SYDNEY // The English stayer Mad Rush and the Irish stallion Septimus were vying for outright favourite status for tomorrow's Melbourne Cup after Australian gamblers deserted their best local horses to plunge on the foreign challengers. The two imports were listed on most major betting markets around odds of 4-1 after a huge betting plunge on the eve of the A$5.5 million (Dh13.5m) race. European horses have a poor record in the Melbourne Cup, winning the 148-year-old race on just two occasions, but most Australians believe they have the gruelling 3,200 metres handicap at their mercy this year.
The Australian master trainer Bart Cummings, a winner of a record 11 Melbourne Cups, said the influx of foreign horses had turned the race into a game of "spot the Aussie". There are a record equalling seven European-trained runners in this year's field, reduced from 24 to 22 with the scratchings of Zarita and Yellowstone, plus four from New Zealand. The foreign crop are considered vastly superior to the locals over longer distances as most homegrown runners are bred to sprint.
Australia's best stayer, last year's winner Efficient, pulled out last month because of an injury, leaving his stablemate Zipping (15-1) and Barbaricus (17-1) to lead the local challenge. Mad Rush is aiming to become the first English-prepared horse to win the race and stormed into calculations after a fast-finishing fourth in last month's Caulfield Cup, the traditional lead-up event. The trainer Luca Cumani also has a second runner in Bauer, which won last month's Geelong Cup to secure a spot in the field. Cumani finished second with Purple Moon last year and Mad Rush has been the best backed horse in the lead up to the race.
"The order [of popularity] yesterday was Mad Rush then Profound Beauty, then Zipping, then Nom Du Jeu and then Barbaricus and Septimus not too far away from each other," said Glenn Munsie of TAB Sportsbet. "It's not actually large bets on Mad Rush, it's very consistent money but not huge money." Ireland have four runners in the race, three from the stable of Aidan O'Brien and another getting the polish off Dermot Weld, the man who triggered the foreign invasion with his wins on Vintage Crop (1993) and Media Puzzle (2002).
Weld's representative this year is Profound Beauty, a lightly raced mare that snuck in with a light weight and will be ridden by Glen Boss. Boss won the race three times in a row from 2003-05 with Australia's greatest race mare Makybe Diva. "She gives me every indication she will run the distance but you never know until you try," Boss said. "You can never underestimate someone like Dermot Weld." O'Brien has three runners ? Septimus, Honolulu and Allesandro Volta ? but Septimus is his best chance. The six-year-old is Europe's reigning champion stayer and won his last race, the Irish St Leger (2,816m), by 13 lengths, but has to carry the top weight of 58.5 kilograms.
"Septimus speaks for himself. He is a class horse. Whether he can do it in a handicap, we'll find out on Tuesday," O'Brien told reporters. "If it was in a conditioned race over two miles, he would be a very short price. He is in very good form and obviously was a very good winner last time, but I don't think any horse is unbeatable." France will have their first Cup runner this year in Vareeves while New Zealand will saddle up four hopes, including the Caulfield Cup runner-up Nom Du Jeu.
Despite worries about a foreign winner and the effects of the global financial crisis, more than 100,000 people are expected to cram into Flemington racecourse while millions more will watch the race on television. The country grinds to a halt and tunes into the two-and-a-half minute scramble, attracting bets estimated in excess of A$200 million ($135 million) in total. *Reuters