Australia’s premier weight-for-age contest – the $5 million (R50 million) Cox Plate (2040m) – has attracted a capacity field this year, with 14 gallopers set to face the starter on Saturday.
Humidor, Mr Quickie, Gailo Chop and Dream Castle are the four emergencies hoping to gain a start.
With racing at The Valley on Friday night (Manikato Stakes meeting) and showers forecast for Friday and Saturday, it’s difficult to predict exactly how the track will play.
However, given the rail will be in the true position for both meetings, it’s reasonable to assume that jockeys may be searching for the fresh ground by the time the Cox Plate rolls around.
Here follows a comprehensive runner-by-runner preview penned by James Lamb for Punters.com.au.
1. BLACK HEART BART
Black Heart Bart (1) has surprised even his own trainer with the way he’s come back from injury. The 9YO was actually retired following last year’s G1 Toorak Handicap (1600m) but his exuberance in the paddock forced a rethink. His first two runs back were average at best but a distance rise third-up saw him pull off a massive G1 boilover, taking out the Underwood Stakes (1800m) at $101. He proved that was no fluke with a close-up 2nd in the G1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) last start, finishing ahead of Cox Plate rivals Harlem, Avilius and Homesman.
Why he can win: His last two runs at WFA level have been outstanding and there’s no reason why he can’t hold that level at his fifth run for the preparation.
Why he can’t win: He was thrashed in this race three years ago and he’s certainly not getting any younger. Prior to his Caulfield Stakes win, ‘Bart’ had gone 16 starts without a victory. The only horse to win this race as a 9YO was Fields Of Omagh in 2006.
On face value, Avilius (2) looked a little plain in the Caulfield Stakes (2000m). But when you look at the sectionals, the Godolphin galloper actually clocked the equal-fastest final 400m (with Cape Of Good Hope) and the second-quickest last 200m. He simply got too far back to threaten and while the winner saved ground around the home turn, Avilius was forced to swing wide. His victory in the G1 George Main Stakes (1600m) prior was terrific and his 4th-placing in this event last year should hold him in good stead. From his favourable draw, he should be able to settle just beyond midfield rather than dropping right out the back.
Why he can win: He possesses real X-factor in that his best is brilliant. When he strikes a race run at a suitable tempo, and is allowed to build momentum around the final bend, there are few horses in Australia that can match his finishing burst. The predicted rain suits him better than most.
Why he can’t win: He’s had four G1 starts in Melbourne and finished outside of the placings in all four, going down as a $1.65 favourite in the Australian Cup (2000m) earlier this year. He just battled home in this race last year after enjoying a nice run in transit.
Kluger (3) is clearly the second-stringer of the Japanese raiders but he’s a handy horse in his own right. The lightly-raced 8YO finished 4th in this year’s G1 Doncaster (1600m) when $41, before backing that up with a 2nd-placing behind the mighty Winx in the G1 Queen Elizabeth (2000m). He put 2.5 lengths on the 3rd-placegetter Hartnell, who in turn finished well clear of Happy Clapper in 4th – that performance obviously reads well for this. His latest effort in the G2 Sapporo Kinen (2000m) was even, finishing 8th (beaten 5.7 lengths) in a typically fast-run Japanese 2000m race.
Why he can win: His performance when 2nd, beaten 1.5 lengths, behind Winx in the G1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2000m) is a terrific form reference for this. He clearly had no issues acclimatising to Australian conditions on that occasion, which is at least half the battle with these international raiders.
Why he can’t win: His most recent effort was only fair and fellow Japanese galloper Lys Gracieux looks to have his measure. They clashed over a mile at G3 level last year and LG beat him home by 2.8 lengths. Given she boasts stronger credentials at 2000m+, it’s hard to see him turning the tables.
Harlem is an enigmatic galloper who seems to produce his best at Flemington. However, his last couple of runs at Caulfield have been encouraging and he’s shown improvement at each start this preparation. He crossed the line with Avilius in the G1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) last start, who is about a quarter of his price in this. In a race where the tempo doesn’t look overly strong, he maps to enjoy a nice run in the first two or three from his inside barrier.
Why he can win: He’s a two-time G1 winner over this distance and appears to be on an upward spiral this preparation, coming off a 3rd in the G1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) last start.
Why he can’t win: He’s had two starts here and been beaten 8.2 lengths and 6.95 lengths in easier races. The Flemington 2000m is where he does his best work. Outside of that, his form is only average for a race of this depth.
The Williams-owned galloper could not have been any more impressive taking out the G2 Feehan Stakes (1600m) here first-up, taking over at the 300m before bolting clear to score by 2.5 lengths. A wide run in the G1 Underwood Stakes (1800m) took its toll late when nosed out by Black Heart Bart, but there didn’t appear to be too many excuses for his disappointing display in the G1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) last start. He’s drawn right out here but is one of few natural on-speed horses in the race, so it wouldn’t shock to see him roll across and take up the running without burning too much early gas.
Why he can win: This is his grand final and Williams is renowned for getting his horses to peak at the right time. He was fairly plain in last year’s Caulfield Stakes before bouncing back with a 2nd-placing (beaten 0.1 lengths) in the G1 Caulfield Cup (2400m) behind Best Solution when fourth-up, as he is here. He’ll also appreciate a bit of give in the ground.
