MELBOURNE (Reuters) - French stayer Dunaden prevailed in a thrilling nose-to-nose sprint to the line with British-trained Red Cadeaux to win the $6.2 million Melbourne Cup in a photo-finish at Flemington Race course on Tuesday.
French jockey Christophe Lemaire came from well back in the field to push the six-year-old Dunaden hard at the last turn but was joined out in front by the Michael Rodd-ridden Red Cadeaux and the pair fought a furious sprint down the straight of the 3,200-meter handicap, roared on by a huge crowd of over 100,000.
After several suspenseful minutes, Lemaire was announced victor in one of the closest finishes in the Melbourne Cup’s 151-year history and the yellow-clad Frenchman pointed to his chest in disbelief before pumping his fist into the air.
Lemaire’s triumph was tinged with regret for the rider he replaced, Craig Williams, whose dream of a historic Australian racing treble was dashed when a tribunal turned down his bid to appeal against a 10-race ban on Monday.
Williams, who won local marquee races the Caulfield Cup and the Cox Plate in the leadup, would have been “devastated” to miss out, said Lemaire, who first saw the track on Monday and did not know he was racing until after his plane touched down that morning.
“I didn’t know if I could ride or not. It was for me already a pleasure to come to the Melbourne Cup as a spectator, so I was waiting for the judgment,” he told reporters after riding the Mikel Delzangles-trained Dunaden to victory at 8-1 odds in the 23-horse field.
“I had a fall just before the Arc (Prix de l‘Arc de Triomphe) weekend and I lost eight winners, four group ones, so I know what it is to be in your armchair and watching your horses win. So of course I feel very disappointed for (Williams).”
Lemaire’s triumph was also heartache for Rodd, and the Cup-winning jockey briefly coaxed his six-year-old gelding to a neck in front of Dunaden after a withering run on the outside before the French horse closed the gap.
The two jockeys embraced and wished each other good luck in the nervy minutes after crossing the line before Rodd’s head slumped in disappointment after the winner’s announcement.
“I would have preferred to have been beaten by half a length rather than like that,” said Rodd, who won the 2007 race on Efficient.
Dunaden’s victory kept Australia’s richest thoroughbred trophy in French hands following Americain’s win last year and was only the fifth time the trophy had been carried off by a non-Australian or New Zealand trainer.
The Alain de Royer Dupre-trained Americain was valiant in his bid for back-to-back wins but the 5-1 favorite ultimately lost out to Lucas Cranach in a battle for third almost as tense as that for the winner with another photo needed to split the two.
France’s triumph was also shared by Qatari royalty, with young owner Sheikh Fahad al-Thani and his year-old Pearl Bloodstock stable celebrating a win that has eluded Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s powerful Godolphin stable for 13 years.
“He deserves to win it more than me to be honest,” said Sheikh Fahad, who had kept the French horse out of Europe’s top staying races to prepare for the Melbourne Cup.
“I hope that (in the) next years, if I don’t win it, he does win it,” he grinned with the trophy perched next to him.
“Melbourne Cup this year and Ascot Gold Cup next year.”
Illo, trained by Australian 12-time winner Bart Cummings, set the early pace but was swamped at the turn as the fellow German-bred Lucas Cranach charged into the lead in the final straight.
Lemaire had to bide his time before a path opened out wide in the closing stages, but needed to straighten a drifting Dunaden before his final fight to the line.
“I think he’s the best in my yard at the moment,” said trainer Delzangles, who had trained Americain before the horse was handed over to De Royer Dupre for his successful Melbourne Cup bid last year.
“I have to say I didn’t look at the photo, but watching the race and watching the replay I thought we were beaten.”
Delzangles was never convinced his horse could handle the long journey from France until the race’s final seconds.
“I was a little worried, but thanks to Sheikh, thanks to Americain last year (who) made us realize it was possible to do it,” he said.
Editing by Patrick Johnston