Twilight Payment wins Melbourne Cup marred by tragedy

·3-min read

Irish raider Twilight Payment won the coveted Aus$8.0 million (US$5.5 million) Melbourne Cup on Tuesday in a race run without spectators and marred by the death of English Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck.

With Jye McNeil in the saddle, the eight-year-old gelding held off a charging Tiger Moth and Prince of Arran in a thrilling finish to the gruelling 3,200-metre (two mile) handicap, considered the ultimate test of stamina and staying power.

But Anthony Van Dyck, one of the pre-race favourites at Flemington, broke down with a leg injury and was later put down -- the seventh Melbourne Cup horse to perish on race day since 2013.

McNeil, one of the rising stars of the sport, triumphed in his maiden Melbourne Cup, which was held behind closed doors for the first time because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"There's so many emotions, it's such a big moment, it's a miracle," said McNeil.

"It's very overwhelming. There was a lot of hard work getting to this stage and I couldn't be more impressed with how everything played out today."

"I've been dreaming about this since before I could ride," he added. "It was a very surreal feeling crossing that line."

Veteran owner Lloyd Williams' seventh Melbourne Cup win came against a top-quality field heavy with overseas runners, mostly Irish and British, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Racing out of barrier 12, the Joseph O'Brien-trained Twilight Payment led for much of the race with Ireland's Tiger Moth charging late alongside Britain's Prince of Arran, last year's runner-up ridden on Tuesday by female jockey Jamie Kah.

- 'Strange feeling' -

First staged in 1861, the Melbourne Cup has been run on the first Tuesday of November since 1876, and the winning horse instantly becomes a household name in Australia. 

It is the highlight of Australia's racing calendar and ordinarily up to 90,000 colourfully dressed and boozy punters would be trackside.

But despite Melbourne emerging from months of Covid-19 lockdown last week, organisers decided it was too soon to allow fans and just jockeys, trainers, security and operations staff were on site.

It meant that instead of Flemington erupting in cheers to the sound of popping champagne corks on a glorious, sunny day, the only sound was the thundering of hooves across the turf.

There was drama before the race with the Williams-owned French gelding King of Leogrance, winner of the Adelaide Cup this year, scratched after showing signs of lameness, reducing the field to 23.

The death of Ireland's Anthony Van Dyck, from the stable of trainer Aidan O'Brien, then cast a shadow over the event.

"The horse received immediate veterinary care, however he was unable to be saved due to the nature of the injury sustained," said Racing Victoria's Jamie Stier.

He added that research was underway aimed at the early detection and prevention of bone injuries in thoroughbred racehorses. 

Social media reacted in horror to the death and animal rights activists, demonstrating outside Flemington, were outraged.

"He was pushed well beyond his limits and that's why he is dead," the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses said of Anthony Van Dyck. "This isn't a suprise, horse racing kills horses." 

Pressure has been building on the racing industry in recent years over cruelty concerns.

Ahead of last year's race, damning revelations emerged about the brutal treatment and slaughter of retired racehorses on an "industrial scale", sending shockwaves through the industry.

While the Melbourne Cup was not linked to the abattoirs involved, it is often targeted by protesters.

mp/th