Right time and right place to shoot the moon
FOR all the mystique, hubbub and breathless speculation, and yesterday the abiding whiff of skulduggery, sometimes it seems that winning the Melbourne Cup is simply a matter of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. What is too easily overlooked in the ever more hyperbolical prelude - gilded yesterday by attention to a foppish pair of royals - is that the Cup is first and last a horse race.
For some, the right place and time never coincide. Luca Cumani, making his seventh attempt, must be starting to think that it is not him. For others, they do once in a blue moon, exemplified yesterday by a certain Green Moon.
In possibly the best field assembled for a Melbourne Cup, headlined by the two previous winners, Green Moon had fallen out of favour after he was beaten and buffeted out of a place in last week's Cox Plate. Yesterday, he ran so powerfully that jockey Brett Prebble was certain he would win even before they were in the straight. ''The feeling he was giving me at the 1200, you rarely get that, even from the very top horses,'' he said. Excited, he set off on his dash to the line earlier than he had planned, and last night was expecting a reprimanding phone call from owner Lloyd Williams. Every reprimand should be this severe.
Brett Prebble celebrates his Cup-winning ride on Green Moon. Photo: Pat Scala
In all other respects, Prebble's timing was exquisite, at last. The self-acknowledged one-time ''ratbag'' had passed up potential rides on four previous winners, Brew (2000), Efficient (2007), Shocking (2009) and Dunaden last year, also on Red Cadeaux, last year's runner-up.
Previously, Green Moon had been ridden by Craig Williams, who was on Dunaden. For the Cox Plate, Green Moon was to be ridden by Damien Oliver, until the scandal concerning his betting activities broke in The Age and Williams summarily dumped him. Prebble had watched that race, and like Nick Williams, son of Lloyd, had thought Green Moon dreadfully unlucky, and had volunteered himself. So for Prebble, it was come on down; for 10 years, he has lived and ridden in Hong Kong, and was booked to ride today at Happy Valley. For Prebble, the Maribyrnong valley was plentifully blissful.
For trainer Robert Hickmott, this was the fulfilment of an accidental prophecy. When the omnipresent Kevin Sheedy was trying to convince him to move from Wangaratta to play for Essendon as a teenager, Sheedy said to his father: ''Well, John, if he doesn't have a crack at playing league football, it would be like having a Melbourne Cup winner in your stable and you don't give it a run.''
Injury intervened, and although Hickmott eventually would play two games for Melbourne, he found his vocation as conditioner-in-chief to the secretive Williams' stable. He is credited with an unsung role with Williams' previous winner, Efficient.
Emphatically, Hickmott got his run. For strapper Adam Chatterton, Melbourne Cup is nearly always the right time; he was born on a Melbourne Cup day and yesterday turned 26 on one. Here were all his happy returns at once.
For the Williamses, right-place-right-time is not so much a faculty as a mission. Nick Williams estimated that his family had bought, trained and saddled up perhaps 80 Melbourne Cup runners for four wins. For 25 years, recognising that the Melbourne Cup would become internationalised, they have been shopping overseas, at first in an unlucky dip, but now rewardingly. Green Moon is the latest in a line bought explicitly for yesterday's result.
''Anyone who has bought a 1/100th share in a horse, sprinter or stayer, dreams of winning a Melbourne Cup,'' said Nick, representing Lloyd, who was cloistered in their lodge at Macedon. ''We're just an extreme example of that.'' The Williamses are a kind of self-appointed Melbourne royalty, but earthier than the visiting English pair yesterday. Pre-race, Nick nervously stalked a remote concourse, talking constantly on a phone and sharing confidences with Shane Warne.
For so many others, this was right place, wrong time, or wrong timing. For previous winners Americain and Dunaden, the burden was too great. For Gai Waterhouse, whose horses ran second and sixth, it was again close but no cigar. For the Cumanis, it was again right there, and was not. Gerry Ryan, owner of Americain, and Oliver paired for a win, but it was in the race immediately before the Cup, with the somehow aptly named Walk With Attitude. Even hard hearts went out a little to Ryan, who has put big money into horse racing and cycling, and for his pains is now dealing with a disgraced cycling coach and a disgraced jockey.
More plainly than ever, the Melbourne Cup belongs to a new time and place. The race that stops a nation has been apprehended by the world. But aspects are reassuringly familiar. It can be summed up like this: there is a dress code, some crack it, some break it, and no one cares much either way. The real mavericks, though few, were easy to spot yesterday: they were leafing through racebooks.