2018 Lexus Melbourne Cup winner Cross Counter and Jockey Kerrin McEvoy.

Cross Counter primes for Lexus Melbourne Cup defence

By Steve Jones

Cross Counter is bang on course to defend his Lexus Melbourne Cup crown.

Trainer Charlie Appleby declared his “eyes were firmly fixed on a repeat” after watching his Godolphin-owned galloper finish third in Tuesday’s Group 1 Goodwood Cup.

Last year Cross Counter had thrashed Dee Ex Bee in the Gordon Stakes during the popular five-day festival at England’s most picturesque track, high above Chichester on the South Downs.

This time, on an unseasonably blustery day, he finished behind his old rival in the 3,200m race but both of them had to give best to Europe’s champion stayer Stradivarius.

It was a record-equalling third straight win in the Goodwood Cup for the John Gosden-trained five-year-old. Last month he had picked up his second Gold Cup at Royal Ascot by defeating Dee Ex Bee with Cross Counter back in fourth.

Tuesday’s race was almost a carbon copy with Stradivarius quickening past the pair in the closing stages under Frankie Dettori.

Despite finishing two-lengths third for jockey James Doyle, Appleby was delighted with Cross Counter’s run.

He said: “It was a great performance again. It was a repeat of Ascot really and we’ve no excuses.

“He got a lovely tow into the race, had every chance but he’s met a supreme champion stayer in Stradivarius.

“We’ll take a look at the Irish St Leger now but we’ve still got our eyes firmly fixed on a repeat in Melbourne. That’s the plan.

“We said beforehand as long as he puts up a solid performance we would go back to Australia. If he had won it might have been a different kettle of fish.

“He’ll hopefully get a racing weight in the Melbourne Cup and we’ll be going there with a live shot.”

Cross Counter famously capped a dream year for Appleby when becoming the first British-trained winner of the $8million Lexus Melbourne Cup last November.

His devastating late surge under Kerrin McEvoy took him past fellow British raiders Marmelo and Prince Of Arran in the closing stages to give Godolphin boss Sheikh Mohammed the victory he had craved. The ruler of Dubai had been trying to win Australia’s greatest race for more than 20 years.

It came just five months after Masar – also trained by Appleby – had finally become the first horse to win the Derby at Epsom in the blue silks of Godolphin.

Now Cross Counter is on course to attempt to become the first horse to win successive Lexus Melbourne Cups since three-time winner Makybe Diva 14 years ago.

Appleby realises he faces a harder task when returning to Flemington but he believes his star stayer has improved over the last 12 months.

He revealed: “He’s definitely stronger than last year.

“He’s been putting up some solid performances this season. He won in Dubai in March, ran well at Royal Ascot and now he’s put up another good performance.

“It’ll be a stiffer task in the Melbourne Cup but he handled the conditions there last year and it’s well worth taking another chance with him there. He deserves another crack at the Cup.

“The track at Flemington suits him. They didn’t go an end-to-end gallop last year but off that flyweight it suited him. This year he’ll be carrying more weight and he’ll probably have to be ridden a bit more forward.”

Cross Counter is likely to be joined by several stablemates on the plane from England. Appleby is planning to have a strong squad for the Spring Carnival but he refused to be drawn on which other horses might be making the trip.

He added: “I’m sure we’ll get a decent team together for the Spring Carnival, as we always do.

“Once we’ve got these Festival meetings – Goodwood and York – out of the way we’ll start to assemble it from there.”