Why he can’t win: If he’s slightly slow away from his wide gate, or horses kick up on his inside to keep him working, it’s going to be hard for him when the pressure ramps up at the 600m. His last-start effort was plain and the stable is going poorly, with Howley saddling up just two winners from his last 43 runners.
6. KINGS WILL DREAM
It’s been a remarkable comeback by this galloper who almost lost his life due to injuries sustained in this event last year. Waller and connections have nursed him back to full health and his gritty victory in the G1 Turnbull Stakes (2000m) last start was a sensational reward for hard work and great patience. The likelihood of a track on the softer side of Good is a positive and he had no issues getting around The Valley at morning trackwork on Tuesday. If you take out last year’s Cox Plate when eased out of the race, his two G1 runs over 2000m make for attractive reading – a 1.75 length 3rd to Winx and a win over Finche, Hartnell and Vow And Declare.
Why he can win: The Turnbull Stakes is traditionally a handy form reference for this race and both Finche (2nd) and Vow And Declare (4th) were very good next up in the Caulfield Cup. He’s definitely open to further improvement fourth-up given he was eased back into racing off a lengthy injury-enforced break.
Why he can’t win: He’s drawn poorly in barrier 13 and may have to be dragged right back to the rear to find cover. It’s hard to see him winning if he has to come from behind the likes of Lys Gracieux and Danceteria.
7. TE AKAU SHARK
‘The Shark’ entered the Cox Plate frame with a sensational 6 length victory over 1600m at G2 level in New Zealand last November. Injury meant that he missed the autumn but he’s shown no ill-effects since resuming, placing 2nd in all three of his starts this campaign. His last-start effort in the G1 Epsom Handicap (1600m) was full of merit, charging home from beyond midfield to just miss behind Kolding. They finished some 3 lengths clear of the rest and the rise in trip looks suitable fourth-up.
Why he can win: He’s a progressive type who is yet to reach his peak. His Epsom run was a lovely trial for this and the form around Kolding is hot. The wide draw could end up working in his favour if the inside chops up and the middle/outside is the place to be in the straight.
Why he can’t win: For all the hype, he is still just a G2 winner – and that G2 was in New Zealand over 1600m. He’s never raced beyond a mile and will get his first taste of 2000m+ in arguably Australia’s most high-pressure race. The draw means he’s going to be spotting some high-quality horses a big start.
The Menuisier-trained galloper looked a strong hope in the G1 Caulfield Stakes but was scratched due to a minor setback. That means he comes into this event first-up, having not raced since winning the G1 Grosser Dallmayr-Preis (2000m) on July 28. Prior to that he went around in the G1 Coral-Eclipse (2002m) at Sandown against superstars Enable and Magical. Although well-held there (beaten 5.3 lengths), he hit the line nicely and will find this easier. He’s a big-striding horse who appears well-drawn off the inside, with Spencer likely to settle the Australian Bloodstock-owned galloper in a two or three-wide line with cover back worse than midfield.
Why he can win: His form over this distance is outstanding (10:5-0-1) and he’s capable on both Good and Soft tracks. The race he won last start in Germany was the same race last year’s Cox Plate runner-up Benbatl took out on his way to a very successful spring campaign in Australia.
Why he can’t win: The tight-turning Valley circuit doesn’t look a great fit for the powerful son of Redoute’s Choice. He certainly doesn’t rail like a greyhound and you would want to see him out in the open well before the final bend. It was only a minor setback (mucus) that saw him miss the Caulfield Stakes, but it was still a setback – and you never really want to see that with the international gallopers.
9. LYS GRACIEUX
This Japanese mare is a genuine star and if she brings her recent form to Australia, she’s going to take a power of beating. The Yahagi-trained galloper was simply dominant winning the G1 Takarazuka (2200m) at Hanshin last start, roaring away from her rivals to score by 3 lengths, with another gap back to 3rd. Prior to that she finished 3rd in the QE II Cup (2000m) at Sha Tin behind fellow Japanese galloper Win Bright and local star Exultant. They ran a brilliant time there and she sustained a wide run from the back, while the winner saved valuable ground and sliced through a gap late. She’s shown with her efforts in Hong Kong that she can handle travel.
Why she can win: Based on times around this distance range, she’s the clear standout. Her effort in Hong Kong two-back was superb and the way she exploded away from her G1 rivals last start was pure quality. She’s adaptable in her racing pattern and has had a spin around The Valley in preparation for this.
Why she can’t win: ‘Synthetic hoof filler first time’ is never an ideal piece of information to read in the form guide. Like many Japanese horses, her best form is on firm decks, so the threat of rain is a worry given she’s had basically no exposure to Soft-rated tracks.
10. MAGIC WAND
O’Brien and Moore combined to win this race with Adelaide in 2014, so they know what it takes. Magic Wand comes here in handy form, having chased home the high-class Magical at her most recent start in the G1 Irish Champion (2012m). Prior to that she finished 2nd in the G1 Arlington Million Stakes (2000m) in America. She’s had six starts over this distance for six placings and has a racing pattern that is suited to The Valley.
