It has been fascinating over the last couple of weeks watching the discussion around the number of internationally trained runners now starting in the Melbourne Cup and the ability of locals to qualify for both the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups.
Some have focused on the notion that we pander to the internationals and others that there needs to be more qualifying races for local horses.
The pandering aspect is interesting, with the suggestion being too much money is spent on attracting them to the race and incentives they get to run here.
Regardless of where you sit, there is no doubting there is a groundswell of debate that is bringing the topic to a head.
This week, Melbourne Radio Station RSN ran a number of articles on their web site around this debate (click to read them).
- Sydney Snub – Owners Irate at Metrop’s No Entry Status for Caulfield Cup
- Regulate – Not Eliminate – The Great Debate Contiues
- Carrot is Justified – Blanksby defends payments to internationals for Caulfield Cup
- World Cup – International Sprint bigger, better
Racing.com have also run segments on their programs where individuals have expressed their different views, including executives from the MRC and VRC. I’m sure there will be even more commentary on these issues as Cups get closer and we start to learn about those runners likely to gain a start and those that will miss out.
Of most interest to me is the debate around the Melbourne Cup and the increasing number of international runners at the expense of locals, who I deem to be Australian / New Zealand owned and trained horses.
This is not about our lack of focus on breeding stayers or the internationally bred horses that Australian owners purchase from overseas and give to local trainers. They have clearly added an enormous amount of much needed depth to our staying ranks.
It’s about internationally trained and usually owned horses that come for the Melbourne Cup and then head back overseas.
Increasing International Runners
To put the discussion into some perspective, let’s look at how many internationally trained runners have started in the Melbourne Cup over the past decade and a bit.
Remember, it started with TWO in 1993 when Vintage Crop won and the more fancied Drum Taps ran down the track.
Fast forward 12 years to 2005 and we had FIVE internationals contest the Melbourne Cup (21% of the field.)
In 2012 we had EIGHT internationals in the race and last year (2017) we had ELEVEN. That’s 46% of the field.
It seems only a matter of time before more than 50% of the Melbourne Cup field is filled with international runners.
The issue of contention with local trainers and owners is that it is significantly easier for an overseas runner to qualify for entry to the Melbourne Cup than a local horse.
In the words of Terry Henderson who runs the OTI Syndicate, “a listed winner from Europe can be guaranteed a start.”
The Brand of The Melbourne Cup
I am in favour of international competition. Many of those that have come here for the Melbourne Cup added a great deal of interest and even provided some terrific betting opportunities. There are also many economic and other intangible benefits that come from The Melbourne Cup gaining such global exposure.
My take on the issue comes from a slightly different angle and that’s about what we want the brand of the Melbourne Cup to be?
In my opinion, increasing international participation threatens to dilute the brand of the Melbourne Cup in the eyes of everyday Australians.
The Melbourne Cup’s iconic status and reputation as the people’s race has been built on the horses, trainers, owners and jockeys that have won and the stories around them that engaged the hearts and minds of the Australian public.
Back in early 1930’s when Australia was gripped by the effects of the Great Depression, the popularity and enjoyment of horse racing was one of the few things that allowed people to forget about their troubles for a while. The victory of Pharlap in the 1930 Melbourne Cup was said to have lifted the spirits of the entire nation.
In more recent times we’ve seen horses like Saintly, Might and Power and especially Makybe Diva become household names thanks to the Melbourne Cup. Each had a story around them that really captured the interest of the Australian public.
Bart Cummings who is synonymous with the Melbourne Cup for his record 12 victories as a trainer is an Australian icon.
The Freedman’s having a golden period with five wins between 1989 and 2005, along with great individual stories like the effervescent Gai Waterhouse winning her first in 2013, the lovable larrikin Darren Weir winning his first in 2015, Michelle Payne being the first female jockey to win the great race are all stories that made everyday Australian’s stop and take notice.
Beyond the high profile personalities we’ve seen many other great stories that resonated with everyday Australians and added to the legend of the race.
One that sticks in my mind is Rogan Josh’s owner Wendy Green (a school teacher) paying something like $13,000 for the gelding and then driving to Darwin with the Melbourne Cup trophy in her car to show all of her friends. There are many others.
It’s those type of stories that have made the Melbourne Cup what it is… not some idealism that it’s the best staying race in the world or that we are bringing the best international horses out here to compete with the locals, because neither are close to being true.
Don’t try and tell us The Melbourne Cup is a stronger race now than it was when Let’s Elope and co were winning it a few decades back.
The opportunity for great stories to emerge
The key issue is that the growing internationalisation of the Melbourne Cup is reducing the opportunity for the great stories to emerge that capture the hearts and minds of the Australian public.
For more than 125 years we had no international competition and it has steadily grown since 1993 from 8% of the field to a most likely 50% of the field and more in 2018 and beyond. What if we get to a point in 5 years time where two-thirds to three-quarters of the field are made up of international runners?
How does that not greatly diminish the chance for stories to emerge to sustain the iconic status of the race in the eyes of everyday Australians?
While we can look at the feats of Lloyd Williams in winning the last two Cups (and indeed four since 2007) as an outstanding achievement, a horse like Rekindling – who didn’t race here before and hasn’t raced since – isn’t one that gets the heart’s of the rank and file racing.
An international horse with an international trainer, owners and jockey that the Australian public has never heard of isn’t going to capture interest like traditional Melbourne Cup winners.
If that profile of horse continues to win the race, it will soon take the shine off the race in the eyes of the Australian public.
It’s naive to think that Australian’s will be just as engaged by these stories as those that have built the tradition and legend of the Melbourne Cup over more than 150 years.
Perceptions and brands can change, even if they don’t intend to. That’s especially true if the characteristics that built that brand have been altered over time.
It won’t happen in the next 5 years or perhaps even 20 years, but if there are less opportunities for great local stories to emerge from the Melbourne Cup due to higher international participation then it’s only a matter of time before that starts to influence the way the race is viewed in the eyes of the Australian public.
Achieving a Balance
Personally, I hope that doesn’t happen to the Melbourne Cup. I hope there can be some balance achieved where we get the benefits of international participation and the interest that brings to the race, while still allowing ample opportunity for great local hero’s and stories to emerge.
The answer is most likely more automatic qualifying races for local horses and making it a little more difficult for overseas horses to qualify through their own races.
There must be a way to tighten those regulations so that the best of the internationals still make it (they’re the ones we want) while the lesser lights are sacrificed and those spots naturally revert back to local horses.
I don’t understand what value three or four international runners that start 40/1+ add to the race. I’d much rather see those positions taken up by local horses starting at the same odds or longer.
Just having a runner in the Melbourne Cup at any odds can make a local owner, trainer or jockey’s dream come true and in turn make the race personally touch all of their family and friends. Winning the race or even running well can change lives and create stories that go down as memorable moments in Australian sporting history.
We should never forget that this is what has made the Melbourne Cup the race that ‘stops a nation.’