The Melbourne Cup
Things to Look for When Handicapping Aussie Racing
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

In his 1897 book Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote about the Melbourne Cup:

It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialized days of whatever sort in that congeries of colonies. Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out…I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation and preparation and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one; but this one does it.

On Tuesday, November 6, 2012, at 3:00 p.m. local time (Monday, 12 midnight Eastern in the U.S.), the Melbourne Cup will be contested for the 151st time, and once again an entire nation will stand still as a veritable herd of 24 horses traverses 3200 meters (approximately two miles) around the Flemington track for a purse of A$6 million.

Getting Familiar with Racing Down Under
For horse racing fans and horseplayers alike, there is no better introduction to Australian racing than the Melbourne Cup, with its big-day atmosphere, quality competitors and large field—and through the convenience of advance deposit wagering, you can punt (bet) on it too from half-way around the world. So, what should you look for when handicapping racing Down Under, and particularly this year’s Melbourne Cup?

First, the vast majority of Aussie racing is turf racing; currently, the synthetic Pro-Ride track at Geelong is the only place in the country where horses don’t run on grass, although there are several synthetic surface and dirt training tracks. Unlike in this country, races are never taken “off turf” when rain-affected, and it is the handicapper’s responsibility to discern from horses’ previous form or breeding whether or not they are a “mudlark” (capable of handling wet grass surfaces). Track ratings (or conditions) are determined through visual inspection and measuring the turf with a penetrometer, with upgrades or downgrades possible as conditions warrant. A track rated “Fast” is rock-hard, lightning fast—and certain horses can only race well over this type of surface. Each rating beyond “Fast” has slight numerical variations, so a “Good 2” track is firm, while a “Good 3” has some give. When track ratings are in the Slow 7 to Heavy 9 or 10 range is when certain horses thrive, and others fail horribly.

Australian trainers run their horses into fitness using barrier trials (races without wagering or purses) and actual races, so you won’t find workout times in past performances. Instead, pay attention to horses that have run recently or, if coming off a break, have a history of scoring well first-up. Do not be concerned that a horse may have run a week or even a few days before the event; without drugs and with emphasis placed on race fitness, Australian-raced horses tend to race more often in a shorter period of time, with perhaps longer seasonal breaks, than North American horses do. And don’t worry if they also didn’t do well in their past couple races, particularly when assessing horses trained by the legendary Bart Cummings. When he won his 12th Melbourne Cup with Viewed in 2008, the gelding had finished eighth, seventh, tenth and eleventh in his four races leading up to the Cup—and he nipped Euro-invader Bauer by a nose on the wire, carrying two pounds more in weight.

A real idiosyncrasy of Australian racing: races are run both clockwise and counter-clockwise, depending on the track. In the state of Victoria and at Flemington where the Melbourne Cup is run, racing is done counter-clockwise (like here in the U.S.). However, in New South Wales (Sydney), races at Randwick, Warwick Farm, Rosehill and Canterbury are conducted clockwise, a situation which some horses can handle (racing both ways), but others never quite pull off. So, if considering potential weaknesses for the Melbourne Cup, look at horses limited to racing in NSW, or at Eagle Farm and Gold Coast tracks in Queensland.

Unlike American racing, saddle cloths do not reflect barrier (or post) position. Instead, horses are numerically placed relative to handicap weight, with the top weight being 1 and the light-weighted horses with higher numbers. Therefore, you must pay more attention to jockey silks than saddle cloths when identifying horses while racing, and should seriously consider the potential of light-weighted horses (even if more inexperienced) over their more heavily burdened (and experienced) brethren, particularly over long distances and on wet tracks. The Flemington track is spacious in width and features an extremely long straight track from the Melbourne Cup’s start point to the first turn, so post position isn’t necessarily critical; it’s more a question of gaining proper position and settling into a comfortable running style to carry over the nearly 16-furlong distance. That said, the VRC’s media guide (pdf) notes that since 1958 when barrier stalls were first used, more horses have won from the four outside barriers (21-24) than have won from the four inside barriers (1-4). The most winners (five) have started from barriers 11 and 14, while horses breaking from post 18 have never won. 2009 winner Shocking not only broke from barrier 21, but also wore saddlecloth 21—the first time since 1923 that the 21 saddlecloth has won. And if you’re really thinking that streaks are made to be broken, consider wagering on saddlecloth 20—the last time a winner carried that number was 1897.

As most juvenile graded-stakes racing in Australia is conducted over sprint distances, it’s not surprising that the weight-for-age Melbourne Cup rarely produces 3-year-old winners; the last time it happened was 1941. Most Cup winners are 4- or 5-year-olds with distance events under their belts. Unless a horse has previously contested races at 3200 meters or more (two miles or greater), the biggest query is obvious: can they handle the grueling distance? The answer may be found in the horse’s pedigree, as an examination of six recent winners illustrates:

  2010: Americain (Dynaformer, out of Arazi mare)
  2009: Shocking (Street Cry, out of Danehill mare)
  2008: Viewed (Scenic, out of Khozaam mare)
  2007: Efficient (NZ) (Zabeel, out of Defensive Play mare)
  2006: Delta Blues (JPN) (Dance in the Dark, out of Dixieland Band mare)
  2005: Makybe Diva (GB) (Desert King, out of Riverman mare)

All six have rich stamina sources in their sire and/or dam lines, including Roberto, Alleged, Sir Ivor, Defensive Play, and Seattle Slew, all of whom won major races at 11 furlongs or beyond. New Zealand-bred horses are also particularly noted for their stamina, and have done extremely well historically, winning the Melbourne Cup 40 times.

So, what are you waiting for? Tune in Monday night and experience for yourself “The Race That Stops a Nation.”

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