Carnival contenders take shape
The Melbourne Cup Carnival picture looks clearer than ever after a big day of action that has unveiled a number of leading candidates for Australia's biggest race week.
In particular, the final day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival - known this year as TAB Champions Stakes Day for the first time - looks set to attract incredible fields worthy of its position as a heavyweight championship card.
The $3 million Group 1 VRC TAB Champions Stakes may feature a rematch between the first four horses across the line in the Cox Plate - Anamoe, I'm Thunderstruck, El Bodegon and Zaaki.
Others, like Alligator Blood and Mr Brightside, may press on to the Champions Stakes as well although they also have the opportunity to drop back to 1600m for the $3 million Group 1 VRC Kennedy Champions Mile.
A new contender emerged as a major player in the VRC Kennedy Champions Mile as English import My Oberon impressed at his first Australian start in the Group 2 Crystal Mile (1600m). The new Annabel Neasham acquisition had a length and a half in hand over Mike Moroney-trained pair Bankers Choice and Buffalo River and is now bound for Flemington in two weeks.
Should he win at Headquarters, My Oberon will be eligible for a $1 million bonus on top of the $1.8 million first prize cheque awarded to the winner of the VRC Kennedy Champions Mile.
VRC Darley Champions Sprint
The third of the TAB Champions Stakes Day features, the $3 million Group 1 VRC Darley Champions Sprint (1200m), has become potentially one of the races of the carnival following Saturday's Group 1 Manikato Stakes (1200m).
Already set to feature a mouthwatering rematch between the world's best sprinter Nature Strip and his last-start conqueror, three-year-old Giga Kick, the Ciaron Maher and David Eustace-trained mare Bella Nipotina put herself forward as a leading contender with a facile victory.
Third last year at Flemington, her runaway victory will see her head to the race this year in peak condition having finally broken her Group 1 duck.
Two of the beaten brigade also became eligible for a million-dollar bonus simply by lining up in the Manikato, with Group 2 McEwen Stakes (1000m) winner Rothfire (second) and Group 2 Schillaci Stakes (1100m) hero Paulele (eighth) able to race for the inflated prize pot at Flemington under the conditions of the bonus.
TAB Champions Stakes Day will bring the carnival to a close on Saturday 5 November, the fourth of four captivating racedays across the space of a week.
Penfolds Victoria Derby
The first is Penfolds Victoria Derby Day next Saturday 29 October and, although it is only a week away, the headline race - the $2 million Penfolds Victoria Derby (2500m) - has been shaped significantly by events on Saturday.
While favourite Mr Maestro was at home in his box at Flemington, the market around him shifted significantly.
In Sydney, New Zealand raider Sharp 'n' Smart lifted over the concluding stages to grab Group 1 Caulfield Guineas (1600m) runner-up Elliptical to win the Group 1 Spring Champion Stakes (2000m).
Trained by Graeme and Debbie Rogerson, Sharp 'n' Smart has long been touted as the ideal Derby candidate and his Randwick win confirmed his spot in next weekend's blue riband.
Intriguingly, Sharp 'n' Smart will be aiming to become the first horse since Lion Tamer to win the Derby after taking the Listed Champagne Stakes (1600m) in Auckland at two. And that day in April, the son of Redwood defeated Mr Maestro, with the pair set for a return bout on this side of the Tasman next week.
The oft-treaded path to the Penfolds Victoria Derby is through the Group 2 Moonee Valley Vase (2040m) and that looks the case again this year with winner Berkeley Square set to back up next Saturday, along with runner-up Pericles.
Berkeley Square's win means that the Dan O'Sullivan-trained three-year-old will be one of three horses racing for a $1 million bonus should he contest the Derby, alongside Mr Maestro and Listed Geelong Classic (2200m) victor Grand Pierro.
Empire Rose Stakes
The $1 million Empire Rose Stakes is also subject to a $1 million bonus with 12 fillies and mares eligible, having won designated races throughout the year.
The final two horses to become eligible for a bonus were Saturday's Group 2 Fillies' Classic (1600m) winner Zoe's Promise and My Whisper, who took out the Group 3 Tesio Stakes (1600m).
They join a quality group of bonus-eligible fillies and mares with the likes of Group 2 TAB Edward Manifold Stakes (1600m) winner She's Licketysplit, Group 2 Stocks Stakes (1600m) victor Daisies, Group 2 Furphy Let's Elope Stakes (1400m) heroine Kissonallforcheeks and Excelida, winner of the Group 2 Furphy Rose of Kingston Stakes (1400m), among those also set to race for the extra $1 million.
While the John O'Shea-trained Promise Of Success is not eligible for a $1 million bonus, her victory in The Invitation in Sydney shaped as the ideal Empire Rose hitout and she firmed in the market, headed by Kiwi mare La Crique.
Coolmore Stud Stakes
The third of the Group 1 races on opening day is the $2 million Group 1 Coolmore Stud Stakes (1200m) for the three-year-olds.
Group 1 Moir Stakes (1000m) winner Coolangatta was a late withdrawal from the Manikato Stakes and will instead run in the Coolmore, where she is set to face Saturday's impressive Group 3 Red Anchor Stakes (1200m) victor Sejardan.
The pair will face off with Group 1 Golden Rose (1400m) quinella Jacquinot and In Secret, Listed Winning Edge Poseidon Stakes (1100m) winner Buenos Noches and Group 3 Blue Sapphire Stakes (1200m) trifecta Grand Impact, Shalailed and Lofty Strike among others.
The Group 2 Moonee Valley Gold Cup (2500m) is a traditional lead-up to the race that stops the nation, the $8 million Group 1 Lexus Melbourne Cup (3200m) on Tuesday 1 November.
While winner Francesco Guardi will not line up on the first Tuesday in November - unlike placegetters Lunar Flare and Persan - he is a chance to head to the $300,000 Group 3 Queen's Cup (2600m) on TAB Champions Stakes Day where he will be eligible for a $200,000 bonus if successful.
The $1 million Group 1 Kennedy Oaks (2500m), to be run on Thursday 3 November, was the one race that did not change too much after Saturday's racing with next weekend's Group 2 Racing and Sports Wakeful Stakes (2000m) the traditional lead-up race. However, Group 1 winner She's Extreme - third in the Spring Champion - ran home solidly enough to wrest favouritism for the fillies' classic.
And now, the stage is set for the greatest week in Australian racing. Just seven days until the greatest horses from Australia and around the world grace Headquarters to determine the best of the best.