Nation prepares to stop for a Melbourne Cup behind closed doors

Melbourne (AFP) –


Australia's "race that stops a nation" will Tuesday be staged in front of empty grandstands, devoid of the roars from tens of thousands of punters when the Melbourne Cup is run behind closed doors for the first time in its long history.

Held on the first Tuesday of November since 1876, the punishing 3200 metre (two-mile) handicap is so important that race day is a public holiday in the state that hosts it, Victoria, with the winning horse becoming a household name in Australia.

Hordes of colourfully-dressed spectators usually flock to Flemington for a boozy day out, but the track will be eerily quiet this year because of Covid-19 restrictions with fans instead huddled around televisions, radios and live streams.

Melbourne emerged from months of coronavirus lockdown last week, sparking hopes that some spectators would be allowed, only for organisers to decide it was too soon.

"While we are very disappointed not to be able to welcome our members and racegoers to Cup Week, we understand the (Victoria) government's commitment to keeping our community safe," said Victoria Racing chairman Amanda Elliott.

With cricket's Boxing Day Test match, the Australian Open tennis and Australian Formula One Grand Prix all scheduled to take place in the next few months, the Melbourne Cup heralds the return of top-level sport to the city.

- McEvoy targets fourth win -

Regarded as the ultimate test of stamina and staying power, the Melbourne Cup has Aus$8 million (US$5.6 million) at stake and a third of the 24-strong field are international horses, mostly Irish and British, despite the pandemic.

The fancied Tiger Moth was handed a horror barrier draw at the weekend, but heads into the showpiece as the early favourite alongside fellow Irish raider Anthony Van Dyck.

For Tiger Moth's jockey Kerrin McEvoy, who last month claimed the Aus$15 million Everest for the third time in Sydney, the draw couldn't have been worse as he targets a fourth victory. The four-year-old stallion will start from gate 23, the second widest.

Another fancied horse and this year's Cox Plate winner, Sir Dragonet, fared better with gate 14 while Caulfield Cup runner-up Anthony Van Dyck, with Winx jockey Hugh Bowman in the saddle, will spring from gate 3.

Tiger Moth, trained by Aidan O'Brien and a narrow second in this year's Irish Derby, will be making only his fifth start and McEvoy knows he is up against it.

"I think Anthony Van Dyck will be hard to beat," McEvoy, who rode Brew to success in 2000, Almandin in 2016 and Cross Counter two years ago, told reporters.

"I liked the way he looked the other morning and you can make a case for a lot of them."

He also pinpointed as dangers the Caulfield Cup winner Verry Elleegant and fourth-placed Prince Of Arran, last year's Melbourne Cup runner-up.

Prince of Arran, who was third in the 2018 Melbourne Cup behind Cross Counter, will be ridden this year by gifted female jockey Jamie Kah.

Last year's winner, the locally-bred Vow and Declare, is back for another crack but is carrying more weight and not considered a major contender.

Chris Waller, trainer of now retired record-breaking superstar mare Winx, has won almost everything in racing except the Melbourne Cup and saddles New Zealand-bred Verry Elleegant and Finche to try to break his duck.