Melbourne Cup – The Races That Count with Chris Scholtz

05 November, 2023

As legendary trainer Bart Cummings marched through five decades of Melbourne Cups on his way to a record 12 wins he laid down a blueprint for success that became gospel.

Melbourne Cup – The Races That Count with Chris Scholtz

As legendary trainer Bart Cummings marched through five decades of Melbourne Cups on his way to a record 12 wins he laid down a blueprint for success that became gospel.

By the time Cummings reached his dozen wins – the first in 1966 and the last in 2008 – his training regime, based on a horse running at least 10,000km in lead up races and having that vital final prep race just three days beforehand on Flemington’s Derby Day program, was widely accepted as the tried and true path to Melbourne Cup success.

An analysis of Cup results since 1960 compiled by Racing and Sports reveals that over 60 percent of the winners had between six and eight starts in their Cup campaigns, running between 10.5km and 14.5km in their lead up races.

Cummings stuck to this testing formula with few exceptions, ensuring his Melbourne Cup runners came to their peak with the mileage in their legs by using either the LKS Mackinnon Stakes or the Hotham Handicap (now known as the Archer Stakes) at Flemington on Derby Day as their final trial prior to their grand final three days later.

It was a lesson he learned from his father Jim Cummings, who trained Comic Court to win the Mackinnon Stakes-Melbourne Cup double in 1950. A young Bart was Comic Court’s strapper and heeding his father’s wisdom worked time and again for him in later years when only one of his 12 Cup winners – Saintly in 1996 – did not line up on Derby Day.

Cummings started nine of his Cup winners in the weight-for-age Mackinnon Stakes over 2000 metres while two (Think Big in his first win in 1974 and Kingston Rule) contested the longer Hotham Handicap (2500m), a race that has had eight name changes since 1980 to cater to the demands of sponsors.

Overall the Mackinnon Stakes made a big contribution to Melbourne Cup history. Since its first running in 1869 as the Melbourne Stakes some 20 horses won the double while another 24 winners of the Mackinnon placed in the Melbourne Cup.

But that was then and this is now! Over the last 15 years the Melbourne Cup methodology championed by Cummings has been challenged and all but erased from the record books as the race became the domain of horses either trained or imported from the northern hemisphere.

Cummings trained only one Melbourne Cup winner with a northern hemisphere pedigree. His 1990 winner Kingston Rule was a US-bred import, beginning his career in France and first racing in Australia for Tommy Smith before joining the Cummings stable.

Kingston Rule’s Melbourne Cup success – in record time that still stands – was yet another triumph for the Cummings’ formula as he racked up the required mileage when he completed his prep with a second in the Hotham Handicap on Derby Day a week after winning the Moonee Valley Cup. Interestingly Cummings had used the same MV Cup/Hotham route to set up dual winner Think Big for his first Melbourne Cup victory in 1974.

As the international reformation of the Melbourne Cup gathered momentum through the 1990s Cummings made small allowances. In 1996 he diverted from his favoured Derby Day program by giving his Cup winner Saintly his final prep race at Moonee Valley where he won a memorable WS Cox Plate.

At Flemington Saintly joined an elite list of Cox Plate champions (Phar Lap, Nightmarch, Delta, Rising Fast, Might And Power, Makybe Diva) to win the Melbourne Cup in the same year. It also earned him recognition beside Galilee, the only horse to win the Caulfield, Melbourne and Sydney Cups in the same season, as the best of the 12 Cummings-trained Cup winners.

Cummings reverted to type with his final two Cup winners Rogan Josh (1999) and Viewed (2008).

They competed on Derby Day with Rogan Josh the last horse to win the Mackinnon Stakes-Melbourne Cup double, a feat that will never be achieved again as the race was deleted from the Derby program in 2016 and is now run on the final day of Cup Week as the Champion Stakes.

In its heyday the Mackinnon, a weight-for-age event over 2000m, was often referred to as the “Practice Stakes” as many trainers  – including Cummings – used the race as a barrier trial to top off the preparations of their Melbourne Cup runners.

But as the Melbourne Cup became the domain of northern hemisphere imports the Mackinnon lost its connection to the great race.

The program change by the VRC in 2016 was an obvious response to trending results as no Cup winner had contested the Mackinnon since 2008. Its future was sealed in 2015 when no Melbourne Cup entries contested the race.

Moving on and we now see an almost complete dominance of Australian staying races by imports. The 2023 Melbourne Cup field of 24 comprises 21 horses bred in the northern hemisphere with most starting their racing careers in the UK, Ireland or France. They include four prepared by northern hemisphere trainers.

A handful will be racing in Australia for the first time, some have had just one local start since landing from overseas while others have taken routes away from the norm.

It clearly reflects the varying approach trainers take to preparing imports for the Melbourne Cup. However a common thread is their belief that the majority of NH stayers don’t need to race just three days before they line up in a major 3200m event.

The Hotham Handicap remains as a Melbourne Cup prelude on Derby Day. However the last horse to win this double was Shocking in 2009 and in recent years its only relevance is offering fringe candidates ballot exemption to the winner.

Results since 2000 show that the races that really count as key form references are the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and Geelong Cup.

You can also add the Turnbull Stakes and the Bart Cummings (a fitting tribute to the great man) run at Flemington a month prior to the Melbourne Cup as relevant pointers while the Herbert Power Handicap and Moonee Valley Gold Cup have played their part in various eras.

The Caulfield Cup was the source of 23 of the 39 winners between 1970 and 2008. Since 2008 only two Melbourne Cup winners came through the Caulfield Cup but this can be explained by the growing northern hemisphere influence with six winners (Twilight Payment, Cross Counter, Rekindling, Protectionist, Dunaden, Americain) from NH stables.

