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.

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.

The Oaks

The Oaks Stakes, or simply the Oaks, was founded by Edward Smith Stanley, Twelfth Earl of Derby, in 1779 and takes its name from the estate, known as Oaks or Lambert’s Oaks, in Woodmansterne, on which he had acquired the lease from his son-in-law, Sir John Burgoyne, some years earlier. The Oaks pre-dates the Derby – co-founded by, and named after, Lord Derby – by a year, making it the second oldest of the five British ‘Classics’ after the St. Leger, which was inaugurated in 1776.

 

The modern race is run over the same course and distance as the Derby – that is, 1 mile, 4 furlongs and 6 yards on the famous switchback course at Epsom Downs Racecourse – but, unlike the Derby, is restricted to thoroughbred three-year-old fillies. Indeed, along with the first fillies-only Classic of the season, the One Thousand Guineas, and the St. Leger, the Oaks forms the so-called ‘Fillies’ Triple Crown, last won by Oh So Sharp in 1985. The Oaks is currently run on the first day of the Derby Festival, a.k.a. Ladies’ Day, in late May or early June and, in 2018, offered prize money of £500,000, £283,550 of which went to the winner, Forever Together.

 

Historically, between 1915-1918 and 1940-1945, when Epsom Downs Racecourse was used for military purposes during World War I and World War II, the Oaks was run, as the ‘New Oaks Stakes’, at Newmarket. Records-wise, Robert Robson, known in his heyday as the ‘Emperor of Trainers’, is the leading trainer in the history of the Oaks, with 13 wins between 1802 and 1825, while Francis ‘Frank’ Buckle, a.k.a. ‘The Governor’, is the leading jockey, with nine wins between 1797 and 1823. More recently, the widest winning margin was recorded by Sun Princess, who won by 12 lengths in 1983 and, more recently still, the fastest winning time at Epsom, 2 minutes 34.13 seconds, was recorded by Cartier Horse of the Year, Enable, in 2017.

St Leger

The St. Leger Stakes was established in 1776, at the suggestion of Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony St. Leger – erstwhile Member of Parliament for Greater Grimsby and later promoted to Major-General – as a sweepstakes for three-year-olds, run over two miles on Cantley Common, Doncaster. The inaugural running featured just five horses, the owners of whom contributed 25 guineas each to the prize money. Three years later, the St. Leger was transferred to Town Moor and, in 1813 – the year before the race was officially designated a ‘Classic’ by the Jockey Club – the distance was shortened to 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 193 yards.

 

Despite diminishing status in recent years, the St. Leger remains a Group One contest, run over the slightly shorter distance of 1 mile 6 furlongs and 115 yards, at Doncaster in September. The race is open to thoroughbred three-year-old colts and fillies – but not geldings, which have been excluded since 1906 – and, in 2018, the total prize fund was £700,000.

 

Originally a local event, the St. Leger soon gained nationwide recognition and, in the early twentieth century, royal patronage from King Edward VII, who attended the St. Leger Meeting between 1903 and 1909. Indeed, in 1909, the King owned a contender for the so-called ‘Triple Crown’ – the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger – but his colt, Minoru, could only finish fourth of seven, beaten six lengths, behind Bayardo in the final Classic of the season.

 

The St. Leger has been cancelled just once, in 1939, due to the outbreak of World War II, although it has been staged in a number of different guises at various racecourses, including Ayr, Newmarket, Thirsk and York, over the years. The leading trainer in the history of the race is John Scott, a.k.a. ‘Wizard of the North, who saddled an astonishing 16 winners between 1827 and 1862. The widest-margin winner ever was Never Say Die, ridden by Charlie Smirke – deputising for the suspended Lester Piggott – who sauntered home by twelve lengths in 1954.

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