All three of Melbourne’s metropolitan racing clubs are vastly different but the quirkiest of the lot is the one tucked away in the memorably named north-western suburb of Moonee Ponds. Despite several threats to its existence over the years (mostly due to the vast value of its land), the Moonee Valley Racing Club remains a vibrant part of the nation’s thoroughbred landscape for two major reasons – its annual summer night racing program, and its most famous race, the W.S. Cox Plate. For the purists, this is the most anticipated event of Melbourne’s spring carnival – 2040 metres around the tricky Valley layout at weight-for-age conditions. And after a few lean years in terms of quality, the 2016 edition is shaping up as one of the greatest ever.
Tight and tricky
But to join the likes of Kingston Town, Bonecrusher, Better Loosen Up, Might And Power, Sunline, Northerly and So You Think, Cox Plate contenders must first conquer one of the most idiosyncratic racecourses on the planet. From above, it looks pretty standard with four turns but there are almost no straight runs so runners race on an almost-continuous curve until they reach a home straight that comprises just 173 metres. However, there’s a stack on camber on the turns, so horses that can maintain a high cruising speed perform well here. It’s like a NASCAR super speedway for thoroughbreds. On-pace runners are generally favoured, but a horse with a short, sharp sprint can win from six- or seven-wide!
“That’s the way it’s gonna be, little darling”
The Valley’s eccentric features don’t end there. The main grandstand is very close to the track, giving the venue a stadium feel similar to that of Happy Valley in Hong Kong. The meeting is run over two days, with the AUD $1,000,000 Group 1 Manikato Stakes highlighting Friday night’s card ahead of the Cox Plate meeting on Saturday. That’s 18 races in a 24-hour period. Another unique tradition that has become a fixture prior to the Cox Plate is a stirring rendition of The Horses by former Aussie 70s heartthrob Daryl Braithwaite. It’s quite an experience to hear 25,000 well-refreshed racegoers screaming along Karaoke-style, but the sing-a-long has also spooked more than a few Cox Plate runners through the years.
Galloping grey looks special
Named in honour of the superstar sprinter which won this race (then known as the Freeway Stakes) twice and the William Reid Stakes on an unprecedented five successive occasions (1979-1983), the 2016 edition of the Manikato Stakes has attracted a field of 11, including triple winner Buffering, the world’s highest rated sprinter Chautauqua (a $2.20 favourite with William Hill) and 2015 Golden Slipper winner Capitalist (a clear second pick at $6.00). An inside draw is valuable from the 1200m start at the Valley, and the Hawkes team came up trumps with barrier 1 for their eye-catching grey/bay 6yo gelding. The 1000m of the Moir was a bit sharp for him first-up, but seven of his 12 wins have come at this distance, and he’s going to be mighty hard to toss.
Winx v Hartnell, or can another surprise?
Speaking of gun runs, 2015 Cox Plate winner Winx has landed in barrier 3 for the $3,000,000 William Hill Cox Plate. She should find a terrific spot in transit with French contender Vadamos and lightweight hope Yankee Rose drawn on her inside. Punters have become accustomed to Winx starting deep in the red, but the 5yo mare is a surprisingly generous $1.95 with William Hill to secure her 13th successive win. That’s due to the presence of Hartnell ($3.00), with the Godolphin gelding drawing barrier 7 of 10 for the WFA championship of Australasia. He smashed the field in the Group 1 Turnbull Stakes at Flemington two weeks ago, defeating Jameka by 3.25 lengths. That same mare cruised to victory by a similar margin in last week’s Caulfield Cup!
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