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Romance of Cup pulls worlds apart together

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Every Melbourne Cup runner

Not sure which horse to back? Our racing experts analyse all 24 contenders for the 2012 Melbourne Cup.

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Nothing or nobody was excised from the migration zone that is the Werribee international horse centre at the break of a brilliant dawn on Sunday.

As the European horses which might well raffle this year's Cup between them strutted their stuff, Sheikh Fahad al Thani of Qatar, millionaire owner of reigning Cup-holder Dunaden, was deep in conversation with Dave Kinnear, a bloke from Melbourne's western suburbs whose one-man coffee van was doing an aromatically roaring trade.

Prince and pauper were as one. Well, almost. Kinnear is a purveyor of cups, but no mug punter, having backed the winners of the past two, Dunaden and Americain. ''I told the Sheikh I thought his weight might be a bit much [Dunaden's, that is!]),'' Kinnear said. ''I'm backing Galileo's Choice. He said he might have to have a bit on him, too.''

"I've been coming seven years now. The horses I brought in the first three years couldn't make the cut now" ... trainer Luca Cumani, centre.

"I've been coming seven years now. The horses I brought in the first three years couldn't make the cut now" ... trainer Luca Cumani, centre. Photo: Joe Armao

Here, on a classically provincial Australian racecourse, set off by periodic flights of ducks in formation, was the magic of the Melbourne Cup, object of dreams, source of illusions. Dr Marwan Koukash, Kuwaiti-born Liverpudlian and owner of Mount Athos was there, with family, including a not-quite-teenage daughter who has a five-star hotel named after her in Liverpool.

So was Paddy Guinane, 146-game Richmond full-forward of the '60s, and former board member, who lives nearby in Little River, is a hobby trainer and has not missed a morning at Werribee since the internationals began floating in. ''I love the atmosphere,'' he said.

Koukash realised a dream three years ago when he had a runner in the Cup. Now, he said, he was contemplating a nightmare: a horse which is good enough to win the Cup, but might not (Luca Cumani, equally reknowned as a winning trainer and sire of the winsome Francesca, could write a book on it; this has been his lot for seven years).

Mount Athos, Koukash hoped, would prove to be ''the special one'', so introducing another whiff of Europe; ''special one'' is the self-conferred appellation of decorated football manager Jose Mourinho. Mount Athos is lightly raced in the European tradition, having had just three runs this year. ''He's best when he's fresh,'' Koukash said. ''Seeing him today, he looks a million.'' In this field, that might mean that he is slightly out of condition.

In any case, Guinane had news for him. He was identifying Cavalryman and Lights of Heaven for Fairfax's benefit when the striking chestnut Red Cadeaux lolloped by. ''He'll win the Cup,'' Guinane said.

The Cumanis were there. Last year, Francesca rode trackwork for Luca; this year, she interviewed him for TV. ''[The Cup] gets stronger every year,'' he said. ''I've been coming seven years now. The horses I brought in the first three years couldn't make the cut now.'' This year, he has charge of Mount Athos and My Quest for Peace. Colleen Bamford was there to spruik for Americain, the favourite, which she part-owns: ''He's just so big and handsome.''

But so were a couple of mates from Sunshine's Grand United Cricket Club. Saturdays they spend coaching the juniors and helping out in the fourths. Earthy commoners, they were indistinguishable from, and welcome as, kings in this court. Like Guinane, they cherish the world-comes-to-Werribee atmosphere.

All spoke the same parlance, but in many tongues and brogues: England, high and low, Irish, French, Italian, Middle Eastern, drawling Australian, though - notably - no hint of a New Zealander: once the Kiwis were a force in Australian racing, but the internationals have swept them aside. Indisputably, they have changed the texture of the Cup. Leigh Jordon, Racing Victoria's international manager, thrills to it. ''You can just see the race Tuesday: a whole wall of them coming down the outside,'' he said. ''It's the best field since the internationals started coming.''

But, at risk of betraying cultural cringe, they have also brought a certain Euro chic. At home, they race less often, so are more mysterious, even to students of form. At Werribee, they keep (slightly) more civilised hours, and at trackwork - compared with the footy training tempo of local stables - are leisurely, almost meditative. When Cumani's pair were done yesterday, they stood stock still at the finishing post, pointing into the sun, basking in it - smelling the roses if you like, Francesca said. On Cup day they will have roses all around.

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