o death and taxes you can add Australian horse racing. It is arguable no sport has been confronted with as many challenges – many of them self-inflicted – and continually come out the other side. Even a global health crisis was no match. While Covid-19 brought most walks of life to their knees, the racing industry in this country pushed on through.
The lack of crowds at meetings has been at worst an annoyance. Of greater import, the perpetuation of competition has preserved the industry’s lifeblood: the wagering dollar. On Tuesday there will be no patrons at Flemington for the Melbourne Cup. Not even owners will be allowed on course, much to the disgust of the Victoria Racing Club.
But while this first Tuesday in November will be unlike any other in some ways, in others it will be business as usual. Last financial year, Tabcorp’s media and wagering division reported revenues of more than $2bn and Melbourne Cup day is the company’s biggest day of the year – in 2019, it turned over $160m across the day.
Staggeringly, these figures amounted to a slight decline from the previous year. Forecasts in 2020 point to another dip, one that will be attributed to Covid-19 but one that might also be symptomatic of possible waning public interest. But the numbers will still be big. Through scandal and pandemic, Australians continue to bet and they will continue to bet on the Melbourne Cup.
This time last year, thoroughbred racing faced one of its greatest existential threats in the shape of the ABC investigation into the treatment and slaughter of racehorses at a Queensland knackery. And now a light has again been shone on the dark side of the industry with revelations horses are still being killed to make pet food at abattoirs in northern New South Wales, a practice prohibited by Racing NSW.
One of racing’s great tricks is to distance itself from scandal and wrongdoing; it is never the industry that has a case to answer, rather the transgressors. And authorities always talk a good game. “Racing NSW will prosecute those persons for any breaches of its rules,” Marc van Gestel, general manager of integrity, said last week. For racing, perception – or, specifically, the perception it is doing the right thing – is always reality. It is onwards and upwards to Tuesday’s race for the Teflon sport.
The requisite equine interlopers are again here for the 2020 edition of the Melbourne Cup but thanks to Covid-19 there is no Frankie Dettori, no Ryan Moore, no foreign jockeys to accompany the international steeds. Twenty-three male hoops will be in opposition to the race’s sole female rider, Jamie Kah, who will be looking to emulate Michelle Payne’s ground-breaking triumph aboard Prince Of Penzance in 2015.
Kah is already one of Australia’s best jockeys, irrespective of gender, and looks destined to one day win a Melbourne Cup. It might come this year on Prince Of Arran, an English galloper who ran second in 2019 and has a live chance of going one better this time around.
At eight years of age, Prince Of Arran is one of the greybeards in what is a younger horse’s race. Gone are the days when European handlers would target the Melbourne Cup with exposed stayers. Where once a race like the Ascot Gold Cup, run over the marathon journey of 4014 metres, would be the defining benchmark for aspiring raiders, now Derbys and St Legers infuse the intertwining formlines.
The modern visitor is a classier individual with the ability to change speed at the end of a race, and often adept at distances shorter than two miles at home. That said, somebody forgot to show Willie Mullins the memo. The Irish trainer will saddle up Stratum Albion, whose lead-up form includes a seventh placing in a hurdle over 4626m. Mullins twice went close with the similarly profiled Max Dynamite so it would be unwise to discount this outsider.
The influx of faster European stayers has also seen the end of days for the plodding local who might have a shot at the stumps and even come away with victory. The overall standard of the race is far greater now and Tuesday’s renewal is another case in point.
At the top of the weights is Anthony Van Dyck, last year’s Epsom Derby winner who brought his form with him when running an eye-catching second to the re-opposing Verry Elleegant in last month’s Caulfield Cup.
Aidan O’Brien, Ireland’s champion flat trainer, also runs Tiger Moth, a three-year-old by European standards who counts two victories and an Irish Derby second placing in just four career outings. The son of Galileo is typical of the unexposed European thoroughbred now pointed towards the Melbourne Cup. Tiger Moth fits the mould of recent winners, Cross Counter and Rekindling, and looks an excellent chance despite his wide draw in stall 23.
Elsewhere, Sir Dragonet brings Cox Plate-winning form and German stayer Ashrun, winner of Saturday’s Hotham Stakes, represents the Andreas Wohler-Australian Bloodstock combination that was behind Protectionist’s 2014 triumph.
It is a measure of the race’s depth that the lightly raced Russian Camelot, who started $1.40 in the Caulfield Stakes before running third as favourite in the Cox Plate, is available at $13 or better. They might all be tipped out, however, by the Horsham-trained Surprise Baby, who looks primed to improve on his fifth placing in 2019.