The 159th running of the Melbourne Cup will provide an interesting challenge for champion Australian trainers David Hayes and Chris Waller.
Both trainers will be represented by former European trained gallopers now predominantly owned in Australian interests and the stakes are high for both, with Hayes saddling up likely second favourite Constantinople and Waller the well found Finche.
Constantinople joined Lindsay Park from Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle stable in Ireland and immediately swept into Cup contention with a similar profile to last year's winner Cross Counter.
That profile comes about by virtue of having run in the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood and the Great Voltigeur at York – two major three-year-old prizes for three-year-olds over middle distances in the UK summer.
Cross Counter won the Gordon and produced a performance well in advance of Constantinople's 116 rating there but Constantinople ran about and looked still very much a work in progress around the quirky Goodwood circuit.
He looked a bit more straightforward but still far from the finished article when improving on that rating at York, producing a career high 120 rating in the Great Voltigeur when chasing a budding superstar in Logician in very sharp overall figures.
Both the time and the closing sectionals hinted at that being a particularly strong contest, for all that it was light on for numbers, and while Cross Counter came to Australia rated 124 Constantinople's 120 rating could quickly be improved upon.
A sign that further improvement was clearly achievable was on display at his debut run in the Caulfield Cup finishing a most unlucky fourth, beaten just over a length behind Japanese winner Mer De Glace and pushing his Timeform rating to 122, with the prospect of more to come still.
Wearing pacifiers, Constantinople showed no sign of the quirks he displayed in Britain, finishing the 2400m off powerfully from 14th on the home turn after encountering plenty of trouble during the race.
That run will bring the three-year-old on immensely and further improvement can be expected, especially at the roomier Flemington course where he will get every opportunity to become the third northern hemisphere bred three-year-old to win the Cup in as many years.
It seems inevitable that at some point Chris Waller will add a Melbourne Cup to his ever-growing trophy cabinet.
Waller has been represented by 18 Cup runners for just one placing, Who Shot Thebarman third in 2015, but in former French galloper Finche he has a fine candidate going into 2019.
Finche ran in the 2018 Melbourne Cup and finished fourth, a very solid effort at just his second Australian start, having blown away the cobwebs with a third in the Geelong Cup.
It wasn't a strong Geelong Cup but Finche was the best performance there judged on ratings, returning a Timeform rating of 116, and he was able to build on that when running 119 at Flemington.
That 119 sits just 1lb below his peak rating of 120, achieved in France when winning the Group 3 Prix De Reux over 2500m, beating a handful of smart stayers including Tiberian and Called To The Bar.
There he showed tactical speed and his big stride and stamina were put to good use. The ability to take up a position is obviously a key asset and tactical versatility certainly helps when it comes to trying to win a Melbourne Cup.
Already qualified for the Melbourne Cup, Waller has carefully planned his racing programme to be fifth run back into the Cup.
After winning at Randwick second up over 2000m at Randwick, Finche was just touched off in the Turnbull Stakes before a luckless fifth in the Caulfield Cup last time out.
On that occasion, after starting from barrier 15, Finche was three and four wide throughout. He momentarily got to the lead in the straight but was eventually swamped ending up a close fifth.
Already proven over 3200m, Finche will relish the assignment this afternoon and is certain to be in proceedings for a long way.
Mer De Glace brought an outstanding profile down under this spring and has already given locals a taste of his ability with an emphatic victory in the Caulfield Cup at his first run on Australian soil.
Despite drawing wide, Damien Lane was able to switch the stallion off with cover back in the field early then produce him with a barnstorming run around the field approaching the home turn running out a convincing winner from Vow And Declare.
Prior to coming to Australia, he strung together a trio of Group 3 victories including Hanshin's Naruo Kinen which he took out in most impressive fashion, recording a Timeform rating of 121 and giving the impression, with a sharp turn-of-foot, that there was plenty more to come from him – something we witnessed at Caulfield.
It is worth remembering that his 121 rating in the Naruo Kinen is the best in the recent history of the race and that's not insignificant. The race has been won by some terrific horses, notably in recent years by Lovely Day who used the race as a springboard to winning the Takarazuka Kinen and Tenno Sho in 2015.
His Caulfield Cup win underlines the strength of that Japanese form and while Mer de Glace is an exciting prospect there does remain a slight query over his ability to produce a similar effort in the Melbourne Cup, especially as he received a one kilo penalty and the recent poor record of Caulfield Cup winners in the Melbourne Cup. Since 2001, 12 have attempted the double - all have missed a place at Flemington.
