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Monday Musings: The New Phar Lap?

A lot of my friends are setting out today for the trip to the beautiful racecourse of Del Mar, just north of La Jolla (and Torrey Pines golf course) in Southern California, close to the wonderful City of San Diego, writes Tony Stafford.  That makes it not too far from the border with Mexico and Tijuana, where locals make their brass selling cheap religious items to unwitting tourists by the roadside.

Some of the above-mentioned pals, not just content with a week where the Turf Meets the Surf – Bing Crosby 1937 – will then tootle down the road to spend a second week at Palm Springs. Nice work? Hardly, if you can get it!

In recent years it has been possible to leave the US right after the two days of Breeders’ Cup excitement onto a flight that crossed the international dateline but arrived in Australia in time for “The Race That Stops the Nation” on the first Tuesday in November.

This time the Melbourne Cup will proceed without some of its usual adherents as it precedes its international counter-attraction. In 2020 it was staged with severe Covid-induced restrictions. Fourteen of the 24 runners started out in Europe, eight – including the winner, Twilight Payment – were still trained there when setting off for the always difficult journey and preparation.

Joseph O’Brien trained the winner and he will be back again, his now eight-year-old Australian-owned marvel this time as top-weight carrying around 9st2lb (58k), 6lb more than last year.

He shares second favouritism with the Andrew Balding-trained Spanish Mission, of whom there were serious doubts as to participation as the new veterinary rules flexed their theoretical muscles. He is safely in the list, but I would imagine the vets will have the same sort of scrutiny right up to the morning of the race that caused Hughie Morrison’s 2018 runner-up Marmelo to be being excluded from the 2019 renewal. Marmelo was strongly fancied having won the Doncaster Cup last time out but the local veterinarians differed with the opinion of the trainer and owners’ vets who consistently pronounced him sound.

Astonishingly, with half the 24-strong field for Tuesday - officially announced with draw yesterday - emanating from Europe, these two will be the sole European-trained contenders. Both have top form this year, Twilight Payment finishing second to Sonnyboyliston in the Irish St Leger and Spanish Mission running a close second to Stradivarius in the Lonsdale Stakes at York in August.

Nothing else is coming. No Aidan O’Brien, whose sadness at losing his 2019 Derby hero Anthony Van Dyck with fatal injury in last year’s contest might have swayed him against sending any of his better-class stayers at the end of an arduous campaign.

Another trainer persuaded by potential queries from the beefed-up vets’ panel to make an early decision against sending his best horse was Charlie Fellowes. His Prince Of Arran, an eight-year-old contemporary of Twilight Payment’s, had been third, second and third again in the last three Melbourne Cups.

The place money amassed from those heroic challenges exceeded £1.5 million towards Prince Of Arran’s career win and place earnings of just over £2 million. In retrospect, the decision, while probably agonising at the time, now looks fortuitous as on all this year’s form the gelding would have struggled to make an impact.

Last Monday when talking about Joseph O’Brien’s latest Australian exploit in winning the Cox Plate, I also referred to the previous winner of that prestigious weight-for-age race. That was the beaten 2019 Investec Derby favourite Sir Dragonet, third at Epsom behind ill-fated Anthony Van Dyck.

The colt had also been a creditable sixth in last year’s Melbourne Cup, just a few days on from his Cox Plate exploits. These excellent performances came from his new base at Warwick Farm, where he ran under the banner of the hirsute Ciaran Maher, one of the most successful of the domestic trainers over there.

At least Maher, who has four of the 24 in tomorrow’s field, has a British element to his stable which has three bases, two satellites apart from Warwick Farm.

Six years ago, a young Englishman, son of a long-standing and much respected Newmarket trainer, like so many before him, tried his luck in the Antipodes. So impressed was Maher in his young pupil’s diligence and innovation that in 2018 he added the name of David Eustace, son of James and brother of Harry who now runs the family stable back home, as joint-trainer.

That means we have an English trainer with four runners in the great race to add to Andrew Balding. Only the legendary Chris Waller, trainer of Winx but yet to win the Cup, matches their representation. Waller is less likely than Maher/Eustace to win as the partners’ Floating Artist (11-1) and Grand Promenade (14-1) are the next pair in the betting.

But this will be a Melbourne Cup with a couple of differences. For me, never getting there – that was always the province of fellow Telegraph man, “Aussie Jim” McGrath -  invariably meant staying up all night to see the show on telly.

On Tuesday when I went to Tatts Horses in Training sale watching the Australians make their ever-more expensive buys for next winter as they jousted with the Saudis for new middle-distance talent, I happened to run into John Berry.

He has been an integral and vital part of Melbourne Cup nights with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian and New Zealand form and I asked him if he was all set for Tuesday. A sad look came into that made for radio face – sorry John – as he related that the invitation always comes well in advance. As this October it hadn’t he feared he would, like me, watch it on the sofa.

Unless there was an oversight in the Sky Sports office, Newmarket’s former Mayor seems to have gone the way of so many other Sky staples – the latest being  Jeff Stelling who announced he will be going, too, at the end of the year. Can’t be much fun getting old, can it?

The other big difference of course, unless you haven’t heard of him, is a locally-trained five-year-old called Incentivise who until April 11 this year had the career record of three runs and no places, never mind wins.

He was a 17/1 chance for his fourth race but won that by three lengths and he went on to win another five races, all by wide margins in the next few weeks.

At season’s end it was decided that he needed to be moved to Melbourne as the Covid rules would have been complicated had he remained in his original base in Southern Queensland. He was transferred to top handler Peter Moody whose brief was to campaign him at the Melbourne Spring Festival.

The move also needed a new jockey for the same reason, and the gelding turned up with Brett Prebble at Flemington racecourse on September 11 for the Makybe Diva Stakes. This first Group 1 challenge commemorates Australia’s greatest staying racemare, the only triple winner of the Melbourne Cup. Her hat-trick was achieved between 2003 and 2005.

They made all the running, winning by half a length. Incentivise followed up in another Group 1 on October 2. Two weeks later he achieved what was by common consent from the experts and public alike, the most impressive performance in the Caulfield Cup in living memory.. He won that race by a very easy three lengths and few observers in Australia believe he can be beaten tomorrow. Nine wins in a row since April 11 yet still receiving 2lb from the top-weight? His price of 7-4 almost looks generous!

Australians hanker after another Phar Lap, the hero from the 1930’s who was their between-the-World Wars equivalent of Seabiscuit in the US. After their past-sell-by date cricketers’ performance in the World 20/20 group qualifying match against England, they could do with a modern-day hero, human or equine.

I confess I cannot see him beaten. As to the Breeders’ Cup it would be nice if James Fanshawe could repeat last year’s victory of Audarya and win a second Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar. I have a friend who has an interest.

Siobhan Doolan, highly-talented horsewoman and grand-daughter of Wilf Storey, had earmarked a Fanshawe horse in last week’s sale, the yet to win but lightly-raced four-year-old gelding Going Underground. Like Incentivise he made a slow start to his career, not appearing until late on as a three-year-old in December last year. Sadly, there the similarity ends, but the young lady is very happy with her nice-moving purchase since getting him home.

Siobhan made a discovery about him. Whether it’s correct or not I will try to find out from the horse’s mouth but I won’t ask until next week as James never likes to talk about his horses before they run.

This is the question. Is it true that Going Underground was a galloping companion with Audarya this summer?  Should it be true it would be a nice thought that her £5k buy in a very tough market might have helped a horse win another Breeders’ Cup race. Siobhan will be preparing him in the mornings for his imminent campaign before settling down to her bloodstock insurance work. Good luck Shiv – and grandad of course!

  • TS