In such a tumultous year around the world, we are finally here - the 2020 Lexus Melbourne Cup at Flemington. Just a week ago, Melbourne was under a severe lockdown with horse racing one of the few activities able to continue. To its credit, racing throughout Australia has continued right through the pandemic with only minimal disruption to scheduling. That deserves an enormous round of applause and appreciation from the Australian punting public - the industry has been able to operate under tight Covid protocols with only a couple of minor scares, keeping thousands of people in work and tax revenue rolling in, saving the local economy from complete devastation with so many unable to work and needing financial assistance.
However, the crowds, at least in Victoria are still yet to return. Timing is everything and it's too much of a political football to let owners back on course just yet while so many have suffered. They need to start with small trial events and progress from there. Disappointing for racing, but c'est la vie. Now if they'd voted to shuffle the spring timetable as proposed by the Melbourne Racing Club (Caulfield + Sandown) when the pandemic first hit...
Enough of the grim stuff, we've got too much of that on the telly coming from the US as it is.
The Melbourne Cup - the greatest staying race in the world, the one which sets off the local xenophobes ("there are too many foreigners in the race"), the one that sets off the once-a-year do-gooders ("racing and gambling are evil" - apparently the other 364 days of the year don't matter), the one that brings horses from far and wide trying to win the unique three-handled cup.
LEXUS MELBOURNE CUP
Group 1 Quality Handicap, 3200m
1500 local time, 0400 GMT
Ten Network across Australia, Sky Sports Racing UK & Ireland, racing.com
Expected Going Good 4, Rail 3m
Weather - 24C with showers developing
1. Anthony Van Dyck
The class act of the field, winner of the (Epsom) Derby in 2019, winner of the Prix Foy in September ahead of the world's best stayer Stradivarius, and a narrow second in the Caulfield Cup, in his only start in a handicap. I doubted him at Caulfield, he proved me wrong, making a long, searching wide run and only just failing to get past the multiple Group 1 winner Verry Elleegant. On international ratings, that effort was a career-best performance.
It is an almighty task to win this race with topweight, no horse has even carried 58.5kg for thirty years (Makybe Diva won with 58kg in 2005), and he's never run beyond 2400m - but he never looked like stopping and will be better for that run. Won't have to do a lot of work from the draw, gets his chance to make history here. Might even end up favourite on the day.
Ran third last in 2018 at his first campaign in Australia and I'd written him off at the distance. Has mostly stuck to 1600-2000m since, echoing those doubts but there are glimpses of stamina in his recent record. Won a very weak Tancred Stks (2400m) in 2019 but then ran third in this years's edition behind Verry Elleegant. Didn't have much luck in the Caulfield Cup, finishing sixth, less than three lengths behind the winner. Has targetted the Cups this season so the emphasis is back on his stamina. Big task with this weight, I don't think he's quite classy enough to overcome that burden. 50/1 sounds right.
3. Vow And Declare
Last year's winner carrying 52kg when in much better form, coming off a long campaign which included a second in the Qld Derby, fourth in the Turnbull and second in the Caulfield Cup. This time in, he's finished ninth, 12th and 15th. Consequently gets Jamie Mott aboard rather than Craig Williams. Gets a tick for the course and distance, cosy draw so he should get away with a cheap run but in terrible form. Can't see any reason why he should be shorter than 50/1. Not this year.
4. Master Of Reality
Second across the line last year, beaten a head, but relegated to fourth after causing interference. Form back in Ireland not outstanding but nor was it last year - mostly small field set weight races with muddling pace, carrying 60+ kgs. Hard to take much out of them other than he's fit and ready. Joseph O'Brien has already proven he's brilliant at setting horses for big international targets and getting them right on the day. Around the 25/1 mark, as per last year.
5. Sir Dragonet
The Cox Plate winner who appeared to win that very easily. Two big factors in his favour on that day, the shape of Moonee Valley - his previous win had come at Chester which is Britain's closest match to MV, and the rain. As per the famous Seinfeld clip, 'his mudda was a mudder'. The stable have raved about his aerobic capacity, how he has blossomed in Australia etc., all the positive vibes. Started favourite in the derby won by Anthony Van Dyck, was beaten under a length and now gets 3kg from that horse when there's really very little between them. Draw gives him options, jockey is a big-time performer, should be right in this provided the track isn't too firm for him.
