The Amazing Races of the 2016 Spring Racing Carnival

It was a great Spring racing carnival in 2016. Some of the of the best winning performances during the carnival were simply breathtaking to watch. Here’s our take on some of the amazing races - 

The Race: Queen Elizabeth Stakes Where: Flemington Date: Saturday, November 5th   Time: 1.30 p.m.

The Lead Up: Promising stayer Tom Melbourne went into the race as the short priced $2.40 favourite on the back of his sound second in the Group 3 Lexus Stakes at Flemington the previous Saturday. The English trained, Godolphin owned Francis Of Assisi was coming off his Australian debut run in the Bendigo Cup which he romped in with by a margin three lengths. Brought to Australia as a second stringer for the Godolphin camp, Francis Of Assisi thrived so much under the Australian spring sun and gained so much confidence from his career best effort in the Bendigo Cup that he began outpointing his better performed stable mates on the training track prompting trainer Charlie Appleby to declare that the horse “Thought he was King Kong”. Despite his impressive Bendigo Cup victory and the top track work, Francis of Assisi blew out alarmingly in the betting for the Queen Elizabeth Stakes drifting from $3.70 to odds of as much as $6.00. Whilst the betting suggested that a leg may have dropped off the horse, Francis Of Assisi actually seemed to ‘grow a leg’, and would put in the most outstanding performance of the Melbourne Cup carnival.

The Race: When the field had settled Tom Melbourne had taken up the running as he often does with Francis Of Assisi in second place some four lengths astern. The horses held their positions until the home turn when English jockey William Buick began urging Francis Of Assisi along. Under hard riding the 7 year old gelding joined Tom Melbourne with 400 metres to go and by the 300 metre mark had edged a length ahead. And then it happened. Buick fired up the afterburners and Francis of Assisi suddenly zoomed 4 lengths clear with 200 metres to go - and then just kept going. Soon he was 6 lengths ahead and then 7, then 8 and by the time that he reached the finishing line the horse was in a race of his own 10 lengths clear of second place getter Vengeur Masque with Tom Melbourne back in third place.   

The Verdict: It was hard to believe that a horse so unwanted in the betting could perform so well and win a major race by one of the biggest margins in living memory. Just to confirm what we had witnessed, the time Francis Of Assisi recorded backed up the horse’s extraordinary performance. His time was just 0.13 of a second outside Jovial Knight’s 51 year old course record for the 2600 metre trip. Francis Of Assisi may have blown out in the betting, but his performance blew away all those who watched it, and the horse was soon installed as the favourite for the 2017 Melbourne Cup.

The Race : Crown Oaks Where: Flemington Date: Thursday, November 3rd . Time: 5.00 p.m.

The Lead Up : Star filly Yankee Rose went into the race as the odds on favourite. And why not? After all, she had two Group one wins to her credit including the Champion Stakes as well as three Group 1 placings - the latest being a slashing third in the Cox Plate behind the champion mare Winx and the top liner Hartnell. Despite the fact that she was by the miler All American and not really bred to run out a strong 2500 metres, racing scribes around the country were confident that Yankee Rose’s huge class advantage would get her home as it had done with previous Oaks winners including Mosheen and Miss Finland. Just to illustrate the extent of Yankee Rose’s class edge, her main rival and the second favourite in the Oaks Harlow Gold went into the event having never even been placed in a Group race - and most of the other Oaks runners had way poorer form than her. Take for example the 100/1 shot Lasqueti Spirit - in nine race starts she had yet to record a win and at her latest race outing had run unplaced in a Maiden at Kembla Grange. What were her connections even thinking daring to travel the 860 kilometres down the highway from Sydney and stepping her up in class from a Maiden to the blue ribbon Group One Crown Oaks? Daring to dream that’s what.
Trainer Lee Curtis said after the race "We had nothing to lose. We could afford to take the gamble and be silly and look what we've got out of it." That evening, the filly that many had never even heard of prior to the Oaks would headline nightly news bulletins around the country - not just because she won - but also for the way that she won it.  

The Race: Lasqueti Spirit jumped well and was in fourth place but travelling very wide around the first turn. Jockey Brenton Avdulla urged the filly forward into third and then second position. At this point most jockeys would have settled their horse with a sit behind the leader - but Avdulla wanted that position for himself. At the 2000 metre mark he moved the filly to the front - and not content with just the lead, he kept forging her further ahead. At the 1600 metre point the pair were 4 lengths in front and by the 1000 metre mark were streeting the rest of the field by 6 lengths. At that stage the favourite Yankee Rose was toiling 20 lengths away near the rear of the field. We’ve all witnessed 100/1 tearaway leaders before - they almost without exception fold a fair way from home. Breeding buffs would have been chuckling to themselves at this point, content in the knowledge that Lasqueti Spirit was bred to be a short course sprinter - her sire Beneteau won up to 1100 metres and her dam Supriym Story won just one race - a maiden over 1000 metres at Ballarat. Surely they reasoned, at this point, she would get the stitch. However, with 200 metres to go Lasqueti Spirit was showing no signs of stopping - and was still 5 lengths clear. At that stage race caller Greg Miles noted with urgency that “Her rivals had better get a move along”. However, the filly defied the pundits and kept going strongly to the post. She still had nearly 4 lengths to spare over the fast closing Harlow Gold at the finish - and would have won by a greater margin but for Brenton Avdulla stopping riding her, standing high in the irons and excitedly saluting the crowd well before the finishing post - an act that saw him fined a $1,000 by stewards. Lasqueti Spirit's speedy display impressed all those who witnessed it including the world's fastest man Usain Bolt who appropriately was on hand to present the trophy to the winning connections. 

