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2020 Lexus Melbourne Cup preview

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.


A few stats of note
Reckon the Cup will be dominated by the classy horses at the top? Recent history says otherwise, with the last five winners carrying saddlecloth numbers 19,17,22,23,23.

Taking it back to the last 20 editions, it's more evenly spread. Don't get carried away with small sample trends.

Five wins 21-24, last one Vow And Declare 2019
Five wins 1-5, last one Protectionist 2014
Four wins 6-10, last one Fiorente 2013
Four wins 11-15, last one Green Moon 2012
Two wins 16-20, last one Almandin 2016

The same 20 year analysis for barriers:

Gates 1-6     ... 5 wins
Gates 7-12   ... 7 wins
Gates 13-18 ... 4 wins
Gates 19-24 ... 4 wins

Now that's pretty simplistic and doesn't take into account the odds of each runner, their relative position compared to where they finished, or even if all 24 runners faced the starter. But it does at least show they can win from anywhere.

Only two winners have started above 20/1 (21.0) in those 20 years, Viewed at 41 and Prince of Penzance 101. The market tends to be pretty accurate.

Key Replays

CAULFIELD CUP 2020 (Verry Elleegant, Anthony Van Dyck, The Chosen One, Prince Of Arran, Finche, Avilius, Mustajeer, Warning, Vow And Declare, Dashing Willoughby)

EPSOM DERBY 2019 (Anthony Van Dyck and Sir Dragonet)

MELBOURNE CUP 2019 (Vow And Declare, Prince Of Arran, Master Of Reality, Surprise Baby, Finche, Steel Prince, Twilight Payment, The Chosen One, Mustajeer)

Colours


LEXUS MELBOURNE CUP

Flemington, Tuesday
Group 1 Quality Handicap, 3200m
AUD7,750,000
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.

2. Avilius

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.


8. Mustajeer

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.

10. Dashing Willoughby

Handy UK stayer who was purchased to target this race fresh, so it was a bit of a concern why he even ran at Caulfield. Was too bad to be true there, finishing a long last after leading from gate one. No issue was found upon post-race examination. This time from gate 19, he won't have the immediate pressure to push forward or get locked away on the rail. He is a natural front-runner so expect him in the front four, might take the Twilight Payment route from last season (same gate) and take the whole of the opening straight to cross over. 

Interesting to note his three worst runs have all come in October, which is the end of the season for a European horse, perhaps ready to be put away for the winter. Would need a massive change of fortune to feature here, but worth noting he only started 30/1 at Caulfield and on his best UK form, he'd be shorter than that.


11. Finche

The 'gunna' horse of the field. Always up near the pace, looks like he's 'gunna' win and finishes close to the winner, teasing you that'll he go even better next time. But he's now had 10 runs in Australia for a single G3 win and every other time, beaten less than 4.5 lengths. In two Melbourne Cup starts, he's finished fourth, beaten 3.5L behind Cross Counter in 2018, and then seventh to Vow And Declare last year, beaten just 1.4L. Tough as a Mallee bull, he'll settle forward and keep going at his one pace, whether he's had an easy run or sat four-wide the trip. But that's the issue, unless he gets to the front, he's susceptible to rivals with a better sprint when it matters. This type of horse is why bookmakers drive fancy cars...


12. Prince Of Arran

Placed in the last two Cups, jockey Michael Walker made the peculiar move of switching to Dashing Willoughby this spring. Reckon he might regret that now. Seizing the opportunity is this season's leading jockey in Melbourne, (Ms) Jamie Kah, who is absolutely flying, riding four winners on Cox Plate day. She was aboard in the Caulfield Cup when the Prince ran a flashing fourth, beaten under two lengths, the perfect trial for Flemington.

It's well known that this horse blooms in Australia, performing better here than back in England. This is the first year he hasn't had to run extra races to gain a berth in the field. Two years ago, he won the Lexus/Hotham on Derby Day to qualify, just a three-day break. Last year he got in via the Geelong Cup, less than two weeks before the big race. This time, no pressure, a flashing run at Caulfield (an extra four days beyond Geelong) and his campaign has been timed to perfection, aiming at Tuesday. Rail draw has to be a minor concern but the last horse to win from gate 1 was Prince of Penzance ridden by Michelle Payne, the only female jockey to win the race. Could history repeat itself? 


