|Lexus Melbourne Cup|
|Venue: Flemington racecourse Date: Tuesday, 5 November Time: 04:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Full report on BBC Sport website: news on BBC Radio 5 Live|
During a pretty remarkable 12 months on the international stage for UK-based athletes – even if not quite everyone ended up with a winners’ trophy – the achievements of Cross Counter should not be forgotten.
Victory in the AU $8m (£4.3m) Melbourne Cup in 2018 for the four-year-old, part of Sheikh Mohammed’s Newmarket-based Godolphin operation, was a significant first.
Though Irish, French and German challengers had won the iconic Australian sporting event that famously ‘stops a nation’ on the first Tuesday of November, no horse prepared in Britain had previously been successful.
And now trainer Charlie Appleby has brought Cross Counter back to Flemington for the 158th staging of the Melbourne Cup, looking to become only the sixth dual winner – of which, just one, the legendary Makybe Diva (2003-2005), went on to add a third.
Godolphin jockey William Buick takes the ride on the runner that has been allotted 57.5kg [9st 1lb], the most weight in the handicap. A draw at number five in the stalls is favourable.
The betting puts Cross Counter just behind the favourites, but hopes are high of a repeat.
“He’s travelled down beautifully,” Appleby’s assistant Chris Connett told the Godolphin website. “He’s really bright, really keen.
“His work [training] has been really solid… all the signs are that he’s just about primed for the day.
“There’s slightly more pressure on him being the defending champ, but in another way there’s less pressure because he’s not had a week standing his box like last year after he had a little mishap [cut a leg].”
Welfare concerns in build-up
While the Melbourne Cup retains its legendary status in Aussie sport, the race could still do with what might be described as a ‘good’ result.
The fact overseas challengers have dominated the latest results – since 2010, five winners have been from Europe – is minor compared to the pressures under which the sport in Australia increasingly finds itself.
Protests over welfare following the deaths of six horses as a result of injuries sustained in recent Melbourne Cups have intensified since the airing of a TV documentary detailing the brutal ending of the lives of racehorses in a Queensland abattoir.
On top of all that, a number of trainers have become embroiled in a doping scandal, and there have been other allegations of wrongdoing.
It is believed pressure from animal rights campaigners influenced American singer Taylor Swift’s decision to pull out of being the headline act at Flemington on the big day – officially it was because of ‘a recent change to her Asian promotional tour’.
In 2019, European runners are due to make up nearly half of the field though it would have been more had the Hughie Morrison-trained Marmelo, runner-up to Cross Counter in 2018, and Godolphin’s Ispolini not been controversially ruled out by stewards on the advice of their vets.
The life of O’Briens
Fresh from becoming, at 26, the youngest trainer to saddle a winner at the Breeders’ Cup fixture in America, Ireland’s Joseph O’Brien has four hopefuls as he chases – already – a second Cup success, following Rekindling in 2017.
The quartet includes Master Of Reality, with jockey Frankie Dettori, 48, looking for his first triumph in the big race.
Famously, the prize also remains a gap in the CV of O’Brien’s champion trainer-father Aidan, one of whose runners, Johannes Vermeer, was runner-up behind Rekindling.
O’Brien senior has three in the line-up, a trio perhaps headed by Il Paradiso and Wayne Lordan, the jockey who partnered Joseph’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Iridessa.
The Charlie Fellowes-trained Prince Of Arran – caught late on and third in 2018 – has again travelled down under from the UK, and won October’s Geelong Cup.
Completing the European contingent is Raymond Tusk, trained by Richard Hannon in Wiltshire, and fourth in York’s Ebor Handicap behind Mustajeer, which is now Aussie-owned and trained and also in the field.
The leading contenders are Constantinople, formerly with Aidan O’Brien; 2018’s fourth-placed horse Finche, ridden by three-time winning jockey Kerrin McEvoy; and the Japanese raider Mer De Glace, looking to continue a good run for Japan in major Aussie horse racing prizes.