Melbourne Cup takes place on Nov. 1
World's richest handicap with $4.76M purse
First prize $2.75 million
Do you fork out a small fortune and risk flying a horse halfway around the world in an attempt to win millions of dollars, or cash in early and make a tidy profit sitting at home?
Such is the pulling power of the Melbourne Cup that just having a qualified runner in the southern hemisphere’s biggest race can attract “very handsome offers” to buy your horse and relieve you of all the effort before you go.
But with a purse of Aus $6.2 million ($4.76 million) and a first prize of Aus $3.6 million ($2.75 million), the majority of owners and trainers are willing to gamble on the chance of richer rewards.
“The Australians will pay virtually any money if you have a horse qualified to run in it,” Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins, who runs Irish St Leger winner Wicklow Brave in the November 1 showpiece, told CNN.
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“It’s like the English wanting a runner in the Grand National or the Gold Cup,” added Mullins referring to two classic British jump races. “There are always one or two horses that change hands a week or two before the race.
“Just to be involved with a runner on the day is huge for Australians and they will try to get a part of a horse, a leg of a horse, half a horse or even buy the whole horse.
“We had several offers last year and we’ve had plenty of offers this year for our horse. And it would be very handsome offers, now.”
‘Nothing like it’
Mullins and his owners held firm as the trainer plots a fourth assault on the Melbourne Cup and attempts to go one better than last year’s second with Max Dynamite, ridden by Frankie Dettori.
“As with everything, it’s the prize money, it’s huge, you have to go for it,” says Mullins.
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“Plus, it’s an iconic race. We’ve all read about it and seen films about Phar Lap and things like that.
“Now that they have totally revamped the prize money structure it makes it totally viable for people from this hemisphere to go and have a crack at winning it.”
The Melbourne Cup – a unique two-mile handicap on the Flat – was first run in 1861 and is always held on the first Tuesday of November during the Spring Carnival at Flemington Park.
Known as the “race that stops a nation,” it’s a public holiday in the state of Victoria, and a social, cultural and sporting extravaganza that attracts a crowd of more than 100,000 racegoers.
The four-day Carnival attracts more than 310,000 fans to Flemington and in 2015 brought in Aus $202.7 million ($154 million) to the local economy.
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“I would say there is nothing like it in the world and it’s very hard to tell people about it,” adds Mullins. “You have to be down there. The atmosphere, the lead-up, the week before, the weekend before the race is huge.”
‘Front page news’
The Melbourne Cup is the world’s richest handicap – where the “best” horses are given higher weights to carry – with the sixth biggest purse in racing and the bonus of a Aus $175,000 ($133,000) 18-carat gold trophy, known as the “Loving Cup.” (The Dubai World Cup is top with a purse of US $10 million.)
Englishman Michael Bell, a winner of the Derby with Motivator in 2005 and the Oaks with Sariska in 2009, is also chasing a first Melbourne Cup and saddles Big Orange for a second attempt after finishing fifth last year.
“When you get Flat races run over this distance the excitement builds, there is a lot of theater and drama throughout the race,” the Newmarket-based trainer told CNN.
“They come past the stands on the first circuit to enormous cheers from the massive crowd and then disappear down the back straight. It takes time for the race to unfold which adds to the spectacle.
“It is steeped in history, and there are massive traditions and so much media interest. In Australia it is front page news as opposed to back page news.”
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The bumper pot was first boosted beyond Aus $1 million dollars in 1985 and since then has become a more viable option for trainers from the northern hemisphere.
But with only the first 10 horses of 24 starters receiving prize money – second gets Aus $900,000 ($688,000), 10th earns Aus $125,000 – and costs of anything from US $180,000-$244,000 to take a horse, jockey and training team down to Australia, according to Mullins, even making the trip from Europe is a big consideration.
“It costs a lot of money to compete in it,” says Mullins. “You’ve got to think you’ve got a chance, but with the prize money now at least people are going down there with a shot at getting a return and enjoying themselves.
“All of my owners that have been down there have said the same the thing: they want another horse for that race. It’s extraordinary.”
