Twilight Payment wins spectator-free Melbourne Cup

Melbourne (AFP) –


Irish raider Twilight Payment won the coveted Aus$8.0 million (US$5.5 million) Melbourne Cup at an eerily quiet Flemington on Tuesday, with the "race that stops a nation" run behind closed doors for the first time.

With Jye McNeil in the saddle, the eight-year-old gelding held off a charging Tiger Moth and Prince of Arran in a thrilling finish to the gruelling 3,200-metre (two mile) handicap, considered the ultimate test of stamina and staying power.

Anthony Van Dyck, one of the pre-race favourites, was "humanely euthanised" after breaking down with 500 metres remaining, Racing Victoria said.

"There's so many emotions, it's such a big moment, it's a miracle," said McNeil, one of the rising stars of the sport who was in his first Melbourne Cup.

"It's very overwhelming. There was a lot of hard work getting to this stage and I couldn't be more impressed with how everything played out today."

"I've been dreaming about this since before I could ride," he added. "It was a very surreal feeling crossing that line."

Veteran owner Lloyd Williams' seventh Melbourne Cup win came against a top-quality field heavy with overseas runners, mostly Irish and British, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Racing out of barrier 12, the Joseph O'Brien-trained Twilight Payment led for much of the race with Ireland's Tiger Moth charging late alongside Britain's Prince of Arran, last year's runner-up ridden this year by female jockey Jamie Kah.

- 'Strange feeling' -

The Melbourne Cup is the highlight of Australia's racing calendar and ordinarily up to 90,000 colourfully dressed and boozy punters would be trackside.

But despite Melbourne emerging from months of Covid-19 lockdown last week, organisers decided it was too soon to allow fans and just jockeys, trainers, security and operations staff were on site.

"Everyone that's there today is working so it was a very strange feeling driving in on Cup Day to see the carparks pretty much empty," Victoria Racing Club chief executive Neil Wilson told reporters.

It meant that instead of Flemington erupting in cheers to the sound of popping champagne corks on a glorious, sunny day, the only sound was the thundering of hooves across the turf.

There was drama before the race with the Williams-owned French gelding King of Leogrance, winner of the Adelaide Cup this year, scratched after showing signs of lameness, reducing the field to 23.

First staged in 1861, the Melbourne Cup has been run on the first Tuesday of November since 1876, and the winning horse instantly becomes a household name in Australia.

It is a cultural institution with Melbourne Cup day a public holiday in Victoria, the state where it is held.

While fans were not allowed, one thing that didn't change was animal rights activists demonstrating over cruelty concerns, after a small protest was held on Monday.

Ahead of last year's race, damning revelations emerged about the brutal treatment and slaughter of retired racehorses on an "industrial scale", sending shockwaves through the industry.

While the Melbourne Cup was not linked to the abattoirs involved, it has frequently been targeted by protesters. After Anthony Van Dyck was put down, seven horses have now died on race day since 2013.

"Racehorses are still being sent to slaughter while the industry pretends to have cleaned up its mess," said Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses official Kristin Leigh.

While slaughtering horses instead of re-homing them is not illegal in Australia, an undercover probe by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year alleged the practice was far more widespread than acknowledged.