The countdown to the 158th running of the Melbourne Cup is under way, but along with today’s forecast grey skies there’s a growing sense of darkness enveloping the once-untouchable reputation of the nation’s most coveted horse race.
With the deaths of six horses in the 3200-metre event since 2013 and the recent revelations about the slaughtering of retired thoroughbreds, the $8 million race has never before been run under such a questioning spotlight.
Animal activists are expected to make themselves known outside the racecourse after ABC’s 7.30 program broadcast footage last month of racehorses being sent to a slaughterhouse.
The track is expected to be soft, with heavy rain falling in Melbourne on Monday evenin.
But the 3pm race is forecast to be dry as overcast conditions are predicted to give way to a fine 18 degree day.
Caulfield Cup-winning Japanese horse Mer De Glace is set to start as favourite around $7, just ahead of the Chris Waller-trained Finche at $8.
Waller has a huge following with punters after his success with super mare Winx, but he has yet to win a Melbourne Cup.
Winx’s part-owner Peter Tighe has a share of four Cox Plates, but said on Monday the Melbourne Cup is the one event everyone in racing wants to win.
“We’d love to have one sitting on our mantel, like millions of other people,” Tighe said.
Just getting in the field is a great honour. But to win it just takes it to a level that you can only dream about.’’
Of the top six horses in the 2018 Melbourne Cup, five are back – Cross Counter, Prince Of Arran, Finche, Rostropovich and Youngstar.
Last year’s winner Cross Counter last year carried 51 kilograms, but will have to get the job done this year as the top weight with 57.5 kilograms.
New Zealand-bred runner Surprise Baby has perhaps the most engaging story of the field, having cost his Queensland owner John Fiteni only $5500 on an online auction site.
At around $15 the Adelaide Cup winner has all the storylines befitting a crowd favourite – a Victorian bush trainer in Paul Preusker with a country town behind him and ridden by Jordan Childs, the son of former champion jockey Greg Childs.
While punters will be out in force at Flemington today, police will also be keeping a close eye on animal rights protesters who have stepped up their opposition to the cup after the death of The Cliffsofmoher on track last year and the recent revelations about ‘wastage’ in the industry.
Animals Australia has urged Australians to donate to animal welfare charities rather than betting on the Cup.
On the eve of turf’s biggest day, the head of Racing Victoria was forced to concede on the ABC there would have to be big changes in the industry in coming years to prevent a public backlash.
Chief executive Giles Thompson said the Melbourne Cup would survive but said he expected whips would need to be banned to improve the sport’s image.
“It’s not a welfare issue, but there is a perception problem and it’s a question for the racing industry, probably globally, how long can it withstand the perception problem that the whip provides,” Mr Thompson told RN Breakfast.
“And I spin out 10 or 15 years and I don’t see it.
“I think what we saw a couple of weeks ago was shocking, not just to those outside racing,” he said.
It was shocking to those inside racing and what that enables us to do is really garner the support of the racing community to tackle this challenge.’’
Still the allure of the Melbourne Cup has attracted a strong field of International runners, both the big-money stables and the usual mix of syndicated hopefuls.
Englishman Duncan Smith told AAP at the Cup parade on Monday that he grew up watching black-and-white film replays of Phar Lap’s 1930 Melbourne Cup win, never imagining he would one day have his own runner in the great race.
The self-described ordinary bloke from Yorkshire has a small stake in Raymond Tusk, the first Cup runner for British trainer Richard Hannon and syndicators Middleham Park Racing.
“It’s a bit awe-inspiring really,” Smith said of owning a Cup runner like some of the biggest names in world racing.
“We’re mixing it on the big stage and we’re glad to be here. We feel like we’re justified to be here, so it’s good to take them on and let’s see if we can beat them.”
Also living the dream are the 40 Kiwis who bought The Chosen One for $150,000 while the breeders, octogenarian twins Ray and Tony Dennis, kept half.
“We syndicated him within a couple of hours,” part-owner Tony Rider said.
Rider knew the horse had Melbourne Cup potential immediately, given his pedigree.
“That was our dream, from the day we syndicated him,” he said.
MELBOURNE CUP FIELD
# Number, horse, jockey, weight, barrier
1 Cross Counter: James Doyle 57.5kg (5)
2 Mer De Glace: Damian Lane, 56kg (2)
3 Master Of Reality: Frankie Dettori 55.5kg (1)
4 Mirage Dancer: Ben Melham, 55.5kg (13)
5 Southern France: Mark Zahra, 55.5kg (14)
6 Hunting Horn: Seamie Heffernan, 55kg (11)
7 Latrobe: James McDonald, 55kg (22)
8 Mustajeer: Damien Oliver, 55kg (6)
9 Rostropovich: Dwayne Dunn, 55kg (12)
10 Twilight: Payment Patrick Cosgrove, 55kg (19)
11 Finche: Kerrin McEvoy, 54kg (4)
12 Prince Of Arran: Michael Walker, 54kg (8)
13 Raymond Tusk: Jamie Spencer, 53kg (3)
14 Downdraft: John Allan, 53.5kg (15)
15 Magic Wand: Ryan Moore, 53.5kg (24)
16 Neufbosc: Luke Nolen, 53.5kg (23)
17 Sound: James Winks, 53.5kg (10)
18 Surprise Baby: Jordan Childs, 53.5kg (20)
19 Constantinople: Joao Moreira, 52.5kg (7)
20 Il Paradiso: Wayne Lordan, 52.5kg (17)
21 Steel Prince: Brett Pebble, 52.5kg (16)
22 The Chosen One: Tim Clark, 52kg (18)
23 Vow And Declare: Craig Williams, 52kg (21)
24 Youngstar: Tommy Berry, 52kg (9)