The Cup Party Is Over For New Zealand

31 October, 2023

We’ve reached that serious point of the spring when it’s time to contemplate the pros and cons of the international stayers who have landed in Melbourne for what is still the most appealing agenda for northern hemisphere owners and trainers.

The Cup Party Is Over For New Zealand

We’ve reached that serious point of the spring when it’s time to contemplate the pros and cons of the international stayers who have landed in Melbourne for what is still the most appealing agenda for northern hemisphere owners and trainers.

Sydney has claimed spring bragging rights thanks to the $20 million Everest, $10 million Golden Eagle and a bevy of other multi-million dollar events giving racing in the Emerald City massive international exposure but there is still something about the Melbourne Cup – worth $8 million – that continues to capture the imagination of northern hemisphere owners and trainers.

Despite The Everest’s huge prizemoney – a world record for a turf race – it remains beyond the reach of overseas stables, simply because the slot holders who determine the make-up of the field have no cause or desire to offer a start to a northern hemisphere-trained thoroughbred when our domestic ranks by almost every measure boast the best sprinting talent on the planet.

Not so the Melbourne Cup. For 30 years, since that ground breaking win by Vintage Crop for Irish trainer Dermot Weld in 1993, Flemington’s historic 3200m handicap has been the popular holy grail for international stables.

It’s not quite the flood many anticipated but since Vintage Crop the Melbourne Cup trophy has returned to the northern hemisphere another eight times thanks to Media Puzzle (Ireland/Weld), Delta Blues (Japan/Katsuhiko Sumii), Americain (France/Alain de Royer-Dupre), Dunaden (France/Mikel Delzangles), Protectionist (Germany/Andreas Wohler), Rekindling (Ireland/Joseph O’Brien), Cross Counter (GB/Charlie Appleby) and Twilight Payment (Ireland/O’Brien)

Sure the NH entry numbers fluctuate from year to year and in recent times have fallen short of the peaks of a decade or so ago, but that is easily explained by the impact of COVID and the realisation by top Australian stables that the best staying talent – once easily sourced from New Zealand – is found north of the equator.

 

At this point we must reference New Zealand and pay our Tasman neighbour its due for its contribution to Melbourne Cup history.

Since its inception in 1861 some 44 New Zealand-bred horses have won the Melbourne Cup including 34 of the past 63 winners. But there has been only three in the last 16 years and it’s a telling statistic in modern Melbourne Cup history that the last NZ-trained winner was back in 2007.

In fact the decline in Kiwi participation that began well before the advent of COVID has become so embarrassing that no NZ-trained stayer has made the final field since 2019.

This year the hopes of a nation rest with just one horse, the 6YO gelding Ladies Man from the Allan Sharrock stable at New Plymouth. He is currently outside the top 24 and his chances of making the final field depend on results at Flemington on Saturday.

The bottom line is the New Zealand racing industry is struggling to find its former Melbourne Cup vibe. It’s evident NZ breeders, owners and trainers are finding it hard to justify investing the time and money required to raise and prepare horses to compete in 3200m races.

Flip the coin and the internationalisation of the Melbourne Cup has been such a raging success that horses bred in the northern hemisphere have won the great race 18 times since 1990. Delving deeper the pedigree source of winners by country is Great Britain (6), Ireland (4), France (3), Germany (2), USA (2) and Japan (1).

Over the same period there have been nine NZ-bred winners (six before 2007) and six from Australian studs but the odds of those numbers improving this year are thin indeed – just three of the 32 current contenders carry the NZ suffix after their name while only four Australian-breeds remain in contention.

The other 25 were bred in Ireland (12); France (9); Great Britain (3); and Japan (1).

It’s a clear example of how agents for Australian owners and trainers, having turned from NZ, plunder the UK and European ranks annually, buying up big at sales or sourcing emerging talents privately in the hope of landing the next imported star for their clients.

But they only skim some of the cream!

 

There is so much depth in the European staying ranks that the Melbourne Cup nomination list is not just strong on numbers from English, Irish and French stables but invariably features horses with the form and figures to head up the betting market from the time entries close.

That’s been the case again this year with the overseas raiders led by contenders from stables well versed in what is required to win our premier staying race.