13. Surprise Baby

The big flashing lights run from last year's Cup, drew wide, settled at the tail, made a long 5-wide run from the 1000 and was beaten under a length in fifth at just his 11th career start. Up a kilo, he gains the services of Craig Williams, as good as you can get in Melbourne, and draws an ideal barrier in seven. In two runs this campaign, he ran a close second over a mile in the G2 Feehan Stakes, then finished a close ninth (beaten 2.4L) in the G1 Turnbull after being held up at the crucial time in the race. He meets Verry Elleegant and Finche 3kg better off for that run. Unusual for an Aussie trainer to present a horse in the Cup with only a 1600m and 2000m start for the campaign, but Paul Preusker has been on the record as saying he'd happily take the horse into the Cup first-up, so being fresh won't be a problem.
Big chance in an open race.


14. King Of Leogrance

Another of the Lloyd Williams-owned imported horses, but this is the only one trained in Australia. Won the Roy Higgins (autumn equivalent of the Bart Cummings) and the Adelaide Cup in Feb/March before missing his chance for automatic entry into the Cup when he ran second to Oceanex in the Andrew Ramsden in May before a spell. Now those races probably aren't up to standard but they do prove his stamina. His condition gave out in the final stages of the Geelong Cup after sneaking up the rail and looking like a winning chance at the 200. That Cup was unusually strong this year, maybe a return to the years when Media Puzzle, Americain or Dunaden won it on the way to Flemington glory. Damian Lane stays aboard, worth including in your exotics at a big price. 


15. Russian Camelot

The most-hyped local Cups horse in a while after a stunning start to his career, winning the SA Derby at just his fifth start, and bizarrely, at a considerable disadvantage to his rivals as he was half a season younger, being bred north of the equator. That race rated as the best of the Aussie Derbys, when the SA edition is usually lucky to be fourth-best! Since returning in the spring, he has old school spring WFA form: second in the Makybe Diva (G1 1600m), won the Underwood (G1 1800m), second at 1.40 (2/5) in the Caulfield Stakes (G1 2000m) and then third in the G1 Cox Plate just over a week ago, after drawing wide. In a normal year, that would just about make him favourite but this is a high class field.

Very rare for an Australian horse to go in this lightly raced, but Danny O'Brien has adapted his training methods towards the European style in recent years. Where does he go from gate 16? He mostly pushes forward but did drop out the back in the SA Derby when he had a class edge on the field. Can definitely win.


16. Steel Prince

The Geelong Cup winner who fought off Le Don De Vie, King of Leogrance and Ashrun in a cracking edition of the race, although it wasn't a particularly fast time. The provincial cup can vary a lot in standard year-to-year but the last three winners to carry his weight or similar (57.5-58kg) have been Prince of Arran 2019 (2nd in MC), Dunaden 2011 (won MC), Americain (won MC). That's a strong historical trend.

Last year, he ran an enormous race in the Cup, pulling hard for the first mile, and kept on going to be beaten just 2.1L. Perth big-fish-in-small-pond star jockey William Pike takes the ride, if ever he's going to win them over in Melbourne, this will do it. This horse is your bolter of the field - he could run a huge race at around 50/1.


17. The Chosen One

Third in the Caulfield Cup at 50/1, he'll start a similar price here. He settled near the pace there and was able to run home for the minor placing, a solid change in fortune from his ninth last year when he drew widest of all (18) and had no option but to settle at the rear. In the Melbourne Cup last season, he also drew 18 and finished well back without ever having much chance. Gate five provides a much better chance of getting into the money (paid down to 10th), but would need the cards to all fall his way a la Prince Of Penzance to be winning this. Talented but too inconsistent for me to be interested.


18. Ashrun

The late inclusion with a great story to tell. Purchased by Australian Bloodstock mid-2019, he moved stables to Andreas Wohler, the trainer (with the same connections) of Protectionist, the dominant winner of 2014, with an eye on winning the Melbourne Cup (as a northern four-year-old) a year later. But then 2020 went pear-shaped. The horse travelled but the trainer had to come later. He still needed to force his way into the field, so he ran in the Geelong Cup first-up but could only finish fourth behind Steel Prince. It is extremely rare for any European horse to back up (race again) within three days but winning the Hotham Stakes was the only way he'd get into the Cup field. And so it came to pass, with Wohler completing his quarantine in Sydney, then jumping in a car and driving the 1000-odd km to get to Flemington. 

Saturday's win was impressive - he came from the tail of the field at the top of straight, carrying 61kg, to claim victory on the line. Now he drops a full 8kg in winning form - but has to counter the extreme outside gate and a relatively unknown local jockey, Declan Bates, to fulfill the final part of the dream. Bates got the ride mainly because he had been booked to ride the horse Ashrun pushed out of the field, True Self. The horse has apparently come out of Saturday's race in fine shape, now it comes down to navigating through/around a capacity field rather than just the ten in the Hotham. Chance but couldn't be confident with a jockey whose biggest success has been winning the Warrnambool Cup.


