With the Melbourne Cup one of the world’s great international races, assessing formlines from here and abroad can get tricky.
We’re here to help, with this look at some of the best lead-up runs towards the big 3200m handicap.
1. THE IRISH ST. LEGER
Curragh, September 15
2816m, Group 1
Track: Good 4
Beautifully, we can kill several birds with one stone here. The horses placed third to seventh are all in the Cup. In order from third: Southern France, Cross Counter, Master Of Reality, Latrobe, and Twilight Payment.
Last year’s Cup winner Cross Counter was the pick of them. While outsprinted by the first two in the run home to finish fourth, beaten four lengths, he showed his staying power as he kept coming under his big weight of 61kg, and after being trapped wide throughout. After relishing his 51kg handicap to win the Cup last year, he’ll have 57.5kg in this, but should still appreciate the drop from the weights he’s been carrying in England and Ireland. Southern France loomed up once the gaps opened, after not enjoying much room turning into the straight, but was never going to catch the more lightly-weighted leader and winner Search For A Song. Still, Southern France died on his run somewhat near the line. Master Of Reality plugged on well for fifth after leading through the first half of the race.
2. THE CAULFIELD CUP
2400m, Group 1
Track: Good 3
A host of Tuesday’s contenders went round in what still counts as the most important lead-up to the Melbourne Cup for form assessors. The winner, tough Japanese stayer Mer De Glace, was ultra-impressive in coming from well back to win, which suggests he’ll handle the 800m rise from 2400m – the longest trip he’s covered – to the Melbourne Cup. But you could be heartened with the next five across the line as well, though there’s a possible query on third-placegetter Mirage Dancer.
Vow And Declare worked home impressively, with a view to Tuesday’s longer trip, to grab second in a bunched finish. Mirage Dancer hangs on for third. He didn’t hit the line as powerfully as some others, though that might not be a big worry if he was being trained to grind along, more dourly, with the longer Cup in mind. Constantinople was the big eye-catcher: hopelessly blocked for a run around the home turn, when you have to be building momentum, he was finally switched wide and rattles home for fourth in a manner suggesting he’ll cope with the 3200m. And Finche performed well for fifth, after being caught three-wide for most of the trip. Lacking the acceleration of others, Caulfield was probably never going to be his track. He’ll far more appreciate the long straight of Flemington, where he can build into his work, as shown by his superb fourth in last year’s Cup. And Mustajeer came home well from the back to be sixth, only 1.8 lengths from the winner. He may have peaked on his run inside the last 100m but will take a huge fitness boost from the outing.
Other runs, on the negative side: The Chosen One worked home well for ninth spot, but sullied that effort with his subsequent flat run in Saturday’s Hotham Handicap (see below). Sound (10th) did suffer some bad interference in the straight, but that might be papering over his overall lack of form. And if you’ve got any thoughts about backing Rostropovich, they should be snuffed out by his fading run for 16th.
3. THE EBOR HANDICAP
York, August 24
Track: Good 4
Always an important lead-up for English and Irish Cup raiders. It doesn’t have Group status, since they frown on handicaps a bit over there, but it’s the richest flat handicap race in Europe, at $1.7 million, which is very hefty by English prizemoney standards.
We’re watching Mustajeer again, who wins it, and one of the dark horses of this year’s Melbourne Cup, Raymond Tusk. In what was his last run before this Tuesday, Ray came from near last, couldn’t get clear for a long time, then finally gets running room. He makes a surge inside the last 200m, but perhaps doesn’t go on with it enough when you consider the extra 400m of the Cup.
Another interesting runner is Prince Of Arran. Australians know what he can do (see the Geelong Cup below), but he might just save his best work for this country. In the Ebor, he plods into eighth spot at the longshot odds of $34. Does this say the opposition is far tougher in Europe than that among which he excels in Australia? Or does he just like racing in this country for some reason? The firmer tracks? The sit-and-then-sprint style in which staying races are run here, compared to Europe where it’s a more consistent pace throughout. Bear in mind he carried 60.5kg in the Ebor, and drops to 54kg on Tuesday, where he’ll try to replicate his enormous run in last year’s Cup when third after doing it tough throughout. Raymond Tusk (who’s named after a House Of Cards character, you’ll be dying to know by now) has an almost identical weight drop from the Ebor, while Mustajeer goes from 59.5kg that day to 55kg.