Irish trainer Dermot Weld defied taunts he was “mad” to even try when he became the first foreigner to win the Melbourne Cup with Vintage Crop in 1993 and backed up his feat with Media Puzzle in 2002.
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“He did a huge amount of work on the quarantine and how to travel down there and paved the way,” says Mullins. “He had the dedication to do it and set about opening doors that hadn’t even been knocked on before. The training fraternity on the northern hemisphere owe him huge thanks.”
Since then, Japan-trained Delta Blues won in 2006, French-trained horses won in 2010 and 2011 and Germany’s Protectionist triumphed in 2014.
British and Irish horses have to go to Newmarket in England for two weeks of quarantine before an almost 30-hour journey, flying in stalls in the hold of a plane via Amsterdam and Dubai before another stint of quarantine in Australia, when the lads must shower before tending their horses.
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“It takes the horses time to get over it,” says Bell. “Older horses tend to cope with it better, but it depends on the temperament of the horses.
“They have access to feed and water throughout the flight but some get unsettled by it and get dehydrated. Some take it better than others. It is a tough ask on them.”
Bell said Big Orange lost 20 kilograms of his 500kg bulk on the journey out last year but put it back on “in the next two or three days.”
“He coped with everything extremely well and thrived on it,” says Bell, who insists a Melbourne Cup and a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victory would complete his bucket list.
“This year he’s carrying half a kilo more which suggests he’s got better.
“It was a fantastic experience and we’re hoping to repeat it.”
The Frankie factor
Twelve months ago Michelle Payne became the first woman jockey to win the Melbourne Cup when her outsider Prince of Penzance pipped Frankie Dettori’s mount in a fierce run-in, for which the Italian was fined $20,000 and banned for a month for careless riding.
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Payne said afterward racing was “such a chauvinistic sport” and told her doubters to get “stuffed” amid claims some connections wanted to replace her with a male jockey before the race.
After recently recovering from serious abdominal injuries suffered in a fall at Mildura in May, Payne is currently without a ride for the Melbourne Cup.
However, Dettori, 45, who has won most of the world’s big races multiple times, is back for another crack in the one that has always eluded him.
“He’s riding out of his skin this year,” says Mullins. “Flemington Park might not be the luckiest racetrack he’s ever ridden – and he probably wants to ride a Melbourne Cup winner more than anyone – but the way Frankie is riding I’m hoping he can put that one to bed.”
According to Mullins, a Melbourne Cup contender needs to be a “professional race horse who stays with speed, and probably able to handle fast ground.”
When Wicklow Brave won the Irish St Leger at the Curragh in September he was installed as favorite, but Mullins’ policy of avoiding any of the traditional prep races in Victoria in the run-up to the Melbourne Cup has dropped him down the betting.
“The horse doesn’t know that and it doesn’t bother me,” says Mullins, who is inching closer to the big prize after also saddling Holy Orders to 17th in 2003 and Simenon to fourth in 2013.
“He must have a very good chance. This horse has done enough racing this year and we can prepare him without a run. We’re happy with how he is.”
Big in Japan
Mullins won the Grand National with Hedgehunter in 2005 and the Champion Hurdle in 2011 and 2013 with Hurricane Fly, while in 2015 he scored a record eight winners during Cheltenham week.
But he reckons his best training achievement, and one that bodes well for the long trip to Australia, was to take the home-bred Blackstairmountain to Japan and win the prestigious Grand Jump in 2013.
“I had been out there a few years before and I’d seen the race and saw what huge prize money it was – equal to half a million sterling at the time,” he says.
“We just had to identify an owner who was plucky enough to put down the money to go and have a crack at it.
“We were out there for a couple of months with two lads who only spoke English, paying for everything ourselves because there were no expenses for jump racing in Japan, the only horse in a huge yard with 800 stables training on his own. Thankfully, it paid off.”
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For both Mullins and Bell, one of the biggest challenges will be to steer a smooth path through the many social engagements, public appearances, street parades and media functions during the build-up to the Cup.
“It’s huge,” says Mullins. “I put a line through about half of it. From experience you couldn’t physically do your work in the morning and do all the other stuff. I wish I could. You’d be a wreck.”