It took him 30 years and cost millions of dollars, but Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum finally landed the elusive Melbourne Cup last year. Now he’s back, aiming for a repeat with defending champion Cross Counter.
It’s not the money he is after. Sheikh Mohammed, after all, is also Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. It’s the love of the sport, stemming back to a youthful passion for horses, and a first exposure to racing while a student at Cambridge University in the 1960s.
Despite fielding the first of scores of runners in the Melbourne showpiece in 1988, and pumping a reported A$1.1 billion ($800 million) into Australian racing, his powerhouse Godolphin racing operation had always been luckless in the “race that stops a nation,” as the Flemington feature is known.
That was until Cross Counter, ridden by Kerrin McEvoy, snapped the streak last year. “This is everybody’s dream,” said trainer Charlie Appleby, who became the first British handler to win the cup.
“This is all down to Sheikh Mohammed, he’s the one that’s given us all the encouragement to take the chances in what we do internationally.”
The Godolphin giant continues to rake in cash — its Saeed bin Suroor-trained Thunder Snow won back-to-back Dubai World Cups in 2018 and 2019. This year’s first prize was an eye-watering $7.2 million.
But at the other end of the conveyor belt, Sheikh Mohammed spent about $4.4 million on a single horse at the recent Tattersalls yearling sales before splashing out another $4.1 million the following day on a son of legendary race horse Frankel to feed the pipeline of talent for Godolphin.
The Melbourne Cup commands a prize fund of about $5.5 million with about $3 million going to the champion along with the iconic three-handled trophy, hand-spun from 18 carat gold from Australian mines and valued at about $138,000, according to organizers.
Cross Counter’s team are confident.
“We think he’s the best horse in the race, so he’ll take a lot of beating,”Appleby’s traveling foreman Chris Connett said Monday, according to The Age.
However, history is against them. The last back-to-back winner was Makybe Diva, who won three times in a row from 2003.
‘Special place in history’
The Melbourne Cup, always held on the first Tuesday of November, is one of the world’s most revered races and the highlight of a week-long carnival of racing, fashion, food and culture.
“Australians love their sport, but the Melbourne Cup holds a very special place in history,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the event website.
Flemington, which has hosted the famous race since 1861, will welcome more than 300,000 visitors across the four race days of the carnival beginning with Derby Day Saturday.
Melbourne Cup day itself is a public holiday in the state of Victoria, with more than 2.5 million tuning in on TV across the country.
The 2018 event contributed a record $309 million in gross economic benefit to the state of Victoria. Of that, $47.9 million was on retail spending including fashion and grooming, according to a study commissioned by organizer the Victoria Racing Club.
“The Melbourne Cup Carnival holds a unique place in the hearts and minds of Australians,” said Amanda Elliott, chairman of the Victoria Racing Club, organizer of the Melbourne Cup Carnival.
‘Ordinary to extraordinary’
At the course, in the northwest suburbs of Melbourne next to the Maribyrnong River, racegoers dressed in their finery will enjoy all manner of hospitality in enclosures such as the lively family-friendly Park, the exclusive Club Stand — revamped last year to the tune of $88 million — and the trendy Birdcage hospitality area, the renowned playground of the rich, famous and those with the right connections.
The Birdcage features chic bars, restaurants and corporate marquees all bidding to outdo each other in the style, gastronomy and “experience” stakes. The aim is to create a “spine-tingling” atmosphere, according to VRC chief executive Neil Wilson.
Title sponsor Lexus, for example, has created a three-storey pavilion known as Landmark, with a bamboo gate designed by Sydney-based architect Koichi Takada — a feature said to take guests from the “ordinary to extraordinary.”
Champagne House G.H. Mumm says it is bringing a “boutique Parisian hotel” — dubbed “Maison Mumm Hotel” — to the Birdcage. It will be a “world of five-star style, celebration and champagne,” according to a statement.
Fashion plays a huge part in the Melbourne Cup experience for many, with lucrative prizes for the best dressed. The My Fashions on the Field competition is in its 58th year with a prize fund of more than $300,000.
“Growing up, the Melbourne Cup Carnival was the biggest event on the social calendar. I’m so thrilled to be able to have this role with an event that’s always meant so much to me,” said fashion ambassador Crystal Kimber on the event’s website.
Nonetheless, controversy is threatening to overshadow the event following a broadcast on Australia’s ABC 7.30 TV program highlighting race horses being sent to slaughterhouses.
A group of vocal protestors demonstrated at Monday’s traditional Melbourne Cup parade of competing jockeys, trainers and owners being driven through the streets of the city, with more protests planned for Flemington Tuesday, according to the Guardian.
In the fall out, Racing Victoria said it will contribute $17 million to improving race horse welfare.