Any race horse owner would agree that horse racing is a game of odds. There are many hard-luck stories, just about as many on a racetrack as you may find at a fishing wharf or on a golf course. The dream is to own a champion. The next Phar Lap1 will do. And each time a foal is born, a stallion goes to stud or the auctioneer's gavel falls on a yearling the dream begins. But if you took any notice of the statistics you would never set foot on a stud, a sale yard or even a racetrack again. The real champion racehorse comes along once in a lifetime. The majority of gallopers never manage to pay their way.
In Oceania, and nowadays much further afield, the Melbourne Cup, run on the first Tuesday in November among the roses of Australia's picturesque Flemington racecourse, still holds a special magic. This is the place where the nuggety stayers from around the globe compete for racing's gruelling marathon - a 3200m event with a $A3 million prize. The race became truly international in 1993 when Irish raider Vintage Crop stole the race from under the noses of the Australian and New Zealand trainers. But no other northern hemisphere-trained horse has won the great race.
Despite the distance, the Cup has become just as much a part of New Zealand life as it is in Australia. For many Kiwis it is their once-a-year flutter at the TAB. Office sweepstakes cover just about everyone else, regardless of their racing knowledge. Why the fascination?
History lends some perspective. First, New Zealand-bred gallopers have made a habit of out performing their rivals in the Melbourne Cup, winning 29 of the last 50 Melbourne Cups, with most of the memorable victories coming from our horses. Who could forget Kiwi's dramatic last-to-first win in 1983 for his shy Waverley owner-trainer Snow Lupton, or the victory by the gigantic mare Empire Rose in 1988. Phar Lap and Carbine were both of New Zealand origin.
Finding the home of most of these Melbourne Cup greats is quite simple. Just head to one of the few horse heavens on this Earth - the Waikato, shimmering green cradle of some of the richest farming land in the world and an idyllic nursery for young thoroughbreds. It is hardly surprising that New Zealand's thoroughbred industry has become concentrated in the Walkato. The move north of the national yearling sales from Trentham to Karaka in the 1980s meant many studs and trainers transferred, too.
The last horse bred in New Zealand to triumph in Flemington's famous race was Jezabeel, trained in Cambridge by Brian Jenkins and bred by Eureka (near Hamilton) woman Jeanette Broome, who owns just a handful of broodmares but managed to produce a horse that beat the world's best in 1998. Other Waikato breeders who can claim Melbourne Cup success are Sir Patrick Hogan of Cambridge Stud, and Nelson Schick of Windsor Park Stud, Whakanui Stud and Trelawney Stud (home to seven Melbourne Cup winners). Schick's Windsor Park Stud, a major commercial breeding operation for more than 25 years, bred the 1997 Cup winner Might and Power, rated the world's leading stayer before his recent retirement.
This year, Windsor Park could have two of its products in the Cup. It bred Kaapstad Way, which finished second in the Caulfield Cup, and Coco Cobanna, which won another major lead-up race, the Metropolitan. Schick has no doubts about the increased global significance of the Melbourne Cup in recent years.
There is definitely a lot of prestige and recognition in having a Melbourne Cup winner come from one's stud," he says. "it is one horse race that touches a lot of people's lives and counts a lot with the international horse buyers. Each time a New Zealand-bred horse wins the Melbourne Cup, the spin-off for our breeding industry is huge.
Leading Sydney trainer Gai Waterhouse has yet to saddle up a Melbourne Cup winner, but she is preparing Windsor Park- bred Coco Cobanna for this year's race.
New Zealand horses thrive in the Australian climate," she says. "They require patience, which most Australian trainers don't have, because they are generally out-and-out stayers and it is bred in them to be tough.
Late in the afternoon on Tuesday, November 7, horses from both hemispheres will take their place at the starting gates. Just over three minutes later the winner of this year's Melbourne Cup will be led back to the birdcage by its owners to the cheers of more than 100,000 Flemington racegoers. Someone will hand over the gold cup, everyone will make their speeches and the punters will celebrate or commiserate. Back in the Waikato, the first signs of dusk will appear and the foaling lights will flick on one by one at the stud farms. The next batch of Melbourne Cup winners will be born and the dreams will begin again.
Melbourne Cup Record For NZ-bred Horses
NZ-breds in the last 50 years have recorded 29 wins, 17 quinellas and seven trifectas.
Only 10 horses have ever won the Caulfield/Melbourne Cup double. The last seven have been by NZ-bred horses - Might and Power (1997), Doriemus (1995) Let's Elope (1991), Gurner's Lane (1982), Galilee (1966), Even Stevens (1962) and Rising Fast (1954).
New Zealand-bred Carbine carried 66.5kg (10st 51b) in 1890 and beat 38 opponents. That's the record weight carried and the record number in a field.
The first NZ-bred winner of the Melbourne Cup was Martini Henry in 1883.
The only horse to win the Caulfield Cup/Cox Plate/Melbourne Cup treble was New Zealand-bred Rising Fast in 1954.