Vauban: Everyone seems to think he will win - now he must prove them right
Strange as it may sound, it almost feels as if Vauban has already won.
There is a surreal sense of inevitability about the build-up to this Lexus Melbourne Cup.
It could, of course, prove to be entirely misplaced, but from one day to the next there has been an ever greater belief here that 30 years on from Vintage Crop's historic triumph, one of the most iconic prizes in Australian sport is once again going back to Ireland.
Willie Mullins was at Flemington as a winning punter on that famous afternoon in 1993. He has made regular return trips in his quest to lift the cherished loving cup, including when supplying the second, third and fourth in a race that is part of this nation's soul. His most recent visit was on Saturday, when what he said to the media – and also the way he said it – fuelled the feeling the increasingly hot favourite has a huge opportunity to achieve something special.
Even before Mullins arrived, the momentum behind Vauban was building. Bookmakers had been struggling to split the 2022 Triumph Hurdle winner from Gold Trip, last year's Cup hero. It was what Vauban did in a Flemington public gallop on Tuesday that changed everything.As at Royal Ascot in June, he thundered past the winning post many lengths clear of stable companion Absurde and at a speed that shocked experienced locals.
"It was like SAS out there – I felt tired looking at it," said Mick Price, joint-trainer of dual French Group 3 winner Lastotchka, who makes her Australian debut in a contest worth almost £2.5 million to the winner.
From that point onwards, Vauban has distanced Gold Trip in the betting. Ask anybody who they expect to win and the answer is invariably the favourite. He was even tipped from beyond the grave in Friday's edition of the Herald Sun, in which seven-time Melbourne Cup-winning owner Lloyd Williams revealed with certainty that Kerry Packer, the tycoon who was once Australia’s richest man and most feared punter, would have steamed into Vauban were it not for the fact he is dead.
Just like his deceased friend, Williams is sweet on the prospects of Vauban, yet he is once again represented himself, his sole challenger being Serpentine, victorious in that most bizarre Covid Derby for Aidan O'Brien three years ago. The master of Ballydoyle's son Joseph runs Okita Soushi in his bid to claim a third Melbourne Cup, while among those closest to Vauban in the market are two stayers who left Britain for a new life in Australia. Mark Zahra has deserted Gold Trip to partner Caulfield Cup winner Without A Fight, while Chris Waller hopes the removal of blinkers will encourage Soulcombe to stop walking out of the stalls long after his opponents have begun racing.
Japanese raider Breakup could easily be dangerous, More Felons (the artist formerly known as Scriptwriter) is a live outsider and Hollie Doyle has been booked by the Gold Trip team of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace for the progressive Future History. It would be no surprise to see any of those go close. But based on what we have seen, heard and sensed, it would also be absolutely no surprise to see Vauban tear the race apart.
Ryan Moore, so sublime aboard Auguste Rodin at Santa Anita, will guide Vauban into stall three, the seemingly perfect starting position selected at the barrier draw by owner Rich Ricci, whose Max Dynamite gave Mullins his best previous Melbourne Cup finish. Like Max Dynamite, Vauban has plenty of experience over hurdles. The son of Galiway differs from the 2015 runner-up in that this has always been his target.
"He's the best chance we've ever had – and probably the best chance we'll ever have," said Mullins following the Flemington barrier draw.
In the close vicinity were son Patrick and Grand National-winning nephew David Mullins. Also due in town for the main event is Ruby Walsh.
"I think we have most of the team here," explained jump racing's dominant force. "A lot of pals from home have come out, thinking this could be the year they want to be here. I hope they're right. There's certainly a good bit of buzz at home. I'm trying to keep my cool but I'm a bit apprehensive."
The nerves are linked to an expectation that is becoming almost irresistible, not least because Vauban may well be a fair bit better than he showed at Ascot and when following up in Group 3 company at Naas.
"I think we still have a few pounds left in the tank," said Mullins. There might even have been a glint in his eye as he said it. The confidence in the camp is impossible to hide but the best summation arguably came from someone outside it, Lastotchka's other joint-trainer Michael Kent Jnr.
"It's Vauban's race to lose," he said. "I don't think we've seen his ceiling. He'll be extremely hard to beat. My impression is he's beaten the handicapper and is destined for bigger things."
Those words came from someone who knows Mullins, having once spent a week riding out at Closutton.
"I loved it," said Kent. "It's like organised chaos there, with no fuss and horses going in every direction. It was mind-blowing."
And what about the man himself?
"Willie is a genius trainer," said Kent. "He taught me the three 'D's of training – decide, delegate and disappear."
By the time Mullins disappears from Melbourne – and that could be many weeks in the future if Vauban wins – he might well have executed the finest feat of his racing life. If so, plenty of people here, whether Irish, Aussie or British, will be celebrating.