Cummings holds off Cumani's raid
Wednesday 05 November 2008
The race that stops a nation seems to have precisely the opposite effect on nationalism. Few locals, certainly, will trouble themselves with the detail that Bauer, beaten yesterday by the narrowest margin in Melbourne Cup history, is trained by an Italian for a syndicate including a former Australian Test cricketer in Simon O'Donnell. All that mattered was that a breakthrough success for a British stable had been thwarted by Bart Cummings – the octogenarian titan of the Australian Turf, who had not only won the race 11 times already, but has also become the rallying point for resentment of growing European interest in the race.
Instead it became an excruciating, exasperating day for the raiders. Luca Cumani, beaten half a length with Purple Moon last year, this time flew Bauer halfway round the world to be beaten half an inch. Aidan O'Brien, meanwhile, was halfway through his dinner when summoned back by the stewards to discuss the feebleness of his three runners.
In fairness, Cummings expressed his regard and sympathy for Cumani, whose masterful preparation again brought the prize agonisingly within reach. Last year, Purple Moon looked sure to win after leading in the straight, only to be run down close home; this time, Bauer left his charge just a stride too late, failing by a nose to catch the 40-1 shot, Viewed.
"When I saw him coming down the centre of the track, closing, closing, closing, my heart was in my mouth," Cumani said. "I didn't know the result, it was too close to call. We are getting closer, and we'll keep trying. Although it is frustrating to be beaten so narrowly, on the other hand he has run a great race. We are very proud of him."
Connections of Yellowstone had endured their own, shattering frustration when scratching him on the eve of the race. Prior to his withdrawal John Egan, his jockey, was fined Aus$8,000 for saying on television that a couple of "tinpot Hitlers" would not spoil his trip – interpreted as a reference to the official vets monitoring the horse.
As things turned out, that acrimonious tone subsisted to the end and there was much indignation when O'Brien returned to Flemington, all three of the Ballydoyle jockeys having emerged stonily from an inquiry into their tactics. The stewards were concerned that Wayne Lordan, who made much of the running before fading rapidly on Alessandro Volta, had covered the first mile five seconds faster than the leader last year – an interval approximating to 30 lengths. They were evidently tempted to view his riding as designed purely to guarantee the pace for Johnny Murtagh, on the stable's principal candidate, Septimus. As such Lordan might have been charged with failing to ride Alessandro Volta to achieve the best possible placing, an offence that would incur severe punishment.
Having been punished clumsily over the riding of a pacemaker at Newmarket in August, O'Brien will have been infuriated by these latest disciplinary broodings, although the stewards ultimately exonerated the Ballydoyle team. Septimus and Honolulu finished lame, while O'Brien felt Alessandro Volta had also curled up on the firm ground.
All in all, however, it was a disastrous end to a year the stable had dominated in Europe. Its horses filled three of the last four places. But while the stewards might be accused of sharing something of the insularity and paranoia prompted by growing foreign involvement, there was another, more legitimate question to be asked. Why, barely a fortnight after the stable forced a hare-brained tempo in the Breeders' Cup Turf, did the three Ballydoyle riders charge six lengths clear in mid-race? O'Brien rightly argues that his pacemakers tend to ensure fair results, but at the moment they are instead giving the stable's rivals an advantage.
It hardly helped that conditions should have been so firm. That was always a risk, of course, and a measure of the many incalculable factors that make the Melbourne Cup such a high-risk adventure. "There's a lot we have to learn," O'Brien had said after the race. "That's putting it mildly."
His pioneering compatriot, Dermot Weld, has in contrast won the race twice already and Proud Beauty ran an excellent fifth, two places ahead of Cumani's other runner, Mad Rush. But it is an expensive, audacious business, coming to Melbourne, and people like Cummings should respect that. In turn, he already has the ungrudging admiration of those he denied yesterday. Cumani called him a living legend, and O'Brien declared him a very special man. "Maybe I could go and work for him for a while," he mused.
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