Melbourne Cup vs. Cox Plate: Which Would You Choose For Your Star Horse?

Ask any casual racing fan to name the most prestigious horse racing event in Australia, and they’d almost certainly say the Melbourne Cup. And with good reason, too, as it’s not just the most famous racing event from Australia – it is one of the world’s greatest sporting and cultural events.

But the showcase at the most famous Australian horse racing racecourse, Flemington Park, does have competition from other events. These include the new super-rich events like The Everest, which carries one of the world’s largest racing purses.

And yet, there is also some debate as to whether the W.S. Cox Plate is the superior race. Yes, the Melbourne Cup is the one that brings the nation together, and the one that gets all the international attention. But for racing purists, and that means many trainers and jockeys, the one they want to win is the Cox Plate.

Both races steeped in history

The Cox Plate is in its 100th year in 2022, whereas the Melbourne Cup has been held since 1861. So, it’s fair to say that both races are steeped in history. Both offer huge financial incentives to owners, but the Melbourne Cup has the bigger purse at $AUD 8 million, whereas the Cox Plate offers $AUD 5 million (still a huge amount).

Nonetheless, we aren’t talking about history, money, or even prestige here, it’s more about the mechanics of the race. And some feel that the slog of the big handicaps like the Melbourne Cup becomes something like a war of attrition, not necessarily rewarding the best horse in the race due to the handicap system.

In contrast, the Cox Plate, with its shorter distance and ‘weight for age’ system is more of a fair system in the eyes of some racing fans. Horses will carry some weight because of their age, but it’s not like the handicap system where the best horses are punished to carry the most weight due to their perceived excellence. The Cox Plate has a better record of favourites winning, and it’s clear punters enjoy that element.

Everyone will have their personal favourite

Of course, some of this comes down to the question of handicaps versus other races. Detractors believe that forcing the best horses to carry heavier weights is the equivalent of asking a Real Madrid to play a football match with nine men against a team of 11 just because the Spanish team has had more success. Proponents of handicaps, however, believe that it’s simply part of the contest. Indeed, many punters enjoy their battle of wits against the handicapper.

We might ask – why not try to win both the Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup? Despite the close proximity of the two race dates, it has been done in the past – seven times, in fact. Most recently, the double has been achieved by Makybe Diva (2005).

But the demands of modern racing – and welfare concerns – mean that fewer elite horses are trying to achieve the double. Verry Elleegant entered both in 2021, coming 3rd in the Cox Plate and winning the Melbourne Cup. So it is still very possible.

It’s always going to be a subjective opinion to say one is better than the other. And every jockey, trainer, owner and, indeed, punter is going to have their favourite. Maybe it’s the Melbourne Cup or the Cox Plate; perhaps it’s the All-Star Mile or the Caulfield Cup. Racing is a broad church, consisting of multiple disciplines; claiming one is the best is akin to claiming there is a best Olympic sport. And any horse with a Cox Plate or Melbourne Cup on its resume is going to be a special horse indeed – regardless of which one they win.

The Grand National versus the Cheltenham Gold Cup – Where Do You Stand?

Over March and April each year the two most significant races in the National Hunt calendar take place, namely the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National.

The Grand National alone takes around £300m in bets each year and it is estimated that the Cheltenham festival (which includes the Gold Cup as it’s feature race) hits the £500m. The prize money alone for the two races is over £1.6 million. Take a look at the best betting offers for the Aintree Grand National so you can have a punt yourself.

There is one sure-fire way to tell the difference between a horse racing aficionado and someone who is not (without possessing some kind of Derren Brown style extrasensory perception) – ask them which of these two races they like the most.

A purist of the Sport of Kings is far more likely to opt for the Gold Cup, the person on the street will just as likely gravitate towards the National.

Why is this though?

As somebody who has been passionately following horse racing for almost half a century, I will try to explain the psychology!

The Grand National – A Quick Synopsis

There is no doubt that the Grand National is a grand spectacle. When I watch the 40 horses start the gallop towards that first fence each year at Aintree, I must admit that it never once fails to give me goosebumps.

