Some are just born to lead

25 October 2021 Written by Joe McGrath

Some say leaders are born, not necessarily made.

In horse racing, horses can be taught to lead, but some do it better than others. It’s a hard craft to perfect. Success relies on the individual and, of course, the all-important jockey.

In 160 runnings, not many horses can boast leading all the way in a Melbourne Cup. In fact, from what is recorded and certainly in the modern era, there are only three. Last year’s Lexus Melbourne Cup winner, Twilight Payment, is one. Might And Power also achieved the feat back in 1997 and Lord Fury did the same in 1961.

When you also consider that Master of Reality and Vow And Declare both led out of the straight the first time in the 2019 Cup and finished the reverse at the finishing line, is it any surprise that this tactic will continue to be deployed going forward?

But, for some, this is not a pattern we will necessarily get used to, as there are a number of factors to consider.

Asked at a post-race media conference about the tactics, Twilight Payment’s trainer, Joseph O’Brien, said it was always the plan to lead.

“Once we knew the horse drew favourably in [barrier] 12, we were always looking to push forward and take up a forward position,” O’Brien said.

“In fact, leading was always the preferred option,” O’Brien, a dual winner of the Melbourne Cup, added.

From jockey Jye McNeil’s perspective, he was always going to take advantage of a good draw and having never ridden in a Lexus Melbourne Cup, he didn’t have much to lose – other than the actual race, which is probably something he didn’t want to think too much about sitting in the jockeys’ room pre-race.

It’s the highest pressure race on the calendar and one of the toughest to win anywhere in the world. Tactics are paramount to success.

“It was the plan to always be forward. Obviously he was in the market, but I wasn’t feeling a lot of pressure ... but when you’ve got to go forward like that, there is some pressure in getting it right. Thankfully it all came together,” stated 26-year-old McNeil.

"I just tried to relax the horse going out the straight the first time, sing the odd tune and set everyone else a task to beat him."

Talking afterwards as to how the race unfolded and the decision to take a forward position, McNeil was specific about his mindset.

"I had to be positive. He was a little bit slow into gear. He jumped with them but he was a touch slow to really find his rhythm. I encouraged him to go forward and that was the plan and then he found just a lovely tempo. He got into a fantastic rhythm, breathing really well and then it was a matter of amping the tempo up at the right stage."

The previous all-the-way winner dates back to Might And Power’s victory in 1997. Jockey Jim Cassidy’s pre-race tactics were also to push forward.

“Jack Denham (trainer) and I were on the one page with tactics.

“The horse had improved since the Caulfield Cup win and relaxed so well going to the front in the Caulfield Cup.

“Even with the 56kg (including a 3.5kg penalty), I was wanting to get him to the front; relax him and put the other horses in a position where they would not be able to run him down.

“Jack did tell me before I went out onto the track, ‘Just remember, it’s more important to be in front at the post the second time round, as opposed to the first.’”

The wily old Denham was right, by the narrowest of margins. Might And Power won by a short half-head, defeating 1995 Cup winner Doriemus.

Might And Power, a dominant figure with a free action, was a natural out in front. With Cassidy aboard, it often looked like a mismatch of proportions. Cassidy, one of the greatest of all time jockeys, Hall of Famer in both New Zealand and Australia yet no more than 5 feet tall, and Might And Power near-on 16.3 hands high. You had to do a double-take to get the sizings right. But for Cassidy, when he pushed forward on the son of Zabeel, he knew others would find it hard to get past him.

As Cassidy alludes, he did win the Caulfield Cup by 7.5 lengths leading into the Melbourne Cup, so there were high levels of confidence despite a 3.5kg penalty post-race.

“For me, I was wanting him to relax out in front.

“I didn’t want anyone on my outside... it would not have helped.

“I just tried to relax the horse going out of the straight the first time, sing the odd tune and set everyone else a task to beat him.

“I was confident I had the right horse under me,” Cassidy added.

Lord Fury in 1961 was clearly the beneficiary of an extremely well-judged ride by Sydney-based jockey Ray Selkrig. There was not much of Selkrig, but by his own admission he possessed one key natural skill.

“I had a clock in my head,” explained the 91-year-old four-time AJC Derby and Melbourne Cup winner.

“I was particularly good in staying races but had an ability to judge pace – down to the millisecond – more or less.

“I basically split the race (the Cup) up into four half-mile sections.

“I knew what I needed to run the first sectional in; the second; the third and ultimately the final half mile.

“I jumped particularly well from gate six, and from there I progressed forward.

“I was confident halfway from home that it would take a pretty special horse to beat me,” Selkrig added.

Lord Fury ran last behind Sky High in the weight-for-age Mackinnon Stakes the Saturday before the Cup, but back to handicap conditions he benefited with a 9kg drop in weight. Coupled with a masterful front-running display, the 101st Cup running was more-or-less Selkrig’s when he hit the top of the straight.

The Lexus Melbourne Cup is a handicap race which has about a six kilogram spread of weights at best. It is becoming more and more prevalent that this has had an effect on the tempo in the race. With the winner of the past two runnings either leading or second exiting the straight; maybe the days of Kiwi coming from last are less likely going forward. But for Cassidy, he’s not so convinced.

“I am a believer that the international horses have certainly had an effect on the tempo of the race.

“Many of them have run over two miles and are a lot more seasoned than those trained in Australia, with many having their first run at two miles in the Cup.

“We saw a few years ago (2018) where Cross Counter came from the back group of runners going out the straight the first time.

“It is very hard to lead all the way and for Jye to do what he did last year took a fair bit of courage.

“Kiwi (1983 Cup winner ridden by Cassidy) was a completely different horse to Might And Power.

“He was such a relaxed galloper, it was always the plan to switch him off.

“His performance was quite extraordinary,” Cassidy added.

But Cassidy was emphatic when he concluded, “So many things need to go right for a jockey ... when you go into the Mounting Yard for the pre-Cup entertainment, the first thing you do is take a look at your horse and take a look at the opposition.

“If your horse presents well, it is a very good sign. If not, you have the task ahead... no matter whether you go forward or back,” he added.

Whether it is just an anomaly of the pattern of racing in an event that attracts such a large field, or whether it is a result of a compression of weights, or the advent of the international runners, the pattern of racing continues to evolve, and contributes to the sense of intrigue as people nationwide and around the world try to predict the winner each year.

Image:  Might And Power was a natural out in front. (Andrew Rosenfeldt).

Image:  Leading was always the preferred option for Jye McNeil and Twilight Payment

Image:  Jockey Ray Selkrig rode Lord Fury straight to the front in the 1961 Melbourne Cup, and the two never looked back. (VRC Collection)