Steven Cargill / RacingFotos
Little did he know it at the time, but when Irish trainer Dermot Weld saddled Vintage Crop to glory in the 1993 Melbourne Cup, he changed the face of the Spring Racing Carnival forever.
Together with renowned owner Sir Michael Smurfit and jockey Mick Kinane, Weld plotted a daring raid to steal the cup from Australian hands. The three amigos duly pulled it off and returned to Ireland with the bulk of the $2,035,000 prizemoney stuffed in their suitcases. Plus the one thing money can’t buy – a lifetime of memories.
Twenty-five years on from that lone raider’s groundbreaking win, the cosmopolitan nature of the Spring Racing Carnival is so ingrained in its enduring appeal, it is hard to imagine life without the annual descent of overseas visitors.
The lucrative prizemoney up for grabs is undoubtedly one reason why the internationals keep coming back, but the accompanying prestige is worth infinitely more than dollar bills.
Michael Owen, the former England footballer who turned his attention to owning and breeding thoroughbreds after a glittering career, has travelled to virtually all the world’s most high-profile race meetings since hanging up his footie boots.
Despite having a Royal Ascot and Dubai Gold Cup winner to his name, in a recent interview with the UK’s Racing Post, Owen was unequivocal when asked to name the most memorable race meeting he had ever attended.
“It has to be the 2013 Melbourne Cup,” said Owen, despite his horse Brown Panther managing only eighth place behind Fiorente.
“I actually retired from football early so I could travel to Melbourne and experience it in person. It was everything I expected, and more.”
Brown Panther is one of 227 internationally-trained horses who have now passed through Racing Victoria’s International Horse Centre at Werribee, en route to competing in the carnival.
Between 1993 and 2008, on average five international horses ran in Spring Carnival races each year. But word soon spread that Victorians embrace thoroughbred racing with a fervour almost unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Since 2009, that number has increased dramatically to an average of 15 horses per year, with more and more connections coming to sample the thrill of Melbourne’s world-renowned festival of racing.
Between them they have taken home more than $41 million and that figure is set to swell this year, with record prizemoney on offer including significant increases to the $7.3 million Lexus Melbourne Cup, $5 million Stella Artois Caulfield Cup and $5 million Ladbrokes Cox Plate.
The Carnival’s three ‘major’ trophies have been won a total of 12 times by overseas raiders.
After Vintage Crop paved the way, a further six horses have triumphed in the Lexus Melbourne Cup including Rekindling, who led the O’Brien clan’s domination of the 2017 edition when he outstayed fellow Irish galloper Johannes Vermeer, trained by Joseph’s father Aidan.
Dunaden, trained in France by Mikel Delzangles, remains the only international to win both the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups, claiming ‘the race that stops a nation’ in 2011 and returning the following year to add the world’s richest turf handicap over 2400m.
A total of four internationals have won the Caulfield Cup but just one has claimed the Cox Plate, renowned as Australasia’s weight-for-age championship.
The potent trainer-jockey combination of Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore prevailed in 2014, since when the race has become synonymous with the mighty mare Winx, officially the world’s highest-rated turf horse.
With several overseas horses already confirmed to travel to Melbourne for this year’s Spring Racing Carnival, another chapter is set to be written in the international success story of Australia’s most prestigious and historic racing festival.