LAST week, Melbourne Cup legend Bart Cummings said the race that he has won 11 times is becoming more like a game of "spot the Aussie".
Considering the Australian penchant to breed for speed and the fact that the race is a staying contest worth a handsome $5 million, the comment was hardly surprising.
Such is the international interest in our race, tomorrow’s event contains eight overseas runners — most of high quality — and that is after the Godolphin Caulfield Cup winner All The Good went amiss and the Japanese — who quinellaed the Melbourne Cup in 2006 — had to stay home due to quarantine restrictions.
There is certainly the genuine prospect of the internationals grabbing the first three placings tomorrow and it is hard to know from where the next local winner might emerge.
Is that a bad thing? Perhaps it is for local owners and trainers but as an event, the race and the carnival around it have never been better.
The Cup is a vastly superior race to what it was in 1993 when Vintage Crop won.
A pertinent question to ask is: Who would be the eight local stayers to make up numbers if there were no internationals?
Victoria Racing Club chief executive Dale Monteith said recently: "The international participation has added a new dimension to the race."
Monteith makes the point that in 1993 the four-day crowd was in the order of 200,000, but in recent years the aggregate has been about 400,000.
"I have no doubt in my mind that the publicity they (internationals) generate has played a large part in the growth in interest from the media and public in the carnival," Monteith said.
The Melbourne Cup was won by Australian-bred stayers for the first 22 years of its existence until New Zealand stallion Martini Henry crossed the Tasman to take out the race in 1883.
There was not an avalanche of Kiwi horses from that point but, in recent years, the Australian-bred stayer has struggled to compete.
Since Gala Supreme won in 1973, only five other Australian-breds have won the race: Just A Dash, Subzero, Black Knight, Saintly (who was conceived in New Zealand) and Rogan Josh.
Darley Australia managing director Henry Plumptre said: "I don’t think we have seen the last Australian horse win the Cup, but when we do I think it will be something of an accidental stayer."
Subzero, a horse purchased to win a Golden Slipper, fits that description very well.
Of the six, two — Rogan Josh (a grandson of Star Kingdom) and Black Knight — were bred in Western Australia, which, though highly successful, is a long way from the centre of commercial breeding in Australia.
Just as the internationals have mostly taken time to work out the right horses to bring for the Cup, the locals have to change their approach to withstand the onslaught.
While there have been some moves by racing administrators through the national race planning committee to encourage stayers, the lead time in breeding such horses makes that a long-term solution.
In the short term, it is a matter of "if you can’t beat them, join them".
To that end, Australian owners and trainers have headed to Europe to source staying horses in recent years.
Mornington trainer Tony Noonan and owner Peter McMahon started two years ago, buying horses in England and leaving them there to be trained by Andrew Balding.
If the horses were successful in the care of Balding, the intention was then to bring them to Australia for the Melbourne Cup.
One of those purchases, Buccallati, has shown his staying credentials with three wins over 2400 metres and it is the intention of connections to have the son of Soviet Star racing in Melbourne next spring.
Lee Freedman, who has trained four Melbourne Cup winners, has recently followed a similar path.
His brother Anthony last week purchased six horses at the Tattersalls horses-in-training sale with the intention of developing them into Caulfield and Melbourne Cup-type horses.
Freedman admits that it is not an original idea but sees it as a cost-effective method of accessing good staying blood and obtaining a quicker, and therefore cheaper, result.
"It’s hard to get clients to put their money into staying-bred yearlings because it takes so long, three or four years, to come to fruition if it is going to," he said.
It is ironic that in going around the world to find suitable stayers, three of Freedman’s recruits are by King’s Best, Viking Ruler and Dr Fong, who have all stood at stud in Australasia.
Even if the horses are successful, Freedman says he is realistically looking to 2010 rather than next year. That is some time and plenty of money down the track for the owners to endure, but Freedman says he has the right owners for the horses.
"They are real sporting guys and they know it is something of a punt," he said.
OTI Racing’s Terry Henderson and Simon O’Donnell have scoured the world in recent years to source Cup prospects and have found one this year in Bauer, but have left him with English trainer Luca Cumani.
Given the scarcity of locally-bred stayers, it is perhaps surprising that four of the international raiders are by stallions that have shuttled to Australia.
Profound Beauty is a daughter of Danehill and a win by her would give the champion stallion his first Melbourne Cup winner.
Of the others, Yellowstone is by Rock Of Gibraltar, while Honolulu and Alessandro Volta are sons of former Windsor Park shuttler Montjeu.
Montjeu is now one of the leading sires of stayers in Europe but his stock in Australasia have not performed anywhere near the same level. His best performer in this part of the world is New Zealander Nom Du Jeu, who lines up as one of the best "local" hopes tomorrow.
While Montjeu averaged about 120 mares over his four years at stud in NZ, most stallions that have any hint of stayer about them are hard to market.
It is a problem that Australian breeders in particular find difficult to overcome.
One of Australia’s leading breeders, John Messara of Arrowfield Stud, said: "Breeders can only offer what the market wants. At the end of the day, you have to survive.
"We’ve had horses like Falbrav and (currently) Starcraft, but they find it hard to attract patronage and we end up being their major supporters."
In order to support Starcraft in his first few seasons at stud, Paul Makin, who raced him, has bought large numbers of mares, got them in foal to him and then sold them on.
Messara says that in order to promote staying horses, there needs to be a concerted effort to not only run more staying races but to also ensure that there is a proper progression of races leading up to the major events.
Whatever the solution is to solving the problem of a lack of local Cup runners, one thing is clear, there will not be a quick turnaround.