Racing: Vintage Crop the pioneer of Weld's global vision: Regular foreign sorties make sound financial sense to trainers leading Europe's first challenge for the Melbourne Cup next month

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The Independent Online
HATOOF, the French filly, proved on Saturday that international travelling is no bar to success when she captured the Champion Stakes at Newmarket after taking the Louis Bleriot route. This will have been of comfort to those behind two horses that have recently been on the Captain Cook passage to Australia, Vintage Crop and Drum Taps, contestants in the Melbourne Cup.

When these two animals become the first European-trained horses to run at Flemington in 19 days' time, small-worlders will doubtless point out that racing will have, at last, become a global sport.

But, for Dermot Weld and Lord Huntingdon, the respective trainers, the excursion is no more predictable than the one for mariners in the days when the world was meant to end in a waterfall. 'We are pioneers and we'll no doubt make mistakes on this trip,' Weld, Vintage Crop's trainer, says. 'I certainly will learn and hope to do it again in the future.'

Ireland's champion trainer has already shown the atlas has as much prominence as the form book at his Curragh yard. He won the Hong Kong Invitation Bowl in 1991 with Additional Risk, and, uniquely, for a European-trained horse, took a leg of the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, the previous year with Go And Go.

'I've been successful in winning major races on three continents and I want to see if I can do it on a fourth,' he says. 'It's also a tremendous challenge to see if it's possible to take a horse from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere and do well.'

This, however, is also a challenge about money. While racing in Britain remains in such a parlous state financially there will be continuing interest in competing abroad. Weekend trips to the Continent, once considered daring forays, are now commonplace; the Breeders' Cup series is the natural climax to the season for all the best thoroughbreds and now the Melbourne Cup, the fourth richest open race in the world, has been incorporated.

The running rails, though, have had to be moved to ensure Europeans travel to the Antipodes. 'Last year I would have gone but for the quarantine restrictions in Australia,' Weld says. 'I believe the quarantine requirements were archaic, outdated, outmoded and not from this century, but they've been dramatically changed because of all the pressure that Lord Huntingdon and I have exerted on the Australian authorities.'

That means that both horses spent two weeks in isolation here and are currently at the beginning of a similar period at Sandown, the newest of four racecourses in Melbourne.

Vintage Crop, who won the Irish St Leger, beating Drum Taps into fifth, on their latest outing at The Curragh a month ago, is recovering from his journey via Frankfurt, Dubai and Hong Kong. 'From the time he left my yard here until he got to Sandown racetrack he was 38 hours travelling,' Weld says.

Paul Keating, the Australian premier, is unlikely to be supporting Drum Taps, who is trained by a peer who lists the Queen among his owners. The horse, though, travels as well as Alan Whicker, and of his career record of 14 victories from 25 starts, there are wins in the USA, Italy, France and Japan to his name.

'It's asking a lot of our two, but in both cases you've got horses that are proven over the trip, proven as fresh horses and don't seem to mind what type of ground they race on,' Huntingdon says.

While the duo had to travel over 10,000 miles to Australia's second largest city, they will, unlike European runners in the Breeders' Cup in California, be accustomed to the weather. It is springtime in Melbourne.

Locals, used to seeing their horses run preparation races up to two days before the Cup, believe it impossible to win the race after a six-week break. Huntingdon, who has worked in Australia before, concedes they may be right but says he will be bringing back a store of knowledge when he returns to Europe.

'Obviously we are at a bit of a disadvantage, but unless someone tries to do it we'll never know if it's possible,' he says. 'If they have travelled well and run up to their ability, there's no reason why it shouldn't open the doors to other people who might want to take this on. The Melbourne Cup has got such a unique history and place of its own and it's a challenge to see if it can become a truly international race.'

(Photograph omitted)

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