But it’s really all honours with Mustajeer, who shows great strength throughout York’s sapping uphill home straight, fighting off a handful of challengers. One of them was the mare True Self, who later nearly beat Prince Of Arran in the Geelong Cup, and just missed out on qualifying for the Melbourne Cup. If you’re thinking of backing Mustajeer, despite the fact he’s never been beyond 2800m, this run, plus his Caulfield Cup run, and the fact Damien Oliver is aboard, might just get you over the line.
4. THE MOONEE VALLEY CUP
2600m, Group 2
Track: Good 4
Not the strongest form race, with an eight-horse field featuring only two who made it into the Melbourne Cup. A slow pace for the most part meant nothing had to work especially hard. We’re looking at the winner, Hunting Horn, which was treated to very soft run in the ideal “one out and one back” spot (or fourth, one off the fence) and had the superior finish to come away for a solid 1.3 length win. It was a dominant victory really, but you’ve got to question the strength of the opposition. Downdraft did it slightly tougher, sitting outside the leader, and boxing on for third, though the run primed him up for the win in Saturday’s Hotham Handicap which qualified him for the Melbourne Cup.
5. THE GEELONG CUP
Geelong, 2400m, Group 3
Track: Good 3
This race has propelled a few horses to Melbourne Cup glory in recent years, with Media Puzzle (2002), Americain (2010) and Dunaden (2011) completing the double.
We’re watching Prince Of Arran, who looked a certainty on form, and made no mistake after enjoying a sweet run, showing his fighting qualities to refuse to go under to that fast-finishing Ebor rival, True Self. There were some handy others further back, such as Red Galileo, who was second in the Ebor.
On the down side, watch for Steel Prince running a moderate seventh, and Neufbosc running ninth.
6. THE HOTHAM HANDICAP
Flemington, 2500m, Group 3
Track: Soft 7
Often a key form race for the Cup. We’re watching Downdraft, who wins to qualify for the Cup field. The fact he had to back up a week after the Moonee Valley Cup to run this race four days before the Big Cup to qualify for Tuesday is concerning, since Europeans more usually take a month between runs. And he had a dream run in the race, on the fence just off the pace. You just about wanted to be on him turning out of the straight the first time, when several others were trapped wide. Still, you can do no more than win. Watching The Chosen One straggle into a well-beaten fifth should cure you of any urge to back him on Tuesday.
7. THE COX PLATE
Moonee Valley, 2040m, Group 1
Track: Good 4
Watching Magic Wand, who has the unenvied task of leading, and ultimately weakens in the straight to finish fourth. She did go pretty quickly earlier in the race, but still … not the sort of run to inspire much confidence rising 1200 metres, especially when she’s got barrier 24 on Tuesday.
8. THE BART CUMMINGS
Flemington, 2520m, Group 3
Track: Good 3
Watching local hope Surprise Baby, who wins to book his ticket to the big dance. He’d write a fairytale if he can prevail on Tuesday, having risen from maiden class to winning the 3200m Adelaide Cup in his autumn preparation. He’s maintained that form in the spring. Interesting that his unconventional, Horsham-based trainer Paul Preusker is going Euro-style into the Cup: The Bart Cummings, a whole month ago, being Surprise Baby’s latest start, and after just one lead-up run — a fourth over 1600m — a month before that. This was an imperious win after enjoying a quiet, smothered run in the back half of the field, showing that finishing acceleration which is vital in a Melbourne Cup. It should be noted, however, he did beat a bit of a B-list, although Azuro (5th) came second in the Hotham on Saturday.
9. THE LONSDALE CUP
York, 3270m, Group 2
Track: Good 4
Il Paradiso is a definite dark horse in the Melbourne Cup. He’s only had six starts in his life, but matches the profile of the last two winners Cross Counter and Rekindling, in that he’s a northern hemisphere three-year-old (a 4yo in the south owing to different breeding seasons) and has a very light weight of 52.5kg. He failed to flatter at his last start, but did win over 3200m in Ireland three starts back, albeit in moderate company. What we’re watching is the start in between. He finishes third, or second-last of the four, but was only 1.3 lengths off the winner, Stradivarius, and boxes on well at the end of the two miles. Stradivarius is one of the greatest stayers ever produced in England, a country known for producing great stayers. If he were here for Tuesday, he’d start favourite by a good margin, and would probably win the same way. To get within 1.3 lengths of him over 3200m is some achievement. Whether Il Paradiso, who’s in the market at $14, can replicate that effort from barrier 17 amid 24 horses – which is 20 more than in the Lonsdale Cup – remains to be seen. But this is an encouraging bit of work.