Why she can win: Master trainer, world-class jockey, and a favourable draw are three solid ticks. Her form around Magical reads well and she’s clearly a good traveller having raced in Europe, America and Dubai.
Why she can’t win: She’s consistent, but she finds it very hard to win – with just two victories from 18 career starts. She’s shown that she needs it firm to produce her best, so any rain would really hamper her chances. You have to wonder how much room for improvement there is this preparation given she’s been in work since March.
11. CAPE OF GOOD HOPE
A shock winner of the G1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) first-up in Australia, Cape Of Good Hope is clearly enjoying his new surroundings after leaving Aidan O’Brien for the Lindsay Park team. He had mixed form prior to the move, campaigning in France, England and America in the space of just over two months. On his international form, he looks a rung or two below most of these but he has to be respected on the strength of his last-start victory over five of his Cox Plate rivals. He’s drawn to find early cover just beyond midfield.
Why he can win: His Caulfield Stakes win was admirable, particularly given he was first-up in Australia after a stack of travelling this year. The stable are happy with the way he handled The Valley at his first look at the circuit and Zahra rode him an absolute treat last start and maps for a similar run.
Why he can’t win: The Caulfield Stakes might not be the right form race this year, with ageing pair Black Heart Bart and Harlem filling the placings. Prior to that victory, his previous wins were in Listed grade in a slowly-run race at Epsom, and a 1499m 2YO event at Tipperary.
12. MYSTIC JOURNEY
Last season’s star middle-distance 3YO resumed with a solid win in the G2 PB Lawrence Stakes (1400m) before suffering a shock defeat at the hands of Gatting in the G1 Makybe Diva Stakes (1600m) at Flemington. Further alarm bells – from a Cox Plate perspective – sounded after her unplaced effort in the G1 Turnbull Stakes (2000m) but a negative ride certainly did her no favours there. She’s still yet to really prove herself at 2000m but she maps for a beautiful run in this just off the speed – a far cry from last time.
Why she can win: It’s hard to forget that All Star Mile win where she sat wide but was still able to power away from the likes of Hartnell, Alizee and Happy Clapper among others. The jury is out on her 2000m+ credentials but she shouldn’t be judged on her Turnbull Stakes effort when simply too far back to threaten in a race run to suit those closest to the speed at the top of the straight. She closed off just as well as Caulfield Cup placegetter Vow And Declare.
Why she can’t win: The slow pace in the Turnbull meant that she was entitled to clock decent late sectionals, which she did. The fact she couldn’t run down Gatting over a mile two-back doesn’t bode overly well, and no placings beyond 1600m is difficult to ignore – no matter how you spin it.
13. VERRY ELLEEGANT
The former Kiwi-trained mare has been a work in progress for Waller but when she puts it all together, Verry Elleegant (13) is a serious racehorse. She was a revelation during the autumn, winning three on the bounce – including back-to-back G1 wins in the Vinery Stud (2000m) and ATC Oaks (2400m). Both times she settled back before rounding her rivals up in effortless fashion. Her first two runs this campaign were only fair but a rise in trip last start saw her return to the winners list, arriving just in time to knock off the in-form Samadoubt in the G2 Hill Stakes (2000m).
Why she can win: Her form at 2000m+ is outstanding, with her only failures coming in the Wakeful Stakes (2000m) and the G1 VRC Oaks (2500m) when overracing badly both times. She’s more tractable these days and she finds herself in a race that is usually run at a decent tempo. The threat of rain is a huge plus for her.
Why she can’t win: She’s hardly set the world on fire as a 4YO, finishing a long way from Avilius in the G1 George Main Stakes (1600m) two-back before just edging out Samadoubt last start. If the track is only a Soft 5 at worst, it’s hard to see her matching it with the leading internationals. While her manners have improved, she can still do things wrong in her races.
The lone 3YO galloper in the field has had an interesting preparation. He motored home from last at the 400m to finish 4th in the Listed Dulcify (1500m) first-up, before – to the surprise of many – dropping back in distance for the G1 Golden Rose. He just couldn’t get into the race there and pulled up with thumps post-race, so it’s almost worth ruling a line through that effort. He tackled a far more suitable trip last start in the G1 Spring Champion Stakes (2000m) and hit the line nicely for 2nd behind a potential top-liner in Shadow Hero. He looks ready to put his best foot forward fourth-up.
Why he can win: He looks dangerous with just 49kg and you know he’ll run the 2040m right out. He’s already a G1 winner having taken out the Champagne Stakes (1600m) in effortless fashion during the autumn, and any give in the track won’t worry him at all. The Spring Champion was a truly-run affair, which should hold him in good stead for this.
Why he can’t win: Often the advantage these 3YO horses have in a Cox Plate is that they can bowl along on-speed with their light weight and get the older horses chasing a long way from home. However, Castelvecchio is an average beginner who may not be able to make the most of barrier four. If he gets buried back in the pack – having his first run at The Valley – it’s going to be hard for him to outsprint seasoned WFA stars like Lys Gracieux.