. Carrying on that tradition, he asked a young woman customer if she would like to participate.
The shopkeeper recalled, “She turned white, and with absolute anger in her expression, she then she spat at me, right in the face, saying, ‘how dare you, you pig.’ It was absolutely terrible. I thought of not carrying on with the sweep, but it was not like everybody was saying no.”
Despite such extreme social outrage, which is far from the norm, the actual racing was superb, and the Melbourne Cup itself one of the most competitive seen in decades. Vow And Declare, one of only three so-called local horses in the 24-runner field, put his head in front a couple of strides before the line to reward multiple local champion Craig Williams with a fitting victory for a masterly ride.
Williams, who is renowned for his painstaking preparation before a big race — he walks the track, compiles his own speed maps, studies videos of his opposition — displayed a touch of genius in manoeuvring Vow And Declare over to the inside rail from gate 21 before reaching the winning post first.
For it was at this point that the pace slowed significantly, so much so that the race time was over eight seconds outside the record, and, even allowing for the heavy rain 24 hours earlier, and that the track was officially soft (6), the mid-race dawdle left those at the back of the field with plenty to do.
Williams has now won Australian racing’s Grand Slam — Melbourne Cup, two Caulfield Cups, two Cox Plates, Golden Slipper — and his post-race interview would have done old-style Hollywood Oscar presentations a run for their money as he thanked everybody from his family, his agent and punters, to his local dry cleaner.
Handicapper Greg Carpenter must clear a space on his office wall for an elongated photo of the Cup finish as proud testimony to framing a very competitive set of weights — heads and noses separated the first four home, and the first ten were covered by only three and a half lengths.
Frankie Dettori buried his head in his hands in frustration in the unsaddling stall after driving home Master Of Reality into second, beaten a head. “I feel like I could cry,” he uttered.
It got even worse — he copped a nine-meeting suspension for careless riding in the final stages and his mount was demoted to fourth, costing his owners A$750,000 in prize money, the difference between second and fourth.
Winning trainer Danny O’Brien, 49, who became embroiled in a long-running cobalt probe in 2015, which ended up in the Victorian Supreme Court, had executed a perfect plan for Vow And Declare, a son of Declaration Of War. He saw him as a supreme stayer in the making early in his career and trained him accordingly.
O’Brien went on to saddle Miami Bound to win the G1 VRC Oaks on Thursday, which was a quick back-up from the filly’s triumph in the G2 Wakeful Stakes five days earlier. She is a daughter of Reliable Man, the Prix du Jockey-Club winner, out of Arapaho Miss, the winner of the 2007 VRC Oaks.
Saturday (November 9) marks the fourth and final day of the VRC Spring Carnival at Flemington, the highlight of which will be Hartnell’s farewell appearance, in the G1 Mackinnon Stakes.
The Godolphin warrior has won 13 races and been placed 22 times in 57 starts, starting his career with Mark Johnston in the UK before joining John O’Shea and then James Cummings in Australia.
With ten stakes victories to his name, he has been the Godolphin flagship, the most successful to carry the royal blue colours in Australia. He faces a tough task, especially with New Zealand filly Melody Belle in the line-up. If he wins, the cheers will almost lift the roof off the grandstand.