AIDAN O’BRIEN came under intense scrutiny for the performance of his three runners in the Melbourne Cup, but if the race had been run in the UK or Ireland, it may well have been Bart Cummings facing up to the stewards.
Tuesday’s post-Melbourne Cup controversy surrounding O’Brien’s riding instructions proved that thoroughbred horse racing in Europe and in Australia are two very different sports.
Cummings would very likely have been summoned by UK stewards to explain the improvement that Viewed showed to win the Cup after four very ordinary runs, while O’Brien may not have had to explain himself at all.
In the UK, connections are more often quizzed about the sharp improvement of a horse that wins a race after it had been unplaced in its lead-up runs. The winner, Viewed, went into the race with four unplaced runs this campaign; an eighth, a seventh, a 10th and only three days before the Cup, he ran 11th of 11 runners in the Mackinnon Stakes.
Sure, the horse had excuses in both the Caulfield Cup (when 10th) and even more so in the Mackinnon Stakes last Saturday, but it was confirmed by several afficiandos of UK racing yesterday that Cummings would still have had to front stewards in the UK to explain the sudden improvement from last to first.
As pacemakers are permitted in English racing and also because Coolmore horses gained no advantage from their tactic, it is doubtful whether O’Brien would have had to answer any questions concerning his intentions. Even if he did, it is likely his explanation of "they ran below their best" or "the ground was too hard" would have sufficed.
But, on Tuesday night, chief steward Terry Bailey did not quiz Cummings about Viewed’s form reversal and instead hauled O’Brien back to Flemington after he had left the course for the airport to fly home. The Irish trainer did so because he was satisfied that the early speed set by his trio Septimus, Alessandro Volta and Honolulu had given them every chance of winning the race.
Punters throughout the land were depending on O’Brien’s genius, but their hopes were dashed before the field turned for home. The Coolmore trio held more than $3.8 million worth of win bets on SuperTAB, which takes bets made in Victoria, ACT, Tasmania, Western Australia and New Zealand. In NSW, punters there wagered just under $3m on the three.
After hearing the evidence from O’Brien and his three jockeys, Bailey said he had grave doubts about whether Alessandro Volta was given every permissible chance of obtaining the best possible placing in the race, but did not go as far as to charge the Irish trainer or the horse’s jockey Wayne Lordan under Australian Racing Rule 135(b). Clearly, Bailey also harboured the same doubts about the two stablemates, but as Septimus and Honolulu pulled up lame, they had readymade excuses for their performances.
While it is certain the Irish trainer was fully informed of what Melbourne’s chief steward thought of his daring lead-at-all-costs tactics, O’Brien also surely noticed the recent trend of successful international runners in the Melbourne Cup.
In three attempts at the Melbourne Cup, the six horses to have worn the Coolmore colours all went into the race at their first run in Melbourne and only Mahler last year could finish in the placings.
The most successful formula, certainly over the past few years, is for the visiting horse to have a start before Flemington. The only international to win the Melbourne Cup at his first run in Melbourne was Vintage Crop in 1993 but it can be argued that it was hardly a vintage year otherwise. The second horse that year, Te Akau Nick ($161), was never placed in a further six starts; the third horse Mercator ($151) was never placed in a further four runs.
After Luca Cumani’s English stayer Glistening finished 10th in the Melbourne Cup at his first run in Australia in 2006, he decided to change tact. Last year, his galloper Purple Moon ran a luckless sixth in the Caulfield Cup and then ran a blinder 17 days later at Flemington, finding only Efficient too good on the day. Of course, Tuesday’s runner-up Bauer only won his place in the Melbourne Cup field with his Geelong Cup win.
In 2006, the Japanese-trained Melbourne Cup winner Delta Blues finished third in the Caulfield Cup while stablemate Pop Rock followed a seventh in the Caulfield Cup with a narrow second at Flemington.
Land ‘N Stars followed a last placing at Caulfield with a much-improved fifth in the Melbourne Cup while the well-fancied Yeats went straight into the Melbourne Cup and finished seventh.
Dermot Weld’s stayer Media Puzzle followed a win in the Geelong Cup with his memorable triumph in the Melbourne Cup in 2002.
Hopefully, we’ll see O’Brien return for another shot next year as his three starters ensured this year’s Cup would be long remembered even before the gates opened. His race tactics and the remarkable 12th win in the race by Cummings ensured it will find a place in history.