The dour Vow And Declare has been a late Cup candidate, not appearing this spring until the Turnbull Stakes where he ran a surprisingly excellent race for fourth just under two lengths from the winner.
He made further improvement off that last start to finish second in the Caulfield Cup getting to the line better than most in what was an eye-catching Melbourne Cup trial.
Vow And Declare was runner up to Mr Quickie in the Queensland Derby at three then finished off that season with a comprehensive win over 3000m against older stayers in the Tattersalls Cup at Eagle Farm, thrashing handy stayer Big Duke.
Only lightly raced, Vow And Declare will relish the step up to 3200m today and should make further improvement off his 117 Timeform rating.
The best Australian hope of wresting the Cup away from the international runners lies with Surprise Baby who earned his spot in the race by winning the Bart Cummings at his last run in early October.
The New Zealand bred stayer, by former Melbourne Cup winner Shocking, will tackle the Cup third run back from a spell and after a 31 day layoff.
However, the lack of a recent lead up run should not be any concern as he thrives off a light preparation.
While the quality of the opposition in the Bart Cummings was not overly strong, Surprise Baby shouldered 57kgs to victory with the third placed Wolfe subsequently confirming the form by winning the Coongy Handicap at his next run.
Saturday's Hotham Stakes winner Downdraft is hitting peak form at the right time – an effort that from a historical aspect brings him right into calculations this afternoon.
On a soft racing surface, Downdraft carried 59kgs to an easy victory – the highest weight carried to win the race in 62 years.
Historically, in recent times, horses that carry big weights to win the Hotham invariably run well in the Cup. Last year Prince Of Arran carried 57.5kgs to win the Hotham before running a game third behind Cross Counter. Other recent Hotham winners with big weights to race well in the Cup include Sign Off, Maybe Better, Kellini and 2000 Cup winner Brew.
Joseph O'Brien bought a fresh Downdraft to Australia who debuted in the Moonee Valley Cup running third to Hunting Horn validating the 115 Timeform rating he ran at his last prior in Ireland when third in the Irish St Leger Trial behind Southern France.
Victory in the Hotham has seen Downdraft push his Timeform rating to a new career peak of 118, the same level that Prince Of Arran ran last year and one of the highest rated winners of the race in recent years.
While son Joseph has already tasted Melbourne Cup success, the race has so far eluded champion trainer Aidan O'Brien who went so close with Johannes Vermeer in the 2017. This afternoon Aidan runs three, Magic Wand, Il Paradiso and Hunting Horn.
Magic Wand is clearly superior on Timeform ratings and ran well enough in the Cox Plate behind Japanese star Lys Gracieux to keep her under consideration.
Prior to the Cox Plate, Magic Wand has chased home fellow inmate Magical in the Irish Champion Stakes and Bricks And Mortar in the Arlington Million.
While unproven at 3200m, generally strong European 2400m form is sufficient for the Cup and as a Ribblesdale winner, Magic Wand ticks that box but the extreme outside barrier is no help.
Hunting Horn bounced into Cup considerations winning The Moonee Valley Cup over 2500m last time but will need to make further improvement off his 117 Timeform rating there.
Three-year-old Il Paradiso is an interesting runner. Only lightly raced he contested the Irish Derby won by Sovereign after winning a Leopardstown maiden in May.
After failing to measure up there, he then scored over 2400m by 12 lengths at the Curragh in restricted class before stepping up sharply in grade again to tackle the likes of Stradivarius in the G2 Lonsdale Cup, finishing a handy third.
Last time out he was well fancied in the St Leger behind Logician but folded badly in the closing stages to finish fifth.
The way O'Brien has placed this three-year-old seems to indicate he has shown the stable more promise than he has demonstrated on the race track. However, a repeat of the Lonsdale run does see him competitive.
Former Sir Michael Stoute-trained galloper Mirage Dancer ran very well at his debut Australian run when third in the Caulfield Cup and stays under notice as does last year's Cup third placing Prince Of Arran who is yet to run a bad race in five Australian runs, winning twice.
Enjoy the race.
TOP TIMEFORM WEIGHT ADJUSTED RATINGS
FOR THE 2019 MELBOURNE CUP
|Vow And Declare||141|
|Mer De Glace||140|
|Prince Of Arran||139|