One of the reasons the Melbourne Cup is loved so much by Australians is that is an egalitarian race. Unlike many of the top races around the world, the Cup is a handicap — horses receive different weights depending on their record, such that the field is theoretically even as it leaves the starting gates.
In the folklore of the Cup, the handicapping system gives everyone a chance to win — wealthy owners with a stable full of stars have the same chance as the proverbial battler from the bush.
But the great theory of egalitarianism is being increasingly tested as the Cup is flooded by an army of horses from overseas.
As the quality of Australian horses has fallen away in recent years, wealthy owners and breeders from Europe have been targeting our great race.
At the same time, Australian owners have started scouring European racetracks looking for promising stayers who can be imported and aimed at the Cup.
The result is that getting a horse into the Cup field has become an expensive business.
Overseas owners must meet the cost of bringing a horse down to Australia, a cost which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Once upon a time, when racing authorities were trying to attract horses to the Cup, they helped defray some of these costs. The popularity of the race means this is no longer necessary.
Australian owners looking to import a European stayer also face high costs. A few years ago, finding a bargain-basement Cup prospect in Europe was possible. But not these days.
Rich 200 member Gerry Ryan purchased 2010 Cup winner Americain from Europe for only $225,000.
"It's a fairytale that is not going to happen again," Ryan said last week.
"Every time a trainer [in Europe] gets a phone call from an Australian, up goes the price."
He says that trying to buy a horse of Americain’s quality would now cost $1 million. That suggests that the Melbourne Cup is now less for the battler’s from the bush and more for the bluebloods.
With this in mind, it’s time for our annual Melbourne Cup form guide, where the owner’s form is just as important as the horse’s.
Gerry Ryan was valued at $295 million on this year’s BRW Rich 200 list, a product of his Jayco caravan manufacturing business and his staged entertainment business that is most famous for producing Walking With Dinosaurs. Americain, which won the Cup in 2010 and run an unlucky fourth last year, is seen as a great chance to become one of the few horses to win the race twice.
Last year’s winner is back from France and in great form, having won the Caulfield Cup last month. He is owned by Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar. His exact wealth is not known, but he’s rich enough to have made a substantial investment in racing in recent years – and to have won the Cup at his first attempt.
Mourayan and Green Moon
Barely a Cup goes by that doesn’t feature a horse owned by rich list fixture Lloyd Williams. One of the biggest horse owners in the country, Williams is another who has imported a series of promising European stayers to try and win the Melbourne Cup and the Cox Plate. "When you've had as many horses as I have and been in it for as long as I have, and you're in the last quarter of your life, you want to win the Melbourne Cup again," he said a few years ago. "So you keep trying.”
Another owner who never seems to let a Cup go by without at least one of his horses is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. The Sheikh has been trying for a decade to win the Cup but arrived this year with a low-key team lead by longshot chance Cavalryman.
Irish packaging entrepreneur Sir Michael Smurfit has already tasted Melbourne Cup success with Media Puzzle, the 2002 winner and this year he returns as a part owner if Irish chance Galileo’s Choice. Smurfit, who was valued at €368 million back in 2010, owns a stake in packaging group Smurfit Kappa and also invests in property.
Malaysian entrepreneur Dato Tan Chin Nam has won the Melbourne Cup four times, with all his horses trained by the legendary Bart Cummings. His hope this year is Precedence, but it seems likely to miss the final field.
French horse Shahwardi is considered a smokey for the Melbourne Cup, but his owner is a man used to beating the odds. Britain’s Tony Bloom is a professional poker player, football club chairman (he owns a majority stake in British soccer club Brighton & Hove Albion) and thoroughbred investor; he is a partner in a business called Horses First Racing, which employs an Australian trainer called Jeremy Gask and "cutting edge scientific methods” to train horses.
Rich Pickings tips
Dunaden will need to carry a modern record of 59 kilograms if he is to win this year’s Melbourne Cup and while weight can stop a train, the manner in which he won the Caulfield Cup cannot be ignored. Americain is better weighted and is also a top chance, while Shahwardi looms at the best roughie.