THERE are certain predictable strands to the biggest race days. Like the surety that for every well-turned heel in the marquees there will be many more plugging the turf amid the wardrobe malfunctions on the public lawn. To the good things of spring, it now seems safe to add ''victory to Dunaden''.
The reigning Melbourne Cup champion yesterday added Caulfield's most prized trophy to his bulging Australian swag, swamping one of the best fields ever assembled and romping to favouritism to repeat the feat at Flemington on Tuesday fortnight. He remains undefeated on these shores, a love affair that baffles and delights connections.
''He's just thrived since he's been at Werribee - I think he hates France and loves Australia!'' said Geoffrey Faber, speaking for absent trainer Mikel Delzangles and Dunaden's owner, Sheikh Fahad al-Thani of Qatar.
A French native favouring Werribee over the cultured comforts of home is a long-odds proposition, and the relaying of the good news to the Sheikh was also a stretch. Faber commentated the race into his mobile phone from the Caulfield mounting yard, while Sheikh Fahad's racing manager David Redvers wandered the streets of Windsor (the English one) in search of reception.
As veteran galloper Alcopop hit the front 200 metres from the line, kidding his jockey Dom Tourneur that they might at last be living the dream, Faber's call fell silent. Interminable seconds passed before Redvers heard Faber say, ''Oh my god, old boy, I think he's going to win!'' Soon after, Redvers tweeted that the Sheikh had called him in shock, ''and possibly tears''.
Craig Williams' freckled face was creased with a familiar spring smile, which briefly disappeared last November when he lost the Melbourne Cup ride on Dunaden through suspension. ''He's a special horse, he's been very special to me,'' said Williams, who confessed to not giving his mount the perfect ride, not that it mattered. ''He's the perfect Rocky story - it's remarkable where this horse has come from.''
Dunaden was bought for $1500 as a weanling, won only one of his first 11 starts, and was a speculative pick-up by Sheikh Fahad with an eye to testing him in handicap races. The Sheikh contemplated not sending him to Australia last year, in favour of running in St Moritz on what locals call ''the white turf'' - ice. Sanity prevailed, and he won the Geelong and Melbourne cups, and saluted in Hong Kong for Williams on the way home. Four runs in the English summer failed to add another win; a return to the southern hemisphere and his stall at Werribee's quarantine centre has been the cue to resume party time.
Which it nearly was for Alcopop, the eight-year-old whom trainer Jake Stephens rode while herding sheep before bringing him to a racecourse, and who ran sixth when the fairytale favourite in the 2009 Melbourne Cup. Injury and illness have held him back since, but as he danced in the gates and Tourneur felt a strong, hard horse beneath him, destiny beckoned.
Tourneur felt a buzz as Alcopop shot clear, and Stephens thought, ''Oooh, can he hang on?'' It took what the jockey called ''the best mile-and-a-half horse in the world'' to run them down.
If yesterday had a spring-gets-going air out on the lawn, where many of the crowd of 36,809 congregated, it continued a souring of high hopes for Gai Waterhouse. Her Glencadam Gold topped the betting at $4.40 yesterday, pushed forward to lead the field out of the straight, but finished well back, drifted to $41 for the Melbourne Cup, and is unlikely to run.
Dunaden aside, the most impressive run with an eye to Flemington came from his compatriot and 2010 Melbourne Cup winner Americain, who finished fourth. Waterhouse's one likely chance, Fiorente, flew in yesterday and is at least French - which can't hurt its chances.
Faber put in a plea for the handicapper to go easy on Dunaden, declaring ''he's a racehorse not an aeroplane''.