Racing: Melbourne reaps a bumper Crop: The organisers of Australia's most prestigious contest are thinking big after last year's successful European raid

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a mission like leaving your address at a burglars' convention after your house has been ransacked. For the past month, Les Benton, the racing manager of the Victoria Racing Club, has been in Europe drumming up support for the Melbourne Cup, attempting to get horses down to Australia to challenge for the hottest of Australian racing prizes.

Vintage Crop liberated the trophy to the northern hemisphere for the first time nine months ago and it may be that an even stronger task force will descend on Melbourne on the first Tuesday in November this year.

When Benton returns home tomorrow he will have an impressive portfolio to show his paymasters. He expects a record 20 European entries to be made for the race, including Apple Tree from France, White Muzzle, Bob's Return and Morley Street from Britain, plus, of course, a return for Vintage Crop, who may be accompanied by stablemate Fortune And Fame, and another Irish horse, Tommy Stack's Zimzalabim.

Benton recollected Vintage Crop's groundbreaking success yesterday. 'It was the first time a horse had come from the northern hemisphere on a hit-and-run visit and won,' he said. There were his countrymen who also talked in the language of theft to describe the Irish horse's win, and pressure has led to a change in the conditions of the race.

The weights for the Adollars 2m ( pounds 1m) handicap, which used to be announced on 31 July, will now come on 1 September to allow Antipodean handicappers more time to assess European form. This may not help them in Vintage Crop's case, however.

The seven-year-old's final preparatory race will be in the Irish St Leger, a race he won last year, after the weights have been published. Rather strangely for an event which penalises handicap winners after weight publication, the gelding's mark will stay the same even if he wins the Group One event.

It must be noted that the chestnut has not been near his peak this season, giving little for the Australian officials to go on. 'It has been said in Ireland that he's a better horse this year, but I think he's exactly the same and, if anything, I think he's a little bit keener,' Dermot Weld, his trainer, says. Weld probably thinks it politic not to trumpet his horse before the weights come out.

The trainer is currently scrutinising the Antipodean programme book to ascertain how many equine members of Rosewell House will be accompanying him Down Under. The Cup is the centrepiece of a Melbourne carnival that offers other rich events, while, in late October and early November, there are also valuable pots at other Australian tracks. 'It's important to have the right horse or horses - in the Melbourne Cup for example you need a stayer who also has plenty of speed - but if I can find them I'll certainly bring them,' he said.

With the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in Kentucky an option for many of the Flemington considerations and an estimated travelling cost of pounds 30,000, the actual European consignment to Victoria remains unclear, though Zimzalabim is already a definite entry. Andre Fabre's Apple Tree must also have prospects of turning up, if only because his trainer has yet to win the race and was probably not taken with the description of Weld as Europe's most complete man in the trade after last November's running.

Whatever the final cast list, though, they can at least draw comfort that they are dealing in the art of the possible. Vintage Crop pioneered the venture successfully last year and he must now try to do what only Archer, Rain Lover and Think Big have managed in the 133-year history of the race and win back-to-back Melbourne Cups.

(Photograph omitted)