The Verdict : So a horse with no form to speak of, at cricket score odds, clearly not bred to run out the distance bolted in with the Group One Oaks. Whilst the filly had little form to her credit, jockey Brenton Avdulla had been riding in red hot form and was at the peak of his powers. He commented after the race that “Every time she kicked, I lifted as well”. It was truly a case of horse and jockey moving with absolute synchronicity. After the race Yankee Rose was vetted and her jockey Blake Shinn questioned by the stewards. He commented that the filly “Simply wasn’t herself today”.  Punters around the country could empathise with that sentiment as many of them were feeling a little crook themselves after the race.

Lasqueti is a small island off the east coast of the much larger Vancouver Island and it is an enclave of Canadian counter culture. It’s off the electricity grid, the roads are unpaved and the inhabitants have their own unique identity. People do things differently there - hence the ‘Lasqueti Spirit’. The filly of the same name certainly won the Oaks differently as well.

The Race : Emirates Melbourne Cup Where: Flemington Date: Tuesday, November 1st. Time: 3.00 p.m.

The Lead Up :Twenty three overseas bred horses were taking on just one Australian bred galloper the gallant Caulfield Cup winning mare Jameka in a quality edition of the Cup. Many of the horses in the event were owned by a sheik or Melbourne Cup aficionado Lloyd Williams. The eccentric Williams, dressed like a cross between the Monopoly man and Willy Wonker, gave us a hint something big was in the offing, as he was attending his first Melbourne Cup in a couple of decades - and so it proved to be.

The Race: The overseas raiders including Secret Number and the Japanese trained Curren Mirotic went lickety-split up front (will those overseas stables ever learn!) setting up the race for the backmarkers. Over the final stages the Lloyd Williams horse Almandin and the Irish trained Heartbreak City emerged out of the pack for a classic fight to the finish. At different stages it looked like it could go either way, before Kerrin McEvoy aboard Almandin got the upper hand in the shadows of the post. Almandin had been heavily backed from odds of $17.00 into $12.00 on the back of some sizzling track work leading up to the event. rated Almandin at $7.00, and we advised our subscribers to support the horse at the value odds. Heartbreak City was the interesting horse - he had never previously run in a Group race yet was taking on top Group One performers in the country’s premier staying test. However, he had an ace up his sleeve - and improvement was on the cards. Heartbreak City was coming off a win in the Ebor with a claiming apprentice aboard him, but had a new rider for the Cup - Joao Moreira, widely recognised as the best jockey in the world. In motor racing terms, that’s the equivalent of a kid on P plates being replaced by the world’s top Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton. With the significant jockey change, Heartbreak City improved to put in a career best performance and go heartbreakingly close to claiming Australia’s greatest race. The Turnbull Stakes winner Hartnell finished a brave but distant third in the race.

The Verdict: Almandin won the race courtesy of a copybook ride by Kerrin McEvoy and by beating the handicapper - through astute planning and placement by Lloyd Williams and trainer Robert Hickmott. Heartbreak City ran above himself and made a real race of it with Moreira aboard - and gave his colourful, exuberant party loving owners the time of their lives along the way, whilst Moreira's congratulatory pat on Kerrin's McEvoy's back just after they crossed the finishing line was a special moment of great sportsmanship.

The Race: William Hill Cox Plate   Where : Moonee Valley   Date: October 22nd   Time: 5.00 p.m.

The Lead Up - Champion mare Winx was aiming for her thirteenth win in a row but she had a contender to the throne in Hartnell who was coming off three super victories including a ridiculously easy win in the Turnbull Stakes.

The Race - French galloper Vadamos over raced and set a hectic pace. Hartnell loomed up menacingly at the 600 metre mark and Winx with Hugh Bowman aboard were right on his tail. At that point many of us envisaged another Bonecrusher-Our Waverley Star style titanic fight to the finish. However, Winx would have none of that, and she careered away to win in stunning style. Whilst the Soft 5 rated surface that day wasn’t conducive to running fast times, Winx recorded a sensational time for the 2040 metre trip - 2.6.35. To gauge how exceptional that was, consider that the top 3 year olds lined up in the Group 2 Vase Stakes over the same distance just fourty five minutes later, and the winner Sacred Elixir went around in 2.10.94 - a time equal to 27 lengths slower than the one Winx posted. As the time she recorded was so outstanding, we were sure that the form would stand up, and that some of the horses that she thrashed that day would perform well at their subsequent runs. That’s exactly what occurred with Hartnell beaten 8 lengths by Winx coming out and running a top third in the Melbourne Cup, and Awesome Rock, beaten into fifth place over 10 lengths behind Winx taking out the Group One WFA Emirates Stakes at his next run.

The Verdict - The Cox Plate is usually the highest rated race run in Australia each year. Winx’s winning margin of 8 lengths was the greatest ever in the event. Whilst we may not have realized it at the time, what we witnessed at Moonee Valley on that grey, overcast day was one of the most phenomenal race track performances of all time in this country.