Melbourne's rally call to Europe

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Many prospectors struck it big in Melbourne's goldrush of the mid-1850s, but among Britain and Ireland's thoroughbreds there has been only one horse that has hit the seam in the city's prestigious horse race. Since Vintage Crop succeeded in the 1993 Melbourne Cup there have been eight failures, with the closest finisher being the old horse himself, third in 1995.

Recent history has made the missionary job of Les Benton, of the Victoria Racing Club, even more difficult in Europe this summer. Benton, complete with brochures and videos, has been attempting to persuade owners of the better staying horses that Melbourne in spring is the ideal location for a foreign sortie. His main tool of inducement has been money. The winner of the Cup, the fifth richest race in the world, will receive pounds 700,000, and even a finisher as far back as 10th on 4 November will earn pounds 20,000. This is an attempt to defray travelling costs of about pounds 40,000.

So far there are no definite bites on the line, but Benton, who likes to err on the side of exaggeration, believes there will be 15 entries and as many as four runners from the northern hemisphere. Confirmation day is on 1 August and judgement day, when the indicative weights appear, is 1 September. The word is that Jim Bowler, the VRC handicapper, will not be too cruel on our boys in an effort to encourage participation.

The most positive running signals have come from Godolphin about their Classic Cliche, who is likely to run next in the Goodwood Cup. David Morley categorically ruled out Melbourne for Celeric after his win in the Ascot Gold Cup, but since then the gelding's owner, Christopher Spence, has been entertained by Benton. The strength of his company and the wine list will soon be evident.

Clerkenwell is also a possibility, as members of Michael Stoute's staff have been seen investigating the Cup's quarantine arrangements at Sandown race-track, while there is also the chance of a Royal representative. Arabian Story is an outside consideration for Lord Huntingdon and The Queen, who, to the chagrin of Australia's republicans, is with them every day on the back of their coins.

Whoever goes ought to start charting their programme from here, according to Benton. "They can't treat it as an afterthought," he said from Melbourne yesterday. "It is one of the world's top races and it has to be treated as such, like a Breeders' Cup. They must prepare their horse, like Dermot Weld and Vintage Crop.

"It's extremely important from our point of view that Australian racing has international competition. We believe our racing is as good as anywhere in the world and we pride ourselves with the way we present our racing product." Our bookmakers like to pride themselves on stingy odds and there was no deviation yesterday. Ladbrokes go 20-1 about Classic Cliche, while the Tote offer a less then magnetic 3-1 for a European or Dubai-based victory.

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