Winx ridden by Hugh Bowman wins the Ladbrokes Cox Plate at Moonee Valley Racecourse on October 28, 2017 in Moonee Ponds, Australia. (Pat Scala/Racing Photos)
Even before racing officials in Victoria injected more than $5 million across the spring’s ‘’big three’’ races, the 2018 Spring Racing Carnival was all about numbers. Some big, some small, but all of them pertinent.
The number ‘four’ figures most prominently in pre-spring calculations as it is the record number of Cox Plates that might come the way of the connections of Winx as the sun sets at The Valley on the evening of October 27.
Alongside the number ‘four’ could neatly sit the number 29 as that could be the consecutive victories recorded by Winx since the autumn of 2015 if the now seven-year-old mare can continue her transfixing unbeaten run in the preceding weeks.
But the special number may well be 25. It represents the years since the carnival was opened up to international competition. In that quarter of a century, the Spring Racing Carnival is barely recognisable from the one plundered so memorably by the Irishmen Dermot Weld (trainer), Michael Smurfit (owner), Michael Kinane (jockey) and their remarkable race horse Vintage Crop.
That year, in 1993, the industry’s hastily-erected quarantine centre at the Sandown racecourse, housed just two horses. One was a European staying star in the form of Lord Huntingdon’s much-travelled and much-touted galloper Drum Taps and the other was the unlikely hurdler from Ireland. A strange combination indeed, but one that produced instant turf romance and deepened the mystery of the race as the vastly different northern hemisphere raiders made their way to Flemington that day.
Ultimately, Goliath was felled and the underdog emerged triumphant. The theme was instantly set. This 3200-metre handicap on the other side of the world generally conducted on comparatively hard, unforgiving ground was a race like few others.
And so began the unquenchable international quest for the Cup.
The desire to win a Melbourne Cup quickly caught hold in racing pockets throughout the world and subsequently, we’ve seen Cup winners originate from countries such Japan, France and Germany and last year, Ireland again when Aidan O’Brien’s son Joseph became the youngest trainer in history to win the race.
In 2018, the numbers of international horses coming for the carnival is certain to reach record heights. Unlike 25 years ago when Vintage Crop and Drum Taps had the Sandown racecourse to themselves, a pecking order has emerged at Werribee where only the highest-rated gallopers from around the world will be accepted.
But it’s not just the Melbourne Cup and its $7.3 million in prize money that solely attracts the eyes of the racing world. Both the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate have enjoyed $2 million boosts to $5 million each and so are all but certain to produce record numbers in international participation.
The Melbourne Cup was worth $2 million when Vintage Crop won it and is now worth $7.3 million, but as those 25 years have proven, it is a race specifically for the rare type of hardened yet classy stayer.
These types of horses are rare throughout the world and so the entire Spring Racing Carnival had to evolve along with its feature race to cater for elite race horses of varying abilities. These days, you are just as likely to see one of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin horses contesting a Cup race somewhere in country Victoria than thundering down the Flemington straight in search of a drought-breaking Melbourne Cup win.
Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby famously won a string of country cups in the spring of 2016 and he is setting new standards again this year. Appleby will fly out three group 1 horses for early spring weight-for-age race and sprints in the second week of September in an exercise that might soon become the norm for the larger international stables.
The spring, as always, will not simply be about horses. There are constant and intriguing battles behind the scenes also. Just as in the glory days when Cummings, Smith and Hayes would constantly vie for the biggest and tastiest slices of the spring pie, Darren Weir, Chris Waller and the Hayes family’s Lindsay Park operation will be locked in a similar fight for supremacy.
Weir has set new standards for training winners; Waller new benchmarks for prize money earned and for unearthing champions and Lindsay Park has returned as a powerful group 1 force to be reckoned with after shifting base from the Barossa Valley in South Australia to Euroa in central Victoria.
The Spring Racing Carnival offers bragging rights for the elite riders also. By Melbourne Cup time, there could be as many as 10 international riders readying themselves for the race with many of them coming out early to take in the riches on offer at Caulfield and The Valley. From Memsie Stakes day at Caulfield on the first day of September to Sandown Classic day in mid-November, Melbourne will feature world-class thoroughbred action each week.
The numbers don’t lie.
Find a raceday this Spring Racing Carnival