Old Melbourne Cup rules burned by Rekindling

Alastair Bull

November 7th, 2017

The Melbourne Cup has been a race horsemen and punters have had some set ideas about for a number of years.

Prior to 1993, it was felt that a horse always needed to run on Derby day at Flemington, four days beforehand, to tune up for the big race. Twelve-time winning trainer Bart Cummings also used to want horses to have run a total of 10,000 meters (about 9 ¼ miles) in spring lead-up races to be fit enough to win the 3,200-meter (about two miles) contest.

Things have changed a bit since the mass arrival of European-trained horses for the race, which began in 1993. Lighter preparations have become the norm – the last horse to win the race after competing on Derby Day was Shocking in 2009.

But there have still been some ideas about what a horse needed to do. One that had become popular in recent years is that a foreign-trained horse should race once in Australia before the Cup. All of the five northern-hemisphere-trained Cup winners this century had done so; the only one in history that hadn’t was Ireland’s Vintage Crop, who began the European raid on the race successfully in 1993.

The other longer-standing idea was that it wasn’t a race for 3-year-olds. The last sophomore to win the Cup was Skipton in 1941; a few had finished second and third since then, but no winners.

Those ideas were well and truly overturned in 2017. Rekindling, the third Irish-trained winner of the race, was having his first race in Australia in the Cup, having raced most recently when finishing fourth in the St Leger (G1) at Doncaster Sept. 16. In addition, he was only three years old, at least by northern hemisphere time; he was classed as a 4-year-old in Australia, where horse birthdays are officially August 1.

Aided by a good ride from Australian Corey Brown, Rekindling wore down Johannes Vermeer late in the stretch to give part-owner Lloyd Williams his sixth owning success in the Cup. It was a 1-2 finish for Williams, and for the O’Brien family of Ireland; Joseph O’Brien trained the winner, and his father Aidan the runner-up.

With up to 24 horses running in the race (23 this year), there are usually great odds available. There can be traffic problems, but Flemington is fairly spacious compared to most Melbourne tracks and usually the best horse wins.

What the race has always required is a stayer with class who’s well weighted, and Rekindling fit that bill. Wins in the Curragh Cup and a runner-up slot to Order of St George in the Irish St Leger trial are good form for any staying race, and he was very well in at the weights.

It’s a strategy worth remembering for future Melbourne Cups.