As the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival reaches its peak over the next few days the real story that should be emerging from the carnival so far is not the dominance of overseas horses in Melbourne Cup betting and assessment, but the fact that crowds, and betting turnover, on the Caulfield and Moonee Valley carnival days have been at near record levels.

The dire prediction just a month ago that the economic downturn would have a disastrous impact on the carnival has not materialised — and all signs point to the VRC’s target of around 400,000 to attend the four day cup carnival at Flemington being met.

The withdrawal of a few companies from the not inexpensive corporate packages for the cup carnival is not surprising — but the real measure of the impact of the economy on racing are crowd attendances and betting turnover. Both are running a close to new record levels.

The next four days — Derby Day, Cup Day, Oaks Day and the final day on Saturday week — will tell the full story but, weather permitting, the extraordinary attendances achieved in recent years should at least be equalled.

In recent years the growing influence of overseas horses in the Melbourne Cup has raised the ire of local owners and trainers, but there has been nothing to match the campaign now under way to somehow or other make it “difficult” for overseas horses to dominate our greatest race — dominate it numerically that is, because the actual winning of non Australian and New Zealand horses is not that great.

But the betting market for this year’s cup is absolutely dominated by horses brought to Australia especially for the Melbourne Cup. And things got a whole lot worse for the local contenders yesterday when the 2007 cup winner Efficient broke down and won’t race before the 2009 carnival.

It looks as though there will be at least nine overseas starters when the cup field is settled on Saturday night, and the current markets have overseas horses holding down four of the top five in betting — including the favourite Septimus. The best local contender at this stage is Efficient’s stable mate, Zipping, who finished a sound fourth last year.

The dominance of overseas — mainly European — entrants has again (yet again) brought on a debate about whether the number of overseas horses should be restricted and whether the handicapper gives them a “saloon passage” into the Melbourne Cup.

The top weight, and favourite, Septimus will carry 58kg, which some local trainers believe treats him very lightly. But as the VRC handicapper has pointed out 33 horses have started in the cup with that weight or more since 1972 and just two have won — and they were real champions, Think Big way back in 1975 and Makybe Diva in 2005.

The handicapper believes this year’s cup field is the best ever — and that is probably not an exaggeration. But if it is the best ever it is because of the strong European contingent that includes the impressive Caulfield Cup winner, All The Good, owned by the ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammad! What the critics of the number of overseas entrants conveniently ignore is that without the overseas entrants this year’s cup field would be somewhere between average and disappointing. But that should surprise no one as the Australian racing industry continues to cut the number of 3200 metre races — the Melbourne Cup distance.

Cup week opens this Saturday with the VRC Derby the main event. The favourite will be Whobegotyou the winner of the Caulfield Guineas three weeks ago. But don’t expect to pay too many bills if you back it and it wins — in the latest markets it is paying just $1.55 for a $1 outlay!

Peter Fray

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