Happy Ending for Vigor?

Before import Changingoftheguard was scratched by Racing Victoria vets on Melbourne Cup morning, the Danny O'Brien-trained Vigor had been the most controversial horse of the spring carnival after he was left out of the Melbourne Cup.

Victoria Racing Club officials refused to use their discretionary powers to eliminate seemingly out-of-form horses from the Melbourne Cup and effectively elevate the Caulfield Cup third placegetter into the field, leaving O'Brien and the horse's connections out of the race they had targeted for more than 12 months.

Today Vigor takes his place in the Group 1 Emirates Stakes, a race worth one-fifth of the Melbourne Cup and run over half the distance. It's not an ideal race for a stayer trained for the toughest two miles in Australian racing, but O'Brien was left with little choice but to run after his carefully hatched plan went horribly awry.

"It would be a big effort for the horse to come back to that distance and win after he's spent the last six months getting ready for the Melbourne Cup. I've got no high expectations for Saturday but we haven't been left with anything else, he got 59 kilos in the Queen Elizabeth so we don't really have any other option," O'Brien said.

To understand Vigor's Melbourne Cup plight you must go back to October last year when O'Brien and the horse's owners decided to set a long-range plan to get the horse into the Melbourne Cup and beat the handicapper.

Instead of chasing black-type races during the spring carnival, Vigor was placed to boost his rating in handicap events and put together a string of five wins beginning with a 1600-metre 0-89 handicap on Thousand Guineas day.

Vigor quickly progressed up in class and distance with each win and eventually finished off his campaign with a win at Flemington over 2520 metres carrying 57 kilograms. His rating had climbed and O'Brien was confident that his horse would be noticed by the handicapper.

"The spring and summer campaign was to get him enough weight to get into the Melbourne Cup, because we knew that we might struggle to get into the Caulfield Cup with a field of 18 runners. But with 24 in the Melbourne Cup we thought we'd done enough and that the handicapper would have thought we would have been worthy of at least the same weight as a horse like Basaltico," O'Brien said.

But when weights for the cups came out, O'Brien was faced with a confusing conundrum; his horse's rating had indeed risen but he had been allocated less weight than others on the same mark.

"For whatever reason when the weights came out we had the exact same rating as Light Vision, but Light Vision was allocated 51.5 and we were allocated 51. Look at Basaltico, a listed race in France 12 months ago was the only thing he won and he was weighted in front of Vigor," O'Brien said.

"Forgetting what happened after weights, I think he was allocated less weight than what he should have been originally.

"Dominic Beirne, who I think is the best ratings man in Australia, sent all of his information and ratings to the VRC asking why it had happened. He couldn't believe that the horse wasn't given enough weight to get into the Melbourne Cup. Only Greg Carpenter could answer the question."

Carpenter, Racing Victoria's chief handicapper, explained that O'Brien's program had contributed to the weight he assigned to Vigor.

"Prior to the weights they took a deliberate strategy to run him in races that would minimise his weight in the Cup. Danny was quite open about the fact that he didn't run in black-type races to minimise the handicap and I was very open about the fact that there were two horses that I had given 51 kilos, Vigor and Speed Gifted, that had been very well placed by their trainers, particularly Vigor who had never won a black-type race. I couldn't have given him and more than 51 given that he had no black-type performances," Carpenter said.

Having been allocated a feather weight in both cups, O'Brien then set about maintaining that advantage by running Vigor in races where he would earn a ballot-free exemption into the Caulfield Cup without earning a weight penalty from Carpenter, a strategy that the trainers of progressive stayers have adopted in the past.

After Vigor earned his Caulfield Cup ticket with victory in the Group 2 Makybe Diva Stakes, O'Brien declared that he had beaten the handicapper, but the win had also elevated the horse from handicapper to weight-for-age winner, a fact that would ultimately derail his Melbourne Cup campaign.

"In the week leading up to the Caulfield Cup I thought that Vigor was going to be very vulnerable for the ballot in the Melbourne Cup if he didn't win the race, because if he ran a nice second or third I couldn't give him any more weight and you're not guaranteed a run in the race," Carpenter explained.

Vigor ran the race of his life at Caulfield and finished third behind Viewed after a tough run from an outside barrier, but the defeat put his Melbourne Cup campaign at a crossroads leaving O'Brien with two options. The first was to run Vigor in a ballot-exempt race — either the Cox Plate or the Mackinnon Stakes, where the winner would gain a start in the cup — or to run Vigor in the Moonee Valley Cup, Geelong Cup, or the Lexus Stakes to try and earn a weight penalty.

But O'Brien explained that Vigor was not a horse that could back up within a short space of time, meaning the Cox Plate and Mackinnon Stakes were off the list, and his victory in the Makybe Diva Stakes effectively left O'Brien with one choice.

"You win the Makybe and then you can't go to the Geelong Cup because you'll get 60-plus kilos so you've got situations where you can be a class six horse with 53 in a Geelong Cup like Leica Ding and you get a penalty and get into the race, but if you're a group two winner you can't do that. He got 58 kilos in the Lexus, which was too much of an ask, so we were left with no other option but to wait on the VRC Committee," O'Brien said.

Under the conditions of the Melbourne Cup, the VRC directors can use their discretionary powers to exclude a horse from the final field if they deem that there form is below a required standard.

The last time that the VRC used this power was in 2006 when a very much out-of-form Count Ricardo was eliminated from the final field.

Although there was much discussion about the form of Kiwi trio Gallion's Reach, Capecover, or Spin Around, VRC general manager for racing James Earls explained that the VRC board saw no grounds to eliminate a horse from the field this year.

"All three horses had won a group race in the last 12 months and their recent form was not comparable to Count Ricardo so there was no strength to the argument that they should be eliminated," he said.

As a result the final field of 24 horses determined by the ballot order was retained, and despite the extraordinary withdrawal of Efficient, Speed Gifted, and Zipping in the few days before the race, Vigor fell short.

O'Brien has since called for the VRC to review the conditions of the Melbourne Cup and has called for an exemption to allow the three placegetters in the Caulfield Cup to be given automatic entry to the race.

"At the end of the day the VRC hasn't been able to set it up so the best horses get into the field. They just have to have a look at the conditions of the race to make sure they get the best field and really the first three home in the Caulfield Cup should be there," he said.

"There were at least eight or 10 plodders in there that were only there for tickets. If that's the way they [the VRC] want it, that's fine, and that is obviously the way that they do want it because they had the opportunity on derby night to put a live hope in there and remove one of the speed humps and they didn't do it."

But although Earls acknowledged that the VRC would review the conditions of the Cup, he suggested that there would be no change to allow the Caulfield Cup placegetters an automatic start at Flemington.

"The winner gets an automatic start but is liable to re-handicapping, so to give the same preference to the second and third horses without a re-handicap would be grossly unfair," he said.

"The race is a handicap and the horses that are further up the weights are closest to weight for age and the way to get up that list is to run in group races before weights are released. The conditions of the race are made very clear well before weights are released and the fact is that if you try to beat the handicapper, the ballot might beat you."

By Michael Sharkie, to view full Age story click here

Photo by Age Photographer Vince Caligiuri