MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Japanese stayer Mer De Glace and European import Constantinople have been installed as favorites for Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup as horse racing in Australia faces surging image problems.
First staged in 1861, the “race that stops a nation” has been a fixture on the first Tuesday of November since 1876, attracting tens of thousands of bettors in their best clothes to the track at Flemington, with boozy parties held nationwide.
It is a cultural institution — the winning horse instantly becoming a household name in Australia — and the day is considered so important it is declared a public holiday in the race’s host state of Victoria.
The Hisashi Shimizu-trained Mer De Glace, who won the Caulfield Cup, emerged as the overall favorite after drawing gate No. 2 at the weekend just ahead of Constantinople, ridden by champion Hong Kong-based jockey Joao Moreira, who drew gate No. 7.
“Great gate. We were hoping for between five and 10, snap-bang in the middle,” one of Constantinople’s trainers Ben Hayes said.
“He (Moreira) should be able to get him in a lovely position from that gate and he should get luck.”
While hordes of people are expected to flock through the turnstiles, Melbourne’s annual spring festival is battling a growing image problem.
It has been targeted by animal rights activists after a spate of fatalities at the event in recent times, including Irish 5-year-old The Cliffsofmoher after a fall early in last year’s race.
Criticism of the sport in Australia has surged since national broadcaster ABC last month revealed that thousands of retired racehorses were being sent to slaughterhouses in secret, where many were allegedly beaten and abused before being killed.
While the Melbourne Cup was not directly linked to the slaughterhouses in question, the images rocked the industry and days later pop superstar Taylor Swift pulled out of a planned performance at Tuesday’s race.
Activists took credit for her change of heart after leading a social media campaign claiming she was “endorsing animal cruelty,” although Swift’s promoter cited scheduling issues.
In a bid to address public concerns, Racing Victoria last month pledged 25 million Australian dollars ($17.3 million) to improve welfare for retired racehorses.
Separately, the Victoria Racing Club said 10 percent of ticket sales from this year’s Melbourne Cup would go toward a new equine welfare fund.
“Whilst the industry has achieved many great outcomes over recent years and has a clear pathway for the future, it is clear we need to step up and do more,” said Racing Victoria chairman Brian Kruger.
“There are many challenges to overcome, particularly when the racing industry has no jurisdiction or oversight of retired racehorses, however we are committed to making important steps in the interests of our equine stars and the sport more broadly,” he said.
Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews stressed the importance of horse welfare, but also defended the Melbourne Cup.
“It’s about ordinary, hard-working Victorian families who will be there in record numbers and many hundreds of thousands more who will watch the race that stops the nation,” he told reporters last week.