It’s a steeplechase marathon, which is always full of stories behind the contenders that are waiting to be etched into history forever.  Additionally, the actual race itself is very rarely uneventful.

It’s a national institution, a long running staple of not only the sporting calendar, (it attracts a sizable worldwide audience) but it is a quintessential part of British life itself. So much so, that if Dame Judy Dench or Sir Trevor McDonald embodied a horse race, it would probably be this one.

However, it is also a handicap. So, what, you say? Well, it means it has a mixed bunch of entrants with varying ability and that the best horse probably doesn’t come out on top that often (there are notable exceptions) as they all carry different weights around on their back. The perceived poorer horses are required to carry less of a burden around the track to even out this inferiority (some in fact carry nearly 2 stone less than others).

No other horse has become as synonymous with this race as Red Rum.  Between 1973 – 1977, the slightly framed gelding won it no less than 3 times and was runner-up twice. Over the years his name and achievements have deservedly transcended the sport of horse racing.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup – A Quick Synopsis

The Cheltenham Gold Cup meanwhile, is a race which usually attracts around 15 entrants and each and every horse is treated equally.

It’s a championship Grade 1 race, so there is no hiding place – these are the big boys (and girls).

It’s simply the cream of long-distance chasers competing against each other over a thoroughly relentless and unforgiving 3 miles and 2 furlongs. The Cheltenham course is the ultimate challenge, a supreme test of jumping skill, speed and stamina.

Furthermore, some of the greatest names in horse racing history have competed and won (think about Arkle, Golden Miller and more recently the Denman and Kauto Star rivalry making the front pages of the newspapers.)  They may not be as widespread household names as ‘Rummy’, but they have each made their own indelible marks.

It is often cited as the ‘blue riband’ event of National Hunt racing. So, the human equivalent of the Gold Cup would be Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson or maybe Novak Djokovic.

It also benefits from being part of the Cheltenham festival, where, over the course of 4 days many of the Championship races are run. It is what all of the trainers in the business gear up for during the course of the entire season (all roads lead to Cheltenham).

The Grand National does have an undercard featuring some top-quality racing, but it is not at the same level or prestige as its Cheltenham counterpart.

Concluding thoughts…

Those who follow horse racing and appreciate the very best competing against each other would naturally gravitate to the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Grand National being an entertaining distraction for them from the endless ups and downs of the jumps season.

On the other hand, the casuals who are more inclined to bet once a year are drawn into the theatre and occasion of a one-off long-distance race featuring a cast of many. They are not too concerned with the fact that some of the competitors are given more favourable conditions than others or that they are not observing a group entirely made of the finest equine specimens that racing has to offer.

The truth is that each showpiece has its place in our hearts and minds, and long may this continue.

 

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup

The Cheltenham Gold Cup, run over 3 miles 2½ furlongs and 22 notoriously stiff fences on the New Course at Prestbury Park, is the most valuable conditions, or non-handicap, chase in the British National Hunt calendar, offering £625,000 in prize money. The race was created, in its current guise, by Frederick Cathcart, Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham Racecourse, in 1924. The inaugural running, which was captured by British Pathé News, was won by Red Splash, trained by Major Humphrey Wyndham and ridden by Dick Rees. Interestingly, the original Gold Cup trophy was returned to Cheltenham Racecourse in 2018 and, mounted on a plinth bearing the names of all the winners in the intervening years, is now presented to the winner as a perpetual trophy.

 

The Cheltenham Gold Cup was transferred from the Old Course to the New Course in 1959 and, in the modern era, has been won by some of the finest steeplechasers in history. Arguably the finest of them all, Arkle, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years running in 1964, 1965 and 1966, completing his hat-trick at prohibitive odds of 1/10, making him the shortest-priced winner ever. The only horse since to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in three consecutive years was Best Mate in 2002, 2003 and 2004, but the roll of honour includes such luminaries as Dawn Run, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star, to name but a few.

