Australian racing faces high-stakes spring
Amid the glamour, fame, celebration and riches, a backdrop of apprehension will accompany the Australian racing industry during its most important time of the year.
Instead of galloping with a full head of steam towards marquee races with financial rewards that are the envy of the thoroughbred world, racing figures are cautiously pacing themselves into the spring.
The stakes are higher than ever on more than one front.
While the easing of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions will coincide with limited crowds returning to the racetrack for the Everest meeting in Sydney and Melbourne Cup day at Flemington, racing knows it cannot be complacent.
Both days have been given respective state government exemptions to cater for 10,000 people under the strictest biosecurity protocols for racegoers, trainers, jockeys and industry staff.
Racing hasn't missed a beat during the pandemic, but there have been close calls that could have easily shut down the sport when its audience is traditionally at its highest.
As one of Australia's best jockeys found out the hard way, protocol breaches have been dealt with in a swift and harsh manner.
Victoria's champion rider Jamie Kah was banned for the spring carnival and beyond for her part in a COVID-19 breach that also led to the suspension of four other jockeys.
NSW authorities have also handed out punishment to offending trainers and jockeys.
But as racing is learning to live with COVID-19, there is also an industry acceptance it can no longer tolerate animal welfare issues on the same level it once did.
Melbourne Cup deaths have left a stain on Australia's greatest race, leading to a Racing Victoria review after the demise of Irish horse Anthony Van Dyck in 2020.
The review made 44 recommendations of which 41 have been adopted, including mandatory CT scans for the 60 horses left chasing Melbourne Cup glory after the latest acceptance stage.
Horses have to be scanned no later than five days before the Cup and the process will complement independent veterinary analysis in the countdown to the $8 million race.
It has come at a cost to the race's international representation, with overseas entries well down.
But racing fans such as Victoria's sport minister Martin Pakula say it is a small price to pay.
"There are lots and lots of people who for 364 days of the year don't watch racing but the one race they watch is the Melbourne Cup," he told industry-backed network Racing.com.
"Anything that happens in the Melbourne Cup is going to be absolutely magnified.
"So for those who are badly motivated towards racing, it's magnetic. It gives them an example of why the industry should lose its social licence.
"For those of us who are custodians of the industry ... we've got to ensure the Melbourne Cup is viewed in the best light."
Pakula is convinced the beefed up protocols create a win-win for the Cup: more Australian-trained horses getting a start and additional confidence surrounding the well-being of the internationals.
"If you've got greater assurance that the horses coming out from the UK and Ireland and elsewhere are sound and they're less likely to break down, that's got to be a good thing for the Cup," he said.
"We've had a particular problem with international runners in the Melbourne Cup and I think RV were absolutely right to want to do something about that."
The Caulfield Cup is a signature lead-in to the Melbourne Cup, but there are no northern hemisphere-trained horses in Saturday's race.
Their absence creates a gold-plated opportunity for Incentivise to confirm his meteoric rise and he is poised to start as one of the shortest-priced favourites in the Cup's rich history.
Run in tandem with the Caulfield Cup will be the Everest, a dash for Australia's fastest horses, at Randwick.
The Everest is a race with a difference because much of its purse is bankrolled by slot holders who have the right to select a horse as their representative.
Classique Legend returns having raced just once since winning last year and is the popular pick despite some reservations from his octogenarian trainer.
"It's going to take a herculean effort ... but I wouldn't try it with any other horse," Les Bridge said.
Melbourne racing switches to Moonee Valley next week for the WS Cox Plate, a true championship contest, while Sydney will offer up $7.5 million seven days later in a race exclusively for four-year-olds.
The Golden Eagle at Rosehill will be held on the same day the Victoria Racing Club stages the Victoria Derby during the first of four meetings in the space of a week.
The Melbourne Cup is the centrepiece of the Flemington carnival and while it has always been a race that has stopped a nation, this year it will be one where an industry will hold its breath.
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