St Michel in action at Belmont Park (Image: Steve Cargill / Racingfotos)
By Tom Peacock,
York’s Lonsdale Cup looks as if it will be the last-chance saloon for Europeans aiming towards a Melbourne Cup Carnival start.
There is less than a month before Victoria’s chief handicapper Greg Carpenter unveils the weights for the 2018 Lexus Melbourne Cup and half a dozen horses could be using the 3200-metre Group 2 - set to be staged overnight on Friday - to catch his attention.
One runner, St Michel, was beginning his preparations for an Australian adventure 12 months ago only for a last-minute hitch.
“He didn’t quite make quarantine and he went lame,” said St Michel’s trainer Sir Mark Prescott. “His form’s not as good this year, so far. We’ll see if it’s better on Friday.”
St Michel was allotted 54kg last year having run Red Cardinal - now with Darren Weir - very close in the Belmont Gold Cup (3200m) in New York and taking a decent third in this event.
Given a long break, he reappeared with a lacklustre performance as a hot favourite for a 3200-metre Listed event in Germany before finishing fifth behind European trailblazer Stradivarius and Lexus Melbourne-bound Torcedor in the Goodwood Cup (3200m) three weeks ago.
“It depends on how he runs in the Lonsdale. He’s got to run better there than he did. At the moment his weight would just be borderline (to make the Cup),” Sir Mark explained.
“I would have said he’s got to run a good race and if he runs as well as he did last year, we’d like to come (to Melbourne) very much.”
Sir Mark is one of the most cherished characters of British racing. An authority on the arts, bullfighting and numerous other field sports, he has been training from the historic Heath House stables in Newmarket since 1970.
The 70-year-old is known particularly for bringing on staying horses slowly through handicaps and for running his yard with military precision. He has also managed a reconnaissance visit to Flemington in 2016.
“I was very lucky, the Carbine Club asked me to speak at their dinner and they gave me a wonderful four days there,” he said. “I was treated like a lord, which I didn’t deserve, but I took to straight away.
“I went to it all; lunch with the Governor, tea with someone else, the racing, everything. It was marvellous, the treatment of a lifetime.
“I thought that if I could bring the right horse, I’d love to go. He’d be ideal; he goes on the firm, he likes a strong pace, he likes to be held up. At his best he’d be just the type."
The gelding is owned by the nephew and associates of John Pearce, a long-standing owner who died last year.
“They’re very game, they would have gone last year, and as long as we get a weight where we’re fairly confident that we’re going to get in, the idea would be to come,” the trainer said.
Whether St Michel can pass this final test remains to be seen. Domestic interest will revolve around whether John Gosden’s Stradivarius can claim a new £1million bonus from race sponsors Weatherbys Hamilton, having already won the three qualifying legs including the Gold Cup (4000m) at Royal Ascot.
Gosden has mentioned that the Cup will be considered amongst his end-of-year targets whilst Red Verdon, runner-up in four consecutive Group races this season, is set to make the trip for the same Red Cadeaux combination of trainer Ed Dunlop and owner Ronnie Arculli.
Qatar Racing’s Count Octave is another who needs to achieve some Group-class form ahead of Australian quarantine with Willie Mullins’ Max Dynamite and Thomas Hobson, third and sixth respectively in last year’s Cup, being others who need to demonstrate their wellbeing.
Sir Mark said: “You’ve got Stradivarius, you’ve got all the stars there, but we were only beaten in a double photo finish last year, and he was beaten in a photo in Belmont. His form last year was good, good, good. This year, his second run was OK, so he needs to step up."