The late Bart Cummings, known as the “Cups King” for training the winners of 12 Melbourne Cups, had what he called the 10,000-metre rule.
For the horses that the master trainer set for the Melbourne Cup, Cummings wanted them to have run at least 10,000m in lead-up races before the first Tuesday in November.
Not everyone subscribed to his theory, although obviously it proved very successful in its day, with wins from 1964 to 2008.
The numbers may have changed today, but the concept remains the same — getting kilometres into the legs, getting the equine athlete’s muscle memory used to running long distances.
The trick with Melbourne Cup runners is trying to qualify them for the race that everyone wants to win, without having to win too many races that will result in too big a weight from the handicapper.
Cummings’s last winner, Viewed, managed 9,640m before his narrow win over Bauer in 2008.
The following year, Cup winner Shocking for trainer Mark Kavanagh did crack the 10-kilometre mark before taking the big prize on the first Tuesday in November. Since then, however, no winner has run that far in the lead-up to the Cup.
The race has changed, and with it have gone a whole lot of assumptions and rules about how people should train horses to win the Cup.
For Cummings and others, if you had a Cup chance it was almost automatic that they would have their last lead-up run on Derby Day, three days out from the big race.
For example on Derby Day 2008, Viewed ran in the Group One Mackinnon Stakes and finished last of the 11 runners.
Three days later, carrying 6 kilos less than he had in the Mackinnon, Viewed hit the front at the 400m of the Melbourne Cup and went on to hold off Bauer by a nose.
Under the Cummings-style plan, horses would run in four or five lead-up races on Australian soil before the Cup. Races like the Turnbull Stakes (2,000m) at Flemington, the Herbert Power Stakes at Caulfield (2,400m) and the Caulfield Cup (2,400m), the Mooney Valley Cup (2,500m) and the Mackinnon (2,000m) were some of the likely targets.
The race had already begun changing by Cummings’s 11th Cup win with Rogan Josh in 1999, and had only accelerated by the time of his last win with Viewed in 2008.
The tendency of international horses to do a “hit-and-run” attempt on the Cup, with one or no lead-up races in Australia prior to Cup day, was initially written off by pundits as a strategy. Only Ireland’s Vintage Crop was successful early on, in 1993, for Dermot Weld.
But then Weld did it again with Media Puzzle in 2002, with just the Geelong Cup as a lead-up. Japan’s Delta Blues won in 2006 with just the Caulfield Cup as a lead-up. American (2010) and Dunaden (2011) matched Media Puzzle’s approach to winning the Cup.
Germany’s Protectionist won in 2014 after one run in the Herbert Power Stakes at Caulfield.
And then came the return to the Vintage Crop plan of attack, as Rekindling (2017), Cross Counter (2018) and Twilight Payment (last year) took out the Cup on their first race after arriving from Britain or Ireland.
No horse — Australian or international — has won the race that stops the nation after running on Derby Day since Shocking won the Hotham Handicap before backing up for victory in the Cup in 2009.
What about this year?
Four horses did the Caulfield Cup — Melbourne Cup double between Bart Cummings’s Let’s Elope in 1991 and Ethereal 10 years later. And no-one has done it since — but this year could be it.
Eleven horses in this year’s 24-horse field ran in last month’s Caulfield Cup. It wasn’t the perfect form guide, since the race was held on soft ground and the Melbourne Cup will be on dry, firm ground.
Nevertheless, one of the reasons why Incentivise is the shortest price Melbourne Cup favourite since Phar Lap in 1930 is because of what the Peter Moody-trained horse did at Caulfield.
There are five “ballot-exempt” races where winning guarantees a start in the Melbourne Cup — the Andrew Ramsden Stakes, The Bart Cummings, the Caulfield Cup, the Cox Plate and the Hotham Handicap. Only three of the five winners of these races are racing in this year’s Cup.
Aside from these races, in general, running solidly or well in lead-up races is the thing, not necessarily winning them.
The last winner of the Turnbull Stakes to win the Cup in the same year was Green Moon in 2012.
The last winner of the Herbert Power Stakes to win the Cup was Rogan Josh in 1999.
The aforementioned Ethereal was the last Caulfield Cup winner to go on and take the Cup 20 years ago.
No horse has won the Craiglee Stakes (Makybe Diva Stakes) and the Melbourne Cup in the same year since Rain Lover in the 1960s.
Going into the Melbourne Cup, Incentivise has won nine straight races, including the Makybe Diva Stakes, the Turnbull Stakes and the Caulfield Cup.
If he goes on to win with 57kg, including the 1.5kg weight penalty for winning the Caulfield Cup, he will join the great Makybe Diva (her third Cup win in 2005) as the only horse to carry 57kg or more to victory in the Melbourne Cup in 44 years (Gold and Black in 1977).
Looking back to Bart Cummings’ 10,000m rule, Chris Waller’s Great House clinched a spot in this year’s field in the Hotham Handicap (2,500m) on Saturday.
That made a total of 9,600m since mid-September, a very Cummings-like prep.
But if you include earlier runs, it’s 11,600m since Aug 21, 13,100m since Aug 7, 14,130m since Jul 30 (a trial rather than a race), 15,900m since July 17 and a massive 17,700m since June 26.
Most horses in this year’s race have run between 6,000 and 9,000m in the lead-up to the Cup.
But both the distances run in preparation and the number of races run prior to the Cup can differ radically.
Prince of Arran — who came third in last year’s Cup — had just one race either side of travelling to Australia from England, the September Stakes (2,413m) and the Caulfield Cup. Prior to that he had had an 11-week break or “spell”.
The horse that came second, Aidan O’Brien’s Tiger Moth, came into the Cup off just one race in 18 weeks, the 2,400m Kilternan Stakes.
This year, Twilight Payment is trying for back-to-back Cup wins, using the same no Australian lead-up strategy — the Joseph O’Brien horse came second in the Irish St Leger (2,816m) before heading Down Under.
The other main international, Spanish Mission, came second behind famous European stayer Stradivarius in the Lonsdale Cup (3,270m) in August. Like Tiger Moth in 2020, that is his only start in 136 days (or 18 weeks) going into the Cup.
For the internationals, some of the usual key lead-up races include the Prix Kergorlay (3,000m) at Deauville in France, the Irish St Leger and the Curragh Cup (both 2,816m) at the Curragh in Ireland, the Ebor Handicap (2,787m) at York in England and the Lonsdale Cup (3,270m) also at York.
Aside from the Caulfield Cup runners, Twilight Payment and Spanish Mission, the final lead-up races for the field include:
- The Geelong Cup (Tralee Rose, Knights Order, Johnny Get Angry)
- The Moonee Valley Cup (Miami Bound, Pondus, Future Score, Floating Artist)
- The Bart Cummings (Grand Promenade)
- The Cox Plate (Verry Elleegant)
- The City Tattersalls Club Cup (Carif)
- The St Leger at Doncaster in England (the Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Mott-trained import Sir Lucan).