Racing / Melbourne Cup: Drum role popular at carnival: Europe's equine challengers are welcome visitors but face searching questions

NO ONE in the Australian state of Victoria this week has underestimated the size of the task awaiting Drum Taps and Vintage Crop, Europe's first ever runners in tomorrow's Melbourne Cup. All agree that this mission is, in local speak, 'a big ask'.

Unusually though, a victory for either the British or Irish horse would be welcomed in this land where Pommie sporting visitors are more often reviled. Australia is isolated in racing terms and needs these challengers to promote global acceptance.

Whoever is lured in future will receive a shock to jerk the needle on a seismograph. The Melbourne Cup, the motive for a public holiday in the state, is the focal point of a racing carnival unparalleled in Europe for its intensity.

There is a local radio station devoted solely to racing and powerful help has been sought on other wavelengths: the weekend's Racing Fraternity Mass offered prayers for the prosperity of the racing community.

Parties and pageants abound in the days leading up to the race and today past winners of the Cup parade through the streets. In recent years included in this procession has been the 1930 victor, Phar Lap, whose stuffed form in a glass case has been wheeled out for the benefit of huge crowds.

Flemington racecourse itself would also present some surprising contrasts to British visitors. At the Victora Derby meeting on Saturday, the track by the Maribyrnong river was graced by a thick carpet of rose petals from the many floral displays but also one of plastic glasses crushed underfoot.

Aussie racegoers take revelry seriously and are not hampered by official constrictions. If Ascot's bowler boys ever tried to operate here the hats would soon be at Freddie 'Parrot-face' Davies level.

When the 100,000 spectators arrive tomorrow for the 132nd Melbourne Cup (run at 5.20am GMT), the richest handicap in the world, and listen to Waltzing Matilda being played as the runners go to post they will share a scepticism about the preparation of Drum Taps and Vintage Crop. Neither has performed for seven weeks, which makes them sloths compared to the local runners, many of whom will be having their third run in a fortnight. Those who fancy Saturday's Mackinnon Stakes winner, The Phantom, the Cup favourite, will be buoyed by the statistic that 17 of the last 20 winners have run at that meeting.

If the build-up has been incongruous, so will be the movements of Lanfranco Dettori and Michael Kinane atop the European challengers. Australia's jockeys have a style to themselves, with the whip being looped round in the home straight in the manner of a crazed bandsman. Riders here earn sobriquets such as 'The Lion Tamer' and 'The Enforcer', and the toll on horses has been such that a repentant ex-jockey once marched up the course with a double-barrelled shotgun and a box of cartridges to persuade former colleagues to alter their techniques.

Dettori, Drum Taps's rider, fears a damaging response if his mount fails to reproduce bouncy work of earlier this week. 'If we finish last they'll laugh at us,' he said yesterday.

Whatever the outcome, the young Italian is enjoying being part of racing's equivalent of a Captain Cook expedition. 'It's great for me to be part of this, part of the first people to come to Australia,' he said.

Apart from 23 opponents, Dettori believes there are other factors which may bring about defeat. 'He's got to overcome the travelling, the quarantine, a different climate and the track, we've got a lot of things against us,' he said. 'But I've been on him and he seems to be in good form.

'There will be a lot of horses out there and I just hope I'm following the right one when we turn into the straight and not one that dies in front of me. Then I'll just go for it.'

Drum Taps, unlike Vintage Crop, stepped off his plane as if pampered in club class, and his trainer, Lord Huntingdon, put that down to the eight-year- old's well-travelled past. 'Our horse is an experienced traveller and once a horse has flown as many miles as he has, he knows what he's in for,' the Queen's trainer said. 'He knows there is nothing too rough at the end of the journey.'

Huntingdon, though, knows the wheel is against him. 'It's a daunting task,' he said. 'A bit like an English Test team coming out to try to win the Ashes. And we haven't got a bodyliner tucked away with us.'

Dermot Weld, Vintage Crop's trainer, feels like a man going into the middle without a bat, as his gelding has been sorely debilitated by his journey. 'The horse is well and I'm satisfied, but he's still a couple of kilos lighter than his ideal racing weight, and I'd like another week here with him,' he said. 'His weight is coming back, his blood picture is getting better and if I'd had a few more days I'd be confident.

'I've been trying to nurse him to put on weight, trying to get a balance between getting work into him and trying to get him eating. Now I can only hope he'll win.' And that's a big ask.

(Photograph omitted)

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