6. Twilight Payment
Led the race last year from gate 19 in a muddling tempo which turned into a sprint home, and he tired to finish 11th, beaten just under 4L. Drawn 12 this time, there's no urgency to work across from the outside and while he'll almost certainly be near the front, setting the pace might not be his responsibility. Worth noting that last year he'd only just been purchased by Lloyd Williams and switched to this stable. A year later, they've had time to get to know the horse. If anything, his form is better this year through the same races, and it's the same Joseph O'Brien travelling roadshow green ticks. Perhaps it's his chance to shine rather play the team domestique role.
7. Verry Elleegant
Superb winning the Caulfield Cup and was penalised half a kilogram for the privilege. Unfashionably bred, by a sire more renowned for siring jumpers, so her first attempt at 3200m shouldn't be a concern. She's won six Group 1s and has finished first or second in nine of her last 10 races at 2000m or further (only other result was in last year's Cox Plate at 20/1). The Cups have been her target this season and you have to really pick holes to find any fault in her form. She seems to have a preference for the wet - nine of her 11 wins have been on wet tracks, her record in the dry is only two from 10 but she won the Turnbull here on a Good 3 two starts back and many of those other dry runs were in prep runs over shorter distances rather than target races. She has also been known to overrace, which ruined her chances in the VRC Oaks two years ago, the only time she hasn't won out of four starts at 2400-2500m. A genuine pace with plenty of imported stayers should minimise the chances of that reoccurring.
Chris Waller hasn't won a Cup yet, one would think that's just a matter of time. Not sure why she deserves to be several points higher than Anthony Van Dyck, half a kilo is nothing and she was not stopping on the line at Caulfield. To carry this weight for a mare though, has her verging on Makybe Diva quality. With six G1s in the trophy cabinet, I don't think that comparison is unfair. She's in the mix.
Started 18/1 last year after a flashing Caulfield Cup run, flying home late. His trip to Flemington wasn't a good one though, parked wide the trip (from gate six!), tried to make a long, sustained run from the 1000m and understandably tired in the straight, finishing 23rd. Since then he's had a successful autumn Sydney campaign on wet tracks but spring hasn't gone quite as well. He ran home nicely again at Caulfield at 100/1 but he'll still start at similar odds here. If he needs galloping room (perhaps that was thhe motivation behind being caught wide from 6 last year) then he's in strife from gate two. Wet track runs this year 1-2-2-9 (Caulf Cup, beaten 3.8L). Dry track 10-15-9. Could win on his absolute best (Ebor win 2019) but very limited evidence to suggest he can produce that here.
9. Stratum Albion
Known as Stratum elsewhere but has added the suffix Albion due to an Aussie sire of the same name. They've been trying to get him here for years but it's never quite worked out. Has raced in most of the UK's big staying handicaps, the Cesarewitch, Ebor and Northumberland Plate with limited success (won the 3600m Cesarewitch on a soft track last year, generally a weaker race), and was runner-up in the Lonsdale Cup, a race won by Max Dynamite a few years back, ten weeks ago. Without that run, he'd have been weighted around 51.5kg (and not gotten a run) based on his UK rating. Four wins from 16 on the Flat is a decent strike rate but vulnerable to better types after that steep rise.
Another golden ticket winner who came through the Bart Cummings in early October. Has rapidly improved this year, he only won his maiden in May but including that day has gone 1-2-1-1-1-2-1-2-1, beating seasoned stayers such as Shared Ambition, Sound, Steel Prince and Schabau in recent starts. It's been a long preparation, being up since April but he seems to revel in it. Gate 20 will be tricky - he parked on the rail and had a pretty soft run in the Bart Cummings, but if you give Steel Prince a chance (I do), then this one has to be left in consideration.
For a pace map, I come up with something like this, but a bit more strung out - the standard grid isn't wide enough. They go hard early to take positions and then ease up a bit down the river side.