Author: Howard Wright
HERE’S a turf trivia question that may fool all but the most assiduous of anoraks: which horse put up the best merit performance in the Melbourne Cup just over three weeks ago? A clue: it was not the winner Vow And Declare. And an additional clue: it was not the next four horses past the Flemington winning post who collected varying amounts of prize money. To find the answer it is necessary to go down to the horse who was eighth across the line, Godolphin’s 2018 race winner Cross Counter under Charlie Appleby’s stable jockey William Buick. If it seems a preposterous statement to say that the best performance of the race was put up by the horse who finished exactly one third down the 24 runner field, a brief reference to the mathematics of handicapping is necessary.
Ever since the science was invented and accepted around the world, a direct correlation between pounds and lengths has been accepted. The figures might differ slightly from individual to individual, but generally speaking, and allowing for races over different distances, there is a set scale that equates pounds for lengths beaten. That way, when Horse A beats Horse B by a certain distance, handicappers can assign a weight differential to account for the margin. Other variables come into play, such as the state of the going and the ease of victory, but all other things being equal, that is how it works. Over the Melbourne Cup distance of two miles, handicappers will work on the mathematics of allowing a pound for every length beaten, wherever each horse finishes and provided all are ridden out to show their true ability.
In conditions races, where horses usually carry similar weights, adjusted if necessary for age, it is relatively easy to work out the relationship between each horse’s performance on the day. However, there is a complication with the Melbourne Cup itself. For all its prestige and recent increase in overseas competition, it is a handicap.
To unravel which horse put up the best merit performance in a handicap it is necessary to account for the different weights allotted in the first place, and then make adjustments for distances beaten. That is where the measure of Cross Counter’s efforts emerge, for although he finished with seven horses in front of him, every one of those carried less weight than he did, and yet he was beaten only a length and a half in total, the equivalent of somewhere between one and two pounds. The mathematics reveal that carrying top weight of 9st 1lb, Cross Counter was the best horse in the race. Compared with the winner’s £2.569 million, he might have added just £88,397 to Godolphin’s racing account, as did those who finished sixth to 12th for their respective owners, but he still proved himself the best horse in the race.
Cross Counter went into the race officially rated 119 and when the year’s international classifications are published towards the end of January, he will be on the same mark, probably inferior only to the outstanding Stradivarius among the world’s stayers. The best news for UAE racing is that Cross Counter arrived in Dubai last week and like this year will be trained for the Dubai Gold Cup on World Cup night in an attempt to repeat his victory in March over stablemate Ispolini, who also stays in training. Cross Counter’s preparation will begin in January, by which time those being aimed at taking him on will be getting their eye in. If the exciting suggestion that Dee Ex Bee is on his way to Dubai to run in his familiar colours of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum proves correct, that can only add to the sense of anticipation from this division.
The race programme for stayers aspiring to a tilt at the Dubai Gold Cup has been tweaked for this year and seems to have a better balance. Unless they go for the new $175,000 black type race, the Dubai Racing Club Classic, 2410m on the opening day of the carnival on 2 January, the Meydan Cup over 2810m a fortnight later would seem the likely launchpad for stayers going on to the $300,000 Nad Al Sheba Trophy on 27 February, as their prelude to the Dubai Gold Cup. Getting a meaningful schedule for stayers established is no easy feat. I well remember the feeling of battering one’s head against a brick wall when, as a member of the British Flat Pattern Committee in the 1990s, I was among those who advocated changes to the system intended to promote and better reward horses who showed stamina above speed.
Alterations eventually came about and they have resulted in a much more competitive and popular division, as demonstrated by the success of such as Stradivarius, but it was hard work convincing die hard members of the racing fraternity to have patience while the effects worked their way through the system. The same patience will be required before a similar outcome is achieved at Meydan. For the moment, though, Cross Counter sets the standard.