Months after his notable absence from the Melbourne spring carnival, for which Racing Victoria has implemented stringent vetting requirements, Irish racehorse trainer prodigy Joseph O’Brien will be a welcome guest at Peter V’landys’ Sydney Championships.
O’Brien nominated 10 horses for last year’s Melbourne Cup, but ultimately didn’t send any to Victoria. Racing Victoria’s appointed vets heavily scrutinised the fitness of a number of his horses in Europe in the lead-up to the spring as part of its screening for internationals to prevent further deaths in the Cup.
Joseph O’Brien (left), pictured with Lloyd Williams after winning the 2017 Melbourne Cup with Rekindling.Credit:Getty Images
But some of Sydney’s feature autumn races, such as the $2 million Sydney Cup – worth a quarter of the prizemoney of the Melbourne Cup but where there are more lenient vetting requirements on imports to New South Wales – have become key targets for the two-time Melbourne Cup-winning trainer.
Despite the lack of international presence at last year’s carnival, including the absence of O’Brien and his maestro father Aidan, Racing Victoria said it had no regrets about maintaining harsh safety measures on Cup runners.
“We make no apology for implementing and maintaining world-leading safety standards that help reduce the risk of injuries and in turn promote a better spectacle for all,” a Racing Victoria spokesperson said.
“We’ve completed our second consecutive spring racing carnival and Melbourne Cup without any serious injuries, which is important for the sport.”
Raise You and Baron Samedi are O’Brien’s most likely Sydney Cup competitors, while the Lloyd and Nick Williams-owned Cleveland is also flagged for travel, given he’s nominated for the group 3 3000-metre handicap on Saudi Cup day in Riyadh in February.
And O’Brien – who won the Cox Plate in 2021 with State Of Rest – is every chance to be in Sydney in person, having last travelled to Australia for the 2021 Melbourne Cup at Flemington.
“Obviously, in previous years it’s been challenging to get people around the world, but this year with more options in relation to horse movement and people movement returning, I expect him to be down for the carnival,” Australian Turf Club’s executive general manager of racing James Ross said.
“He’s always tried to get down to Australia when he can.”
Joseph O’Brien, far right, with 2017 Melbourne Cup winner Rekindling. Credit:Justin McManus
OTI Racing director Terry Henderson said it was not surprising that Racing NSW’s policy was much more appealing for the internationals when compared to Racing Victoria’s tighter measures.
“As we’ve said all along the lines, no trainer likes to be told that his horse isn’t fit to go into a race when the trainer thinks it is and the trainer’s vets think that it is,” Henderson said.
“The rules that are there at the moment are not conducive to these internationals coming over. If that’s the price Racing Victoria and the VRC [Victoria Racing Club] are prepared to pay, so be it.
“But if the industry wants the days when we had seven or eight international visitors in the Cup, we’re not going to get it while those rules are there.”
O’Brien was critical of Racing Victoria’s mandatory scintigraphy scans for the 2021 carnival, saying, “had I known how difficult it would’ve been to get through all the hoops, I’m not sure we would’ve even went down in the first place”.
“I can’t tell you how much of a struggle it was to get through all the hoops and the scans,” O’Brien told Racing.com.
“State Of Rest for example, I think he had to be sedated four times in one week in order to get through all the protocols in time, which is unheard of really.”
Racing Victoria dropped the mandatory scintigraphy scans for the 2022 Cup, but increased the vet checks in Europe before horses could even step onto a plane.
O’Brien’s father Aidan – who trained Anthony Van Dyck, the last horse to die in the Melbourne Cup, in 2020 – has not returned to Australia since.
Ross said the internationals understood that Racing NSW’s vetting protocols would not be as stringent as Racing Victoria’s.
“Our conditions have remained similar to previous years and a number of the trainers I speak with are across the conditions to travel to Sydney, both from a race and veterinary standpoint,” he said.
And Henderson said it was also well known among Australia’s leading syndicators, who have been extremely successful in bringing tried European horses to Australia.
“It’s a fact that it’s a lot easier to get your horse to the races in New South Wales than it is the spring carnival in Victoria,” Henderson said.
Lloyd Williams and Joseph O’Brien celebrate the 2017 Melbourne Cup win.Credit:Eddie Jim
“I think there’ll be a lot more [international] trainers in that situation now, that they’ll focus more on Sydney than the Melbourne spring carnival.
“From our point of view, when the changes came in a couple of years ago now, we changed our whole strategy to buying these horses. We don’t put as much emphasis on bringing horses through the Melbourne quarantine as we once did, and we’re not likely to change that while the rules are the way they are.”
Racing Victoria said it was reviewing its second carnival conducted under the strict safety measures to determine whether it would make any changes for the 2023 spring.
“As we have done previously, we have consulted with stakeholders involved in the process to get their feedback on the veterinary protocols, and we will consider if there are any enhancements that can be made,” an RV spokesperson said.
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