Vauban, trained by the wily Irishman Willie Mullins, has been at the top of Melbourne Cup betting from the time he won a notable handicap under 61kg at Royal Ascot in June by more than seven lengths beating his stablemate Absurde.

Mullins, renowned as a champion National Hunt trainer, has twice gone close in the Melbourne Cup with Max Dynamite, a grinding stayer who finished second in 2015 and returned to take third place in 2017.

Like many good flat stayers in the Mullins yard, Vauban is also a successful jumper and is credited as a G1 hurdle winner.

The 6YO gelding counts three jumps wins on his record but has this year has blossomed on the flat, following up his big win in the Copper Horse Handicap at Royal Ascot with a win in the G3 Ballyroan Stakes at Naas in Ireland, a time tested form race for the Melbourne Cup.

Mullins is double handed this year with stablemate Absurde boasting equally strong credentials. Absurde, like Vauban, is a 6YO gelding who won his way into the Melbourne Cup with a powerful finish to land the historic Ebor Handicap at York, the UK race that gives the winner a ballot exempt place in the big dance at Flemington.

Absurde’s Ebor win only added to the hype around Vauban as it came after he finished a distant second to his stablemate at Royal Ascot at level weights.

Absurde will be in receipt of 2kg from Vauban next Tuesday with Hong Kong star Zac Purton booked for the ride, being a wise choice as Mullins went looking for a top class jockey capable of riding the gelding at his correct weight of 53kg.

 

The Mullins pair have been at Werribee for almost a month and had their first look at Flemington on Tuesday where their trackwork commanded all the attention.

Experienced track watchers were in awe of Vauban’s sparkling gallop that left Absurde in his wake and had David Casey, Mullins’ assistant trainer, bubbling with Irish confidence.

“We’re having a ball,” Casey said. “The horse has done everything we’ve asked.

“It would be huge to win the Cup, probably our biggest flat achievement. To come this far across the world and take home the race would be absolutely brilliant.”

 

Also from Ireland comes the Joseph O’Brien-trained pair Valiant King and Okita Soushi, already exposed to Australian conditions through a brutally run Caulfield Cup where the torrid pace was somewhat foreign to the more sedate tempo they are accustomed in their races at home. 

Valiant King got a pass mark with his game sixth, providing a lead to the merit of Vauban’s Ballyroan form as he finished second to the Mullins stayer at Naas receiving 4.5kg. Next Tuesday the difference is 5kg.

Only 30, Joseph O’Brien has already outdone his famous father Aidan by training two Melbourne Cup winners (Rekindling/Twilight Payment) and remains confident Valiant King can rebound from his Caulfield performance.

He is constant in his belief that Valiant King is the right age with the right weight to win the Cup, being a 3YO colt to northern hemisphere time with 50kg. He’ll be carrying less weight than the two previous NH three-year-old winners Cross Counter and his own Rekindling.

 

The late arrival from Europe is Lastotchka, a five-year-old French mare who has won four of her 12 starts, all on soft and heavy ground, with a G3 win over 3100m her best qualification for the Melbourne Cup.

Having joined the strong Mick Price/Michael Kent Jnr stable, she was released from quarantine at Werribee to work at Flemington on Tuesday and made a good impression on her new trainers.

Price, an astute thinker, hasn’t had a Cup starter since 2020 but liked what he saw on Tuesday when the mare was ridden by Craig Williams for the first time.

Price reported that Lastkotchka had travelled well from Europe and has put on weight, always a positive sign for horses adapting to new environments.

“I’ve got no complaints. Her form is good, she’s sound, she’s clean-winded, she’s fit – I’ve not had one concern,” Price said. “I think she will stay, she will give it some sort of a shake.”

Significantly Williams, rider of the 2019 Cup winner Vow And Declare, has passed on other offers to ride the French mare next Tuesday.

One historical sidelight this year sees two previous Cup winners set to contest the race for the first time since 2012.

Defending champion Gold Trip and 2019 winner Vow And Declare remain among the 32 second acceptors, giving them the chance to join Archer, Peter Pan, Rain Lover, Think Big and Makybe Diva as horses to win the Melbourne Cup more than once.

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