Australians and New Zealanders, they say, will bet on anything that moves. If it doesn’t move, then they will kick it and bet on it when it starts to move. The contest that even once-a-year gamblers Down Under like to wager on is the Melbourne Cup at the Flemington Park track in Victoria and, for once, an advertising slogan – “the race that stops the nation” – rings true.

On the first Tuesday in November at Flemington, 24 horses race over 3,200 metres – about two miles – for a first prize of A$5m, the sixth-richest race in the world. The crowd of some 110,000 traditionally dress in their finest or in fancy dress. Don’t be surprised to see gorillas and nuns buying Tote tickets.

The race has been run since 1861 when Archer, reputed to have walked 800km in order to participate, won the first prize of £170 and a gold watch.

This year’s race has a sad restriction. Australia’s racing industry this year has been devastated by an outbreak of equine influenza that has meant the banning of horse movements in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. Sydney’s own racing carnival was cancelled and Victoria’s authorities are taking no risks, with 24-hour security controls on the border between their state and New South Wales.

John Brumby, Victoria’s premier, says: “In the unlikely event of an outbreak of EI elsewhere in the state, Caulfield [another Melbourne racecourse] and Flemington can be locked down and kept as an exclusion zone, allowing racing to continue.”

To the chagrin of some Australian trainers, international contestants will still be allowed to race in Melbourne, having been inoculated against the flu and after two weeks’ quarantine at home and another fortnight of it in Australia. Foreigners regularly chase the rich prize, and the first two home in last year’s race, Delta Blues and Pop Rock, came from Japan.

The flu epidemic has this year deterred contestants from Hong Kong and Japan but the top three in the
betting include Purple
Moon, trained in Britain
by Luca Cumani, and Mahler, handled in Ireland by Aidan O’Brien.

O’Brien has had cruel luck lately. One of his stable stars, George Washington, broke a leg in the Breeders’ Cup meeting in New Jersey, US, last weekend and was put down. Then his Scorpion, an English St Leger winner who was sent to Australia to run his last race
in Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup, injured a leg in training
two days later and has now been retired.

Mahler, an 8/1 shot, was second in this year’s St Leger. Cumani, who calls the Irish horse a “cruiser and a grinder” that likes to dominate from the front, believes he may change the style of this year’s race, ensuring a more even pace. Normally in the Melbourne Cup, the horses go hell for leather to grab a good position at the first bend then ease for several furlongs before winding up to a frantic finish.

But Purple Moon, who won at Goodwood this season and then triumphed comfortably in the Ebor Handicap at York, has the tactical speed to run an Australian-style race if necessary. He will be ridden by Australian jockey Damien Oliver, twice a winner of the Cup. Purple Moon’s Ebor rider, Jamie Spencer, opted some time ago to remain in Britain in order to pursue his quest for the national jockeys’ championship.

The favourite is Master O’Reilly, recent winner of the Caulfield Cup in which Purple Moon, who was boxed in by other runners, was a fast-finishing sixth. Trainer Danny O’Brien also runs Douro Valley, second in that race to Master O’Reilly.

Other big Australian hopes include Efficient, who won last year’s Victoria Derby, and Graeme Rogerson’s Zipping, who guaranteed his place in the field with victory in this week’s Moonee Valley Cup over 2,500m.

New Zealand’s best hope is the filly Princess Coup, trained at Matamata by Mark Walker. Having been replaced on the horse’s last run, the 52-year-old veteran rider Noel Harris is back on Princess Coup, 34 years after his first ride at the Cup meeting. Harris greeted his reinstatement by declaring: “God works in mysterious ways and you never know your luck in a big town.”

He must have a chance, though Purple Moon has class and Master O’Reilly is a worthy favourite. He is improving at the right time and 11 horses have completed the Caulfield Cup/Melbourne Cup double.

Punters looking for a long-priced each-way shot should note the third foreign runner Tungsten Strike, trained in Britain by Amanda Perrett. He won at Ascot in May over the Melbourne Cup distance and is available at 33/1.

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