'Diva fever' grips the Melbourne Cup as punters back horse for historic hat-trick

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The Independent Online

Australia has been swept by "Diva fever" with the only cure being victory on a pear-shaped racetrack in Melbourne's western suburbs.

The Melbourne Cup is like three Grand Nationals rolled into one. The entire nation grinds to a halt during the race. This year the run-up has been even more fevered than usual, thanks to a seven-year-old mare called Makybe Diva.

Diva won the Cup in 2003, and again last year. Now she could become the first horse in the race's 144-year history to gallop to victory three times. If she succeeds, she will enter Australia's pantheon of sporting heroes - and the bookmakers will be an estimated £36m out of pocket. The hat-trick has never even been attempted before.

Makybe Diva dominated the front pages yesterday, as well as television and radio bulletins. One newspaper produced a special wraparound that featured a large photograph of the celebrity mare and the headline "Leave it to Diva". A mystery punter was reported to have placed a A$1m (£400,000) bet on her, while several women were said to have named their new-born babies after her. At the traditional eve-of-race parade through Melbourne, thousands of bystanders wore hats, T-shirts and face-masks bearing Diva's red, white and blue colours.

Her elevation to national icon has amazed those close to her. "She's got a massive following," her jockey, Glen Boss, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "She's got that amazing will to win, she's almost got that sex appeal about her ... people who don't go to the races want to go there just to watch the Diva go round." Her owner, Tony Santic, named his horse by taking the first two letters of the names of five women workers in his tuna factory in South Australia: Maureen, Kylie, Belinda, Diane and Vanessa.

An occasionally temperamental creature who paddles in the ocean each morning as part of her preparation, Makybe Diva won the Cox Plate, another prestigious race, 10 days ago. A crowd of 140,000 was predicted at Flemington racecourse with another 16 million (80 per cent of the population) expected to tune in via television or radio.

The race, due to take place late last night, is a public holiday in Victoria; elsewhere, little work gets done, thanks to Cup lunches and backyard barbecues. Amid the Diva frenzy, few Australians heeded the pundits pointing out that Makybe's handicap weighting made it unlikely that she would enter the record books. Nor did they take note of Mr Santic's warning that he would not risk racing her if the track conditions were not right.

The two-mile flat handicap is Australia's richest race, with A$5m in prize money. It is the centrepiece of a four-day racing carnival and the highlight of a week of festivities - a day when the public enclosures are knee-deep in beer cans and prone bodies are prised off the lawn in the evening.

Makybe Diva's trainer, Lee Freedman, knew all eyes would be on his horse today. If she won, he said, it would be "like seeing Don Bradman [the legendary Australian cricketer] make 300."

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