19. Warning

Last year's VRC Derby winner who hasn't kicked onto better things, running only a pair of thirds in his next nine starts. Caught the eye running home late in the Turnbull two starts ago, finishing sixth but only beaten a length (behind Verry Elleegant), but then showed little in the Caulfield Cup. He drew wide that day and was hooked back to the rail, only passing tired horses in the straight. Doesn't have a great deal of early speed but enough to hold a position and from barrier eight, he should sit in the front half of the field upon settling. But I still can't see his best being good enough.


20. Etah James

The Sydney Cup winner from last autumn who got her golden ticket into the race that way. That was on a typical Sydney autumn heavy track and at the bottom of the weights. Now as an 8yo mare, she takes on one of the strongest Cup fields in recent memory. Beaten over 6L in the BM96 over 2800m on Cup day last year, will start 200/1 with bookmakers for a reason...


21. Tiger Moth

The boom colt of the spring, the raider we've only seen in replays from Ireland but let me assure you, this is the one the stable have set for the Cup. In four races, he's won twice and been beaten no more than 0.75L in the other two. In his maiden win (start two) on a good track at Leopardstown, he beat three stablemates who finished third (Dawn Patrol) and fourth (Order of Australia) in the Irish Derby, and third in the Epsom equivalent (Amhran Na Bhfiann) at their next starts. At his third start, the Irish Derby, he not only beat the aforementioned stablemates again, but went down by only a head to Santiago, who came off a Royal Ascot win in the Queen's Vase, and got the early run on a slippery track, with Tiger Moth reducing the gap with every stride. Santiago was given 53.5kg in this race before unfortunately going amiss, Tiger Moth just 50kg before earning a 2.5kg penalty for his G3 win at Leopardstown where he thrashed a field including Buckhurst (carried 5.5kg more) and Patrick Sarsfield, who was rated highly in early Cup markets. Ryan Moore was aboard that day - the mission was clearly to make sure he copped a significant penalty to get him into the Cup field. 

Forget his inexperience - the stable has incomparable depth to work him with, he's faced and beaten deep fields already. Gate 23 could be a blessing in disguise, he can stay out of trouble early, push forward and sit on the pace. Kerrin McEvoy has won the race three times already, each time being drawn 17 or wider. An O'Brien (OK, Aussie Danny is no relation but even still) has trained the winner twice in the past three years, after so many years of trying this might just be Aidan O'Brien's time. He's not here to be the pacemaker for Anthony Van Dyck.


22 Oceanex

Qualified for the Cup by winning the Andrew Ramsden in May, ahead of King Of Leogrance. Sent to the paddock after ticking that box, she's taken her time to get going this spring, finishing 3L third in the Moonee Valley Cup after three inglorious runs. Has been under an injury cloud but has passed all the vet tests so far. Big class gap between what she has achieved and what is needed here, no chance.


23 Miami Bound

The last of the Danny O'Brien quartet, she bounced back to form winning the Moonee Valley Cup a week ago, almost a year after winning the Wakeful Stakes and VRC Oaks last spring. Six runs amid that year in between reaped no wins or placings, was it the soft track at the Valley that flicked the switch for her? Started 25/1 in that race, it's a big leap of faith to think she can progress again to win this.


24 Persan

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.

THE SUMMARY

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.

How much they ease up, and if it encourages another rider to push forward and cross Tiger Moth is the key to the race for me. Any of the front 10 above could press on if they were caught out on a limb. I think the leader will step to lead by a length or two, enabling someone to loop the field without a great deal of pressure, like Finche in 2018.

Coming around the bend, the backmarkers fan out wide and the leaders try to pinch a break, while those in behind nearer the rail search for a gap. Vow And Declare poked through along the fence, Cross Counter surged home from the rear of the field, Rekindling was just off the pace, Protectionist drove through the middle of the field - they can come from anywhere, with the right luck.

I keep coming back to a simple equation - either Tiger Moth is as special as the stable regards him and wins easily, or this race is wide open. And I'm leaning to the Moth...

RANKINGS

Tiger Moth
Steel Prince
Prince Of Arran
Sir Dragonet
Twilight Payment
Finche
Russian Camelot
Ashrun
Anthony Van Dyck
Surprise Baby
Verry Elleegant
Master Of Reality
Persan
King Of Leogrance
Warning
Stratum Albion
Miami Bound
Mustajeer
Dashing Willoughby
The Chosen One
Vow And Declare
Oceanex
Etah James
Avilius


BETS

3pts Tiger Moth WIN @ 7/1
1pt Steel Prince EW @ 40/1

Trifecta

21 x 1,5,6,11,12,15,16,18 x 1,4,5,6,7,11,12,13,15,16,18




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