Although your average punter Down Under takes his gambling far too seriously to let anything as petty as national pride ruin his enjoyment, "the race that stops a nation" might indeed halt Australia in its tracks tomorrow. For if Godolphin and Frankie Dettori get it right, then Mamool could easily become the first British-trained horse to win the Melbourne Cup
And that, rather like the monarchy, would be hard for Australians to stomach.
Since the two-mile handicap was first run in 1861, the first Tuesday of November has been Australia's day, when offices, shops and schools lock up early, pubs, bookies and restaurants fill up early and every self-respecting Aussie is in front of a television set for race time. The hype is so feverish and all-encompassing that it dwarfs our own Grand National to the status of a quirky irrelevance. This is so much more than a spectacle. Quite simply it is at the very heart of a nation.
It is therefore no surprise that most of Australia would rather see England lift the Rugby World Cup than a representative of the "Mother Country" landing the Melbourne. Indeed, in this city, where Aussie Rules is a religion and racing an irresistible temptation, what Melbournians know about rugby could be written on the back of their cherished betting slips. Their racing knowledge, meanwhile, is deep enough to tell them that Mamool is more than a fair bet to achieve the unthinkable tomorrow.
Godolphin have been here before, of course, having finished second twice and third once in a decade of trying. The Maktoums have made no secret that, together with the Kentucky Derby, this is at the head of their "most-wanted" list and Mamool represents their brightest hope since Kayf Tara's campaign faltered with a knee injury in the final days before the 1999 contest. "This year we have better horses than we've had in the past," Saeed bin Suroor, the trainer of Mamool and the Godolphin second-string here, Millstreet, said. "It is our best chance."
It is not just the ideal trip, nor a draw in the centre of the field that Bin Suroor described yesterday as "perfect", that make the Australian odds of around 6-1 seem generous in the extreme. As a double Group One winner in Germany this year, and as a former winner of the Queen's Vase at Royal Ascot, Mamool has form that few of his Australian rivals should be able to live with. Granted, the form book does not always travel over the equator reliably - the sprinter Choisir proving during the last Flat season that the Australian thoroughbreds are not as tardy as we might think they are - but this year's batch of home contenders do appear an ordinary lot.
Bart Cummings, the legendary South Australian trainer who has won the Cup a record 11 times, has only the eminently beatable Frightening in the field, while Mummify, the hotpot who had been running Mamool close at the head of the market, looked capable of doing anything but on the track when trundling in eighth at Flemington in Saturday's carnival-opening Mackinnon Stakes. In fact, this wholly un-European practice of giving the runners prep races just days before the big one looks to have backfired this time with most of the fancied contenders not impressing. The progressive Distinctly Secret - third in the Mackinnon - could be the exception.
In contrast, the British contingent here, which comprises the Godolphin pair, James Given's Hugs Dancer and Alan Jarvis's Jardines Lookout, have been prepared with typical restraint. Given's 10-1 shot may even be the one to chase Mamool home, after an eye-catching run around the outside of the Caulfield Cup field a few weeks ago that caused many an Antipodean notebook to flip open.
The Irish, meanwhile, rest their hopes on the promising hurdler Holy Orders whose refusal to gallop in work this week has, unbelievably, merited front-page news here. That has not stopped the locals from backing Willie Mullins to emulate the feat of his countryman Dermot Weld, who remains the only European trainer to win the Cup, first with Vintage Crop in 1993 and again with Media Puzzle last year.
Those successes were almost welcomed by the 100,000 crowd which makes the annual pilgrimage to Flemington Park, a mere tram ride from the centre of the city, if only because it added some global lustre to what had been a distinctly southern hemisphere affair.
Everything comes at a price and tomorrow's may be having to watch Dettori perform one of those flying dismounts. That would no doubt signal a greater influx of European raiders in the future and thus the challenge for Australia's national treasure would begin in earnest. A victory for Godolphin could just be the rubber-stamping of the Melbourne Cup on the international calendar.
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