A hurdler winning the Melbourne Cup? It's not supposed to happen these days, is it?
The Cup is now a limited, quality handicap, a race for the cream of the world's stayers, an event unlike those of yore where the lightly-weighted plodders, courtesy of their featherweights, got their shot at glory. The spread between those at the top of the weights — this year, Dunaden — and at the bottom (Saturday's Lexus winner Kelinni) is a mere eight kilograms, nothing in comparison to the 12-, 14-, even 16-kilo differentials in years gone by.
That means that nowadays it's usually all about the classy candidates at the top of the card, the previous Cup winners and gallopers who have contested hugely competitive group 1 events over 2400 metres in Europe, Dubai and North America. Horses like Americain and Dunaden, Jakkalberry and Red Cadeaux.
Galileo's Choice is put through his paces during trackwork at Werribee last week. Photo: Pat Scala
But down among a batch of horses saddled with 53.5 kilograms — 5.5 less than topweight Dunaden — lies a candidate who has won over obstacles earlier in his career — the sort of statistic that usually makes Australian punters turn their noses up and dismiss the galloper as a no hoper.
But when the race card carries the name of D.K. Weld as trainer, then caution has to be the watchword.
If one man can win this race today with a horse who has form over jumps it is the master of Rosewell House, the Curragh stable where Dermot Weld, the doyen of Irish horsemen, prepared Galileo's Choice for his assault on the $6 million prize. While he has done most of his racing on the flat, Galileo's Choice has form over timber, being one of Weld's regular winners at the famous midsummer racing carnival in Galway where, in 2011, he won a maiden hurdle as a well-backed favourite. He followed up with another hurdles win at Fairyhouse before an unplaced run at the Cheltenham Festival last March.
Weld has famously taken out the Cup with a horse who had form over hurdles previously when, in 1993, he saddled up Vintage Crop to become the first European raider to take the Melbourne Cup. Vintage Crop was being touted as a potential champion hurdler at one stage but Weld kept him primarily to the flat, where he not only took out the Cup but a number of top staying handicaps in Ireland.
These are not the only two examples of Weld's capacity to mix it up and prepare horses good enough to win in the highest class over jumps and also in high-grade flat races.
Rite of Passage is the latest example. The gelding won his first three races in what are known as Bumpers in Ireland — flat races confined to jumping bred horses — before progressing to hurdles where he was good enough to run at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2010, finishing third in a championship event for novices.
Most trainers would have put the horse out for the summer to rest ahead of a campaign over hurdles next winter. Not Weld. He freshened the son of Giant's Causeway up and produced him three months later at Royal Ascot to win Europe's premier staying race, the Ascot Gold Cup.
Rite of Passage then sustained injuries and did not race again until May 2011, when he ran third in a listed race. That was it until his stunning reappearance at Ascot on Champions Day last month when, after a lay-off of 500-odd days he won first-up over 3200 metres, beating the leading English and Irish stayers in a group 3 event.
So anyone who might want to thumb their noses at the prospects of Galileo's Choice just because he has won over hurdles and has not raced for almost three months might be advised to think twice. Weld has done it before, so don't be surprised if he does it again.