10/30/2011 12:57PM

Melbourne Cup weights cause a stir Down Under


International Scene - By Bob Nastanovich

The 151st renewal of the $6.2 million Melbourne Cup will be run late on Halloween night in this country and viable contenders were in action even this weekend Down Under, still seeking to qualify for "the race that stops a nation." The grueling 3200-meter open handicap and its full field of 24 creates pressure for Victoria Racing Club chief handicapper Greg Carpenter, whose decisions can sometimes draw ire.

In early September, Carpenter heads a committee that assigns weight in kilos to all of the Melbourne Cup's 163 nominees. In the process, Carpenter must assess performances by horses from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, England, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany and, in the case of former Southern California-based entrant Unusual Suspect, the United States.

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The initial step is to assign the highweight (who must carry at least 57 kilograms, or 126 pounds), and this year that may have been the easiest part of the job. Americain, a Kentucky-bred trained in France by Alain de Royer-Dupre, defends his Melbourne Cup title, is the clear-cut favorite, and must carry 58 kilograms (128 pounds) along with regular rider Gerard Mosse.

From Americain on down, eligibility is determined by those weighted in order behind him, and that's where the controversy brews. Australian horsemen feel that many of their nominees have had their form underrated in order to encourage the participation of European invaders.

Leading the charge, Peter Moody, the outspoken trainer of sprint phenomenon Black Caviar, voiced his disdain in last Friday's Herald Sun, Melbourne's widely read tabloid newspaper.

In reference to 20-1 chance Tullamore, trained in Sydney by Gai Waterhouse, Moody wrote, "It's just not fair. He's still got to scrap to gain a start, while a number of lesser-credentialled overseas horse are sitting pretty." Tullamore, winner of the 2011 Brisbane Cup and placed in both the recent Caulfield Cup and Drake International Cup, had been entered in Saturday's Lexus Stakes in the hopes of getting a late reassessment hike and entry into the Melbourne Cup, but Waterhouse was able to withdraw him from the Lexus when scratches made it more likely he would make the Melbourne.

At this stage, 10 European-based runners are expected to take their chance, including as many as four trained by Newmarket-based Luca Cumani, and several more European imports will participate. Five-time Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Lee Freedman, who has 8-1 German transplant Lucas Cranach in this year's renewal, said, "With our focus on speed [in the Australian breeding program], we have backed ourselves into a corner and it will be extremely difficult for us to get out."

Legendary Bart Cummings, who has 12 Melbourne Cup wins on his resume, leads over 16-1 German-bred Illo and 25-1 New Zealand-bred Precedence. Precedence, a son of the great Australian stayer Zabeel, has spotty form but caught the eye when galloping out strongly in the Oct. 18 Caulfield Cup.

As far as jockeys go, Australian Craig Williams will try to make history by completing the first-ever sweep of the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate, and Melbourne Cup. If successful in an appeal of a recent careless-riding ban, Williams will be aboard 6-1 second choice Dunaden, a French raider who rallied to take the Oct. 19 Geelong Cup.

Usually, the Melbourne Cup is a true test of stamina run at a torrid pace. Despite the fact that he must carry 3.5 kilograms (7.72 pounds) more than last year, Americain is hard to oppose based on his ideal prep when winning the Oct. 22 Drake International Cup.

With an expected crowd of more than 120,000 on track and millions watching around Australia, Melbourne Cup Day is a national holiday.