THE BEST TWO MINUTES IN AUSTRALIAN RACING

27 October, 2023

It’s billed as the best two minutes in Australian racing. The unique amphitheatre that is Moonee Valley is central to the drama that inevitably plays out on the track but you will get no argument here that the W.S. Cox Plate deserves its reputation as the weight-for-age championship of Australia.

THE BEST TWO MINUTES IN AUSTRALIAN RACING

It’s billed as the best two minutes in Australian racing. The unique amphitheatre that is Moonee Valley is central to the drama that inevitably plays out on the track but you will get no argument here that the W.S. Cox Plate deserves its reputation as the weight-for-age championship of Australia.

Every champion from every era since its first running some 100 years ago appears on the Cox Plate honour roll of winners.

They cover every spectrum of class and ability – from sprinter-milers that somehow managed to extend their brilliance to the Cox Plate distance to grand stayers whose superior stamina came to the fore when others were found wanting over that demanding last 400 metres.

They include a four-time winning mare hailed as the greatest of them all; a triple winner who had no peer over distances from 1200m to 3200m; crowd favourites who raised the roof with their on track heroics and charisma; veterans who defied their age (some not once but twice); ill-fated stars who gave us only a brief taste of their brilliance; internationals who came, saw and conquered Australia’s best; and above all the one we revere as Australian racing’s finest legend.

Regardless of the field size, the Cox Plate inevitably plays out as a racing melodrama due to the unique configuration that is Moonee Valley. Only Happy Valley in Hong Kong can rival Melbourne’s suburban rectangle – circumference less than 1800 metres – as a major metropolitan racing venue that brings the public so close to the action.

Watching any race from any viewpoint at The Valley is unique (especially from vantage points on the home turn). On Cox Plate day it’s a surreal experience!

On a design scale The Valley wouldn’t rank in the world’s top 50 racecourses yet it hosts a race that ranks in the top 10 G1 races globally. It’s not Australia’s richest race but year on year you will struggle to find an event that boasts the same depth of talent and class as the Cox Plate – and inevitably raises so much conjecture about its outcome.

And so we come to this year’s contest, a field that is arguably one of the best of recent years for all the reasons that make it such a great race – the best current weight-for-age performers, top class international runners, a revered Melbourne Cup winner, outstanding mares and exciting three-year-olds challenging their older peers.

The Hong Kong champion (1) ROMANTIC WARRIOR and Ireland’s (10) VICTORIA ROAD will help generate worldwide interest and betting turnover, remembering that the Moonee Valley program will be covered by the world betting pool that generates huge turnover from more than a dozen racing jurisdictions including punt mad Hong Kong, USA, UK, France, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Dubai, Germany and South Africa.

The deeds of imports (2) ZAAKI and (5) GOLD TRIP are also well known to international horse players and they will be well versed in the form and abilities of our local stars (4) ALLIGATOR BLOOD, (8) FANGIRL, (3) MR BRIGHTSIDE etc, adding up to a global betting pot pourri that is predicted to surpass the massive world pools for the recent Everest and Caulfield Cup meetings.

So how will it play out? Much is being made of the speed map for this year’s Cox Plate but I doubt it will be run at record pace, unlike the recent Turnbull Stakes and Caulfield Cup where the early speed was lengths quicker than average.

The wide draw should see ZAAKI cross quickly and look for the lead with his only challengers likely to be ALLIGATOR BLOOD and VICTORY ROAD. I suspect ALLIGATOR BLOOD’S rider Tim Clark will not engage in a speed duel and will be content to sit off the lead and hopefully use his superior turn of foot when the sprint goes on from the 600m.

That may be the key moment as Cox Plates invariably become a gut wrenching speed test with many winners being the horse capable of sustaining a long drive that often begins 800m from the finish.

If that scenario unfolds it plays to the strengths of the staying types and will clearly favour GOLD TRIP, an unlucky ninth last year before winning the Melbourne Cup.

This spring GOLD TRIP has been superb winning a fast run Turnbull Stakes (2000m) at Flemington before his game third under the topweight in last week’s brutal Caulfield Cup over 2400m.

He’s going as well, if not better, than last year but you have to question how much sprint he has left in those legs coming back in distance from last Saturday’s taxing effort that will have taken much more out of him than his Caulfield Cup second last year when he had a much easier run under less weight.

As always it’s hard to get a firm line on the international runners even though we have had the benefit of seeing ROMANTIC WARRIOR perform in the Turnbull Stakes at Flemington when he was first-up after four months.

