They say the Melbourne Cup is below standard this year, and the Breeders' Cup races in the United States will not take much winning either. Those, however, persuaded to wait at British arrival gates for heroes returning with great foreign gifts had better prepare the volume of provisions with which Marco Polo used to stuff his knapsacks.
The cavalcade for Breeders' Cup XIV, which will be staged in Los Angeles on Saturday, is only just forming, but the 137th Melbourne Cup is almost upon us. The "race that stops a nation" will punctuate the energetic parties across Australia tomorrow afternoon local time. This timing is at least good news for British postmen, for as the snap snaps they can watch the contest live over their breakfast at 4.20am on Tuesday's Sky News.
Unlike us, the United States and Australia have stars on their national flags and they are also likely to provide the twinkling elements on the race track. After years of hubris, Britain's racing folk have learned to temper their expectations when it comes to far-flung forays.
Arabian Story and Harbour Dues form the British representation at Flemington and there is particular interest in the former as he is owned by the Queen. The grey horse has drawn barrier number nine of the 22 runners for the big race, which is considered ideal. It is some consolation for the beastly way the monarch has been treated elsewhere in the Commonwealth of late. Harbour Dues got 17, but then his trainer is a lesser figure in the aristocratic pyramid, Lady Herries.
Thunderstorms curled around Flemington on Friday evening, but the weather improved for the following Derby day. About 65,000 appreciated the improving climate that afternoon and a crowd of close to 100,000 is expected tomorrow. Conditions are expected, like the Poms' beer, to be clear and warm. The going will be good. Frankie Dettori, the partner of Arabian Story, was due to fly in early today and will later join a parade in open-top cars.
It is not only living legends that come out to play for these processions, but also the dead. On occasions the stuffed carcass of Phar Lap, Australia's Red Rum, is liberated from the city's National Museum to gaze glassily at the crowds down Bourke Street.
Phar Lap was the big, ugly gelding who became such a favourite for the 1930 Melbourne Cup that a marksman operating for the bookmakers tried to shoot him after exercise at Flemington. Phar Lap was taken to a safe stable and appeared just before the off. He ran so quickly that the cross hairs could not keep up with him and won under top weight. Later, during a trip to Mexico, he was poisoned. It's a story to fair warm an ocker's heart.
Arabian Story and Harbour Dues completed the 24-hour flight to Melbourne's Tulamarine Airport almost three weeks ago now and such was the leniency in their subsequent training regimes that they both quickly weighed heavier than when they set off. Both are now race taut, and slight preference locally is for the Queen's horse, as his work has been more colourful. Harbour Dues, it must be said, has never had a reputation as a sizzler on the gallops.
The pair have already met twice this season, Arabian Story initially getting the better of the argument at our Derby meeting. Harbour Dues gained revenge in what sounded like a golf tournament, the Scandinavian Open Championship at Klampenborg, Copenhagen, in early August and as he has proved his worth on the road and is at slightly longer odds the four- year-old appears the better of our two. He has never finished worse than fourth in 13 starts.
This is not to say that the Melbourne Cup is an event on which to stake your mortgage, even if such sums would be readily accepted by the Victoria layers. Bets of up to Aus$1m (pounds 450,000) have been noted at the carnival. Indeed, Australia's bookmakers must guarantee to lay significant wagers.
They know how to party at the time of their biggest race, and the Australians also approve of speculating on it. About Aus$50m will be wagered nationwide when you include the revenue from the off-course TABs, which means every man, woman and child on the continent will have an average of three or four dollars on the race. Some of that will be going on the Queen's horse and they really ought to let her win. After all, they named the state after her great-great grandmother.
MELBOURNE CUP (Flemington, tomorrow): Ladbrokes: 9-2 Doriemus, 5-1 Might And Power, 9-1 Ebony Grove, Linesman, 10-1 Always Aloof, Marble Halls, 12-1 Skybeau, 14-1 Alfa, Arabian Story, Vialli, 16-1 Grandmaster, Harbour Dues, Markham.