Of those six Twilight Payment, Cross Counter and Rekindling were unraced in Australia prior to their Cup wins while the German stayer Protectionist had one lead-up in the Herbert Power Handicap at Caulfield. French stayers Dunaden and Americain joined another early NH-trained winner Media Puzzle by winning the Geelong Cup on debut in Australia.

CAULFIELD CUP: The long view says this remains the best Melbourne Cup guide and this year should be no exception as it was a high class edition where a brutal pace ensured superior performances from those dominating the finish. The winner WITHOUT A FIGHT returned a career peak rating and while he has to contend with a mandatory weight penalty of 1kg he is still carrying 3kg under weight-for-age. He is a real chance to become the 12th winner of the Cups double as his record in races up to 2800m is excellent and his failure last year when having his first Australian start can be excused due to the affected track conditions. He can only improve in fitness considering has was having only his second race start since June. GOLD TRIP’s third placing matched his performance when second in 2022 and he will be meeting Without a Fight 1kg better over a distance where he has won twice from three starts. Barrier risk SOULCOMBE bombed the start as usual but recovered to finish seventh and may well have been a lot closer if he had not struck trouble at the 400m. He’s a proven Flemington horse with winning form up to 2800m and has a handy weight advantage with only 53.5kg. RIGHT YOU ARE exceeded expectations with his game fifth but remains a query beyond 2400m.

WS COX PLATE: An increasingly popular route with 11 Melbourne Cup winners starting in the Moonee Valley classic as part of their preparation since 1970. There have been four Cup winners come through the Cox Plate since 2012 and they include Verry Elleegant in 2021 and Gold Trip last year. GOLD TRIP was only ninth without luck in last year’s Cox Plate and he was better this year finishing fifth while still finding the traffic hard to negotiate around the tight track. He’s followed the same program to Flemington as last year and his WFA form says he could equal the metric weight carrying record of 58.5kg set by Think Big in 1975, given that the weight spread in this era is only 8.5kg on 50kg limit.

GEELONG CUP: Underestimated as a worthy Melbourne Cup guide. Three internationals have won the Geelong Cup before winning the Melbourne Cup since 2002 (Media Puzzle/AmericainDunaden) while Black Knight won the 1984 Melbourne Cup after finishing second. The results go deeper as seven Geelong Cup winners since 1970 have finished second in the Melbourne Cup and another five have filled minor placings in both races. It was a blanket finish this year with strong Cup trials from the imports ASHRUN (2nd) and MORE FELONS (5th) with MAGICAL LAGOON sixth and VIRTUOUS CIRCLE eighth. ASHRUN, winner of the 2020 Hotham Handicap before finishing five lengths behind Twilight Payment in the Melbourne Cup, was sidelined for three years by injury before resuming this spring. His progressive form in three starts since his long layoff augers well for his chances getting out to a trip he is sure to relish. MORE FELONS, who raced as Scriptwriter in the UK, was best from the back in his first local start for Chris Waller and is sure to come on from that promising performance. 

TURNBULL STAKES/BART CUMMINGS: We’ve seen seven Melbourne Cup winners since 2000 start in one of these two important preludes run at Flemington in early October. The Turnbull Stakes (2000m) is always a strong spring form race and this year was won by GOLD TRIP with the classy stayer producing a brilliant turn of foot to leave Cup rivals SOULCOMBE (3rd) and RIGHT YOU ARE (11th) in his wake. Others included subsequent Caulfield Cup runner up West Wind Blows (2nd) and Cox Plate winner Romantic Warrior (4th). The Bart Cummings (2500m) won by FUTURE HISTORY was also a deep race this year with English Derby winner SERPENTINE (3rd), ASHRUN (6th), subsequent Bendigo Cup winner INTERPRETATION (9th), VIRTUOUS CIRCLE (10th) and SHERAZ (12th).

HERBERT POWER HANDICAP: Another race with a strong history as a Melbourne Cup guide. Run over 2400m at Caulfield it has thrown up 10 Melbourne Cup winners since 1970 including a golden run of six wins in 12 years between 1970 and 1981 with three horses (Gala Supreme; Van Der Hum; Arwon) completing the double. Rogan Josh also won the Herbert Power prior to his 1999 Cup success. There have been three Herbert Power runners win the Melbourne Cup since 2009, the last being the upset 100/1 winner Prince Of Penzance in 2015. This year the Herbert Power winner MILITARY MISSION and fourth placed DAQIANSWEET JUNIOR contest the Melbourne Cup.

MOONEE VALLEY CUP: Prince Of Penzance also holds the distinction of being the last Melbourne Cup winner to come through the Moonee Valley Gold Cup, being the only one since 2000. Like the Herbert Power the MV Cup (2600m) had a strong run prior to the influx of imports with seven Melbourne Cup winners contesting the race between 1972 and 1990. This year the MV Cup was won by the import CLEVELAND beating the 2019 Melbourne Cup winner VOW AND DECLARE (2nd) and Bart Cummings winner FUTURE HISTORY (3rd) in a better than average edition that incurred the winner a half kilo penalty, lifting his Melbourne Cup weight to 52kg. It was CLEVELAND’S first win in Australia at his seventh local start and the first penalty handed to a Moonee Valley Cup winner since 2015. VOW AND DECLARE had previously finished second behind wfa star Alligator Blood in the Might And Power Caulfield Stakes (2000m), a different program to his successful campaign in 2019 when he was fourth in the Turnbull Stakes and second in the Caulfield Cup before winning the Melbourne Cup.

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