The 2023 Cox Plate shaped as one of the most even in years, with six horses jumping in single figures, and the race itself panned out exactly that way with only a length and a half covering the first seven runners home. The first three horses home got the three best rides, and the next four can only wonder what might have been if they’d been ridden differently.
So fine are the margins in such a race, that many connections can argue that would have won the race if given another chance. Sometimes the best horse wins, sometimes the best ride.
ROMANTIC WARRIOR (1st)
Romantic Warrior was the horse that looked to get the perfect map after the barrier draw, and so it proved from gate 7, with James McDonald able to position the Kong Kong superstar one out, one back within 400m of the start. He was able to track Alligator Blood on his inside, and follow the fast-starting King Colorado. From that point on, he was always going to have his chance if good enough, and he was able to prove that by a nose in end.
The pressure went on at the 400m, which is later than usual in a Cox Plate, and that was to the detriment of every horse settling behind Romantic Warrior in the run. Many of them were unlucky from a punters perspective, but the jockeys on board can’t blame bad luck at all, only their own lack of initiative.
Alligator Blood giving a kick at the 200m worked in the favour of Romantic Warrior, who had a bunny to chase all the way to the line, and full credit to him for knuckling down all way, letting his champion qualities shine. It was a perfect James McDonald ride on a horse that was good enough, yet it may well have been only the fourth or fifth best run in the race – that’s what can happen at Moonee Valley more than any other track.
MR BRIGHTSIDE (2nd)
If James McDonald gave Romantic Warrior a 10/10 ride, then Craig Williams on Mr Brightside gave him 11/10. Williams’ work in the first 400m was a masterclass of getting your horse into the race after a tardy beginning, and is one of the reasons he is an elite jockey – he loves being positive out of the gates, because he understands races can be lost if you’re not.
Mr Brightside was the slowest away, along with Fangirl, but he quickly realized that the back half of the field was no place to be. Williams squeezed himself around Duais and inside My Oberon to gain a few lengths, finding the rail again, and kept hunting up inside Militarize to end up settling fifth in the run.
When it came time to make a move, Williams started creeping up again, and noticed early that King Colorado was weakening out of the race after leading, so quickly popped off the fence to go around him before finding the inside once more. From there he rode Mr Brightside to hit the front with 10-20m to go, but the bob on the line just didn’t go his way.
Not every horse was given every chance by their rider this year, but Mr Brightside certainly was. What an incredibly durable, consistent and high class galloper he is proving to be.
ALLIGATOR BLOOD (3rd)
Alligator Blood was the first to break, trained to do so in the classic Gai Waterhouse tradition. Tim Clark rode him to take a forward position, and the only question was how long it would take Zaaki to cross, and whether the three-year-old King Colorado would use his light weight to take up the running as well. Those two did sit one-two, and Clark had his horse settling well in third.
Clark angled Alligator Blood off the fence at around the 600m to sit behind Zaaki instead of King Colorado, fearful the three-year-old couldn’t keep going but also to ensure the most likely chance of clear running. He snuck a look behind him at the 350m, no doubt expecting to see a wave of horses already taking off and being surprised when they weren’t.
As they were straightening, Alligator Blood made his move to tackle Zaaki, also flushing Romantic Warrior wider too, and he looked a very possible winner with 100m to go, but he just couldn’t get 2040m as well as Romantic Warrior and Mr Brightside. Similar to those two though, he had every possible chance. He’s a classic old-fashioned WFA gelding, competitive in anything from 1400m-2000m.
Duais was most people’s pick as the unluckiest horse in the race, which was probably true, but backmarkers leave themselves open to such labels. Mr Brightside and Alligator Blood are seldom unlucky, because they put themselves in the race, and they are either good enough or they aren’t.
Barrier one was never going to be great for Duais, given she was always going to need to find clear running at some stage, and settling seventh was a good result for Damien Oliver with several other jockeys lacking initiative in the early stages.
The key part of the race for Duais was approaching the home turn, where Oliver had her behind Mr Brightside and Alligator Blood, and was about to tack onto Romantic Warrior as he moved into a three wide position. Which horse would he follow? Which way would