His fourth placing was a pass mark and much has since been made about his improved fitness and sparkling trackwork when taken to Moonee Valley for gallops this past week.

His Hong Kong record against northern hemisphere rivals at G1 level is first class (he has beaten dual Australian G1 winner Dubai Honour) but sadly HK form doesn’t translate all that well to Australia conditions. It’s a sobering fact that only one Hong Kong-trained star (Cape Of Good Hope in the 2005 William Reid Stakes) among 47 starts by 18 HK-trained runners has won a G1 race in Australia.

ROMANTIC WARRIOR will be only the fourth HK-trained runner in a Cox Plate where their record is abysmal – River Verdon was 11th in 1994, Elegant Fashion ninth in 2004 and Super Kid seventh in 2005.

While he arrives with superior ratings to that trio you have to question why Romantic Warrior’s appearance in the Turnbull Stakes was the first time in eight years that a Hong Kong has been represented in a G1 race in Australia? Perhaps a bridge too far?

It’s a positive that gets champion rider James McDonald (four rides for three wins) from a draw that should see him settle in a close striking position from the start but I feel the betting market is paying Romantic Warrior too much respect. He has to be a lay at his current price at the top of the market given his beaten margin of almost four lengths behind Gold Trip in the Turnbull Stakes.

On ratings and current form ALLIGATOR BLOOD deserves to be favourite. He has got better with every start this spring and is certain to be called the winner at some stage if he gets the anticipated sit on the lead.

After winning the Underwood Stakes (1800m) he answered the 2000m query with his resounding last start win in the G1 Might And Power Stakes when he soaked up the early pressure to return a time rating that would have won him any number of Cox Plates over the last 20 years.

He ran through the line to record one of the fastest 2000m wins at Caulfield in the last eight years to reach a new peak that he only has to sustain to be the horse to beat in the Cox Plate.

GOLD TRIP and the Sydney mare FANGIRL are the pair I feel can challenge ALLIGATOR BLOOD when the chips are down.

FANGIRL is taking on 2040m for the first time but she’s a G1 winner over 1850m as a 3YO and is another who attained a new career peak rating when she ran away from MR BRIGHTSIDE for a dominant win the $5 million King Charles over 1600m at Randwick two weeks ago.

The quality of MR BRIGHTSIDE’S prior Melbourne wins over ALLIGATOR BLOOD in races up to 1600m underlines the merit of the King Charles form and with Chris Waller’s knack with mares (remember Winx!) and a favourable good track FANGIRL will never get a better time to tackle this trip.

She loses nothing with Hong Kong’s champion jockey Zac Purton flying in for the ride and his task will be to give her a patient ride as she possesses a fast finishing sprint that would be negated if she is forced to make a long run from the 600m.

MR BRIGHTSIDE boasts the best Moonee Valley form where his three wins from four starts up to 1600m include the $5 million All Star Mile. However he was down on his best form in the King Charles when FANGIRL ran away from him over the last 150m and despite getting a soft draw to enjoy the run of the race he must be questioned at this trip given his two previous defeats beyond the mile.

Irish raider VICTORY ROAD is the wild card. The fact that he is a G1 winner of the Breeders Cup Juvenile over 1760m and hails from the Aidan O’Brien stable is good enough in itself, but takes on more relevance when you relate him to the past Irish-trained Cox Plate winners ADELAIDE and STATE OF REST.

Like him they were both Northern Hemisphere 3YO colt trained by the O’Briens and he lands here off two lead-up races over 2000m and 1600m in France and Ireland where the suspicion is they were used as prep trials for this major target. He has a ratings gap to make up on the locals but he is a go forward type and it wouldn’t surprise to see him make an early challenge for the lead

Much is being made of the chances of the local 3YOs (11) MILITARIZE and (12) KING OF COLORADO due to their feather weights of 49.5kg. They have the talent to exploit the weight advantage but this is a strong year and have to find a lot off their current marks to match their seasoned older rivals.

SUMMARY: Happy to play wide with FANGIRL offering the best value. ALLIGATOR BLOOD is flying and is sure to run up to his Underwood form but they will all be looking out for GOLD TRIP as he will be the strongest late. ROMANTIC WARRIOR will need to be at his very best to make up the leeway from his Turnbull Stakes fourth.

SELECTIONS: (8) FANGIRL; (4) Alligator Blood; (5) Gold Trip; (1) Romantic Warrior; (3) Mr Brightside; (2) Zaaki

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