Cup's wish granted - but at what price?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2011, 12:00am


What has happened to the Melbourne Cup has highlighted the double-edged sword of globalisation, familiar to the business world, but only just coming into focus for racing.

To some extent it now belongs in the careful-what-you-wish-for category for Melbourne racing officials, who desperately wanted to lift the Cup beyond its iconic local status to a place in the pantheon of world racing.

Well, 20 years on, it is well and truly there and sparking an obvious but two-sided debate about the numerical and actual domination by visiting horses.

The race that once offered, by virtue of its handicap conditions, hopes and dreams to every small owner or trainer in Australia, and later New Zealand, is now offering the same hopes and dreams to big, rich, world-stage owners.

Eleven of the 23 runners yesterday were northern hemisphere-trained, another six or seven sourced from the northern hemisphere and only a handful really had roots in Australia. The nearest one of them got to winning was eighth-placed Niwot.

And bear in mind, quarantine problems have kept the added threat of Japanese stayers excluded since they ran the quinella a few years back.

Foreign horses are nothing new to the Cup - New Zealand-breds have won time and again and going back as far as 1910, Comedy King was bred in England and imported to Australia, while others have been brought from the northern hemisphere to contest the Cup for decades.

The theory always went that Australian horses wouldn't live with true blue bloods, which was why major stallions standing Down Under were imported from the other side of the world for most of Australia's racing history.

The theory wasn't wrong, especially when it came to stamina horses, but it is only now, when taking horses overseas has become more straightforward, that the chickens have come home to roost.

The world is a big place and the kind of money on offer for the Cup naturally attracts attention from those centres where strong stayers are prized, but stake money is modest by comparison: places like Europe, Britain and Ireland.

What has prevented an avalanche, until now, has been the insistence of not all but many trainers on bringing the wrong style of horse. That has been corrected over time and the sharper trainers have settled on the successful idea of a single prep race to fine-tune their runners.

The soulful cry after Vintage Crop's win 18 years ago that Australia would not win the race again proved unfounded but was probably just premature.

What racing authorities in Melbourne now have to debate among themselves is whether they really do want this foreign sweep out every year, and whether that look is a winner for the Cup years from now.

What can they do, short of making it invitation only? Well, the race is a handicap, for one unique thing. Weights are determined by the ratings of horses, ratings determined by domestic handicappers in home countries and then ratified internationally.

What has been shown by the success of Australian sprinters at Royal Ascot is that official views of southern hemisphere sprinting horses were incorrect for a long time. What will be shown by continued strong European participation in the Melbourne Cup is that the difference between northern and southern hemisphere stayers is wider than officially acknowledged in the ratings and thus in the handicap weights.

That can be remedied.

Also open to the authorities is to review the six-figure Australian dollar sums paid for horses finishing as far back as halfway through the field, and make it more of a gamble for the borderline Europeans.

A trip there is not cheap but, for a second-tier European horse, that is some pretty tidy prize money by their usual standards at home and worth going all that way for what is often, as a result, a mildly profitable trip to run 10. Especially since you also have a ticket in the lottery for the big end of the money, it's a win to nothing and a thrill.

But when all the arguments are rolled out in coming days about whether all of this is good or bad for the future of the Cup, Racing Victoria still has to admit that what it has now is the global race envisioned two decades ago. The toothpaste is out of the tube - the world is coming to Melbourne for the first Tuesday in November and it isn't going away.