A better-than-average two
mile handicap
was run in Melbourne on Tuesday. A better-than-average field
lined up against a champion mare who defied history and the record books to win
it for the third time running, an unheralded achievement. It was a statistical
impossibility, but as cliches go, records are made to be broken. But please,
Makybe Diva is not the greatest horse
we’ve ever seen, even in the modern era.

Winning three Cups in a row, the
last with a weight and age carrying record for a mare, is exceptional, freakish
and a great yarn. But comparisons with Phar
Lap are sheer lunacy and merely the stuff of Spring Carnival hyperbole.
Such speculation is all about selling the event, because the Melbourne Cup is
the one time of the year that the horse racing game gets to dominate the
attention of the media, and the one time of year that the racing media get a
national audience. There is a tendency to purple prose to say the least. Every
year must produce its big story, only this year the story wrote itself, no
argument. But let’s indulge in some more contemporary comparisons to put this
achievement in context.

Diva was again dominant, but being the best horse on the day
three times running doesn’t mean she would have beaten, for instance, Saintly in 1996 (for ours, the best Cup winner
of the past ten years), or Let’s Elope in
1991. Put the mare up against Vintage
Crop in 1993 and we know where the smart money goes. Makybe Diva is certainly one of the best horses
to grace the turf in the past decade, she is today’s champion racehorse, but is
she better than Sunline? We say no. Let’s
segue to previous WS Cox Plate winners. Where would the mare have run against
Dulcify or Kingston Town or Bonecrusher or Octagonal or Lohnro? Kingston Town’s three Cox Plates beat the
Diva’s three Cups hands down in our book.

After the Cox Plate this year
trainer Lee Freedman said: “I
don’t think this country has seen a better horse over the past 30 to 40 years.”
Funny, in February last year it was Alinghi
that was getting the hyperbolic treatment:
“She is the greatest horse I’ve have ever trained… Don’t point to me as the
trainer because you’re looking at a serious champion.” At least he’s modest. Resurgent
at his now established training Shangri La on the Mornington Peninsula, Freedman
is a media pro with a beguiling ability to understate his overstatements, but
even he kyboshed
the Phar Lap malarkey before the race.
After the race he was simply playing to a captive audience.

Sure, Phar Lap never won three Cups but as Lydia Hislop in The
reminds us: “…when Phar Lap
won the 1930 Melbourne Cup, he carried 10lb more than Makybe Diva, conceded more than a stone to the
field and won by three lengths, his jockey motionless. He won on each of the
four days of that meeting, once just hours after an attempt on his life. His 37
wins from 51 starts included an unbeaten run of 14.”

Credit where it’s
due, what Makybe Diva did may never
be done again, and she is truly one of the best two milers we’ve ever seen. But
she carries luck on her side – she’s enjoyed a favourable barrier and a glorious
run in each Cup – and she also carries skill in the form of Glen Boss, who despite a predilection for
theatrics is clearly one of the greatest riders of the modern era. It may be
heresy to say so, but beating On A Jeune
by one and a quarter lengths over two miles isn’t the mark of Australia’s
greatest ever racehorse. Two starts back, On A
Jeune could only run third in the Benalla Cup. She’s a great mare, and
let’s savour the moment. But let’s leave it at that.