 

In 1983, Yorkshire trainer Michael Dickinson entered the Guinness Book of World Records, not for the first time, by saddling the first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. In order, his so-called ‘Famous Five’ were Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House. Other notable winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup include Norton’s Coin, a completely unconsidered 100/1 outsider trained by Carmarthenshire permit holder Sirrell Griffiths, in 1990, Long Run, who set the current course record of 6 minutes 29.5 seconds, in 2011 and, more recently, Al Boum Photo, who provided perennial Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins with his first winner, after six previous runner-up finishes, in 2019.

Goodwood Festival

The Goodwood Festival, traditionally known as ‘Glorious Goodwood’, is a five-day horse racing meeting that is staged annually at Goodwood Racecourse in late July and early August. Situated high on the Sussex Downs, on the southern edge of the South Downs, five miles north of Chichester, Goodwood has been described as ‘the most beautiful racecourse in the world’.

 

Horse racing was introduced to Goodwood by Charles Lennox, Third Duke of Richmond, in 1802. The initial two-day meeting, staged on a course known as ‘The Harroway’ on the Goodwood Estate, served as a replacement for the annual fixture held by officers of the Sussex Militia at nearby Petworth Park. A more ambitious, three-day fixture, held under Jockey Club Rules followed in 1803 and, in 1814, the fixture was moved to July, where it has remained ever since.

 

Notwithstanding the suspension of horse racing and the closure of Goodwood Racecourse for the duration of World War II, the Goodwood Festival continued to evolve and increase in popularity for the next two centuries or more. Nowadays, it is one of the highlights of the British racing calendar.

The modern Goodwood Festival features a total of 13 Group, or Pattern, races, of which three – the Sussex Stakes, the Goodwood Cup and the Nassau Stakes – are at the highest, Group One level and form part of the British Champions Series.

 

The Sussex Stakes, run over a mile, is the feature race on day two and, in fact, the most valuable race of the week, with £1 million in prize money. The Goodwood Cup, run over two miles, is the feature race on day three and, in 2017, was promoted to Group One status, with a corresponding increase in prize money to £500,000. The Nassau Stakes, run over a mile-and-quarter, is the feature race of the fifth, and final day, with £600,000 in prize money. The undisputed betting highlight of the final day, though, is the Stewards’ Cup, a historic handicap run over six furlongs on one of the fastest sprint courses in the country and worth £250,000 in prize money.

Michael Appleby

Barnsley-born Michael ‘Mick’ Appleby has been involved has been involved in horse racing, in various capacities, for nearly three decades. In his days as a jockey, he was attached to John Manners’ yard in Highworth, Wiltshire and, on his retirement from the saddle, joined Lambourn trainer Roger Curtis as head lad. Appleby subsequently moved to Compton Verney, Warwickshire and, in 1995, took out a public training licence for the first time.

 

However, his initial stint as a trainer was short-lived, due to financial constraints, and he subsequently became head lad to Andrew Balding at Kingsclere, Hampshire. Nevertheless, Appleby returned to training, in his own right, when appointed by breeder Colin Rogers to become his yard at Braydon Fields Farm, near Royal Wootton Bassett, in 2010. His first runner, Cotswold Village, won at 66/1 and his second, Seneschal, won at 50/1 so, although he saddled just three winners that season, he registered a level stakes profit of 106 points. Appleby improved his seasonal total to 15 winners in 2011, but a disagreement with Rogers led him to head north, to Danethorpe Stables, near Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire and, more recently, to The Homestead, near Oakham, Rutland.

 

Appleby had saddled 40 winners or more every season since 2012 and, although yet to train a hundred winners in a season, had his most successful campaign ever in 2018, with 94 winners and over £930,000 in win and place prize money. Career highlights include winning the November Handicap at Doncaster in 2012, with Art Scholar, and the Scottish Sprint Cup at Musselburgh and the Chipchase Stakes at Newcastle in 2014, with Demora and Danzeno – his first Pattern race winner – respectively.

 

Perhaps understandably, in recent years, he has become a specialist at his local track, Southwell and, in 2018/19, was crowned All-Weather Champion Trainer for the third time in four years. Appleby won his first title in 2015/16, having finished second behind his namesake, Charlie Appleby, and Mark Johnson in the previous two seasons. Although only runner-up behind Johnson, again, in 2016/17, his performance was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he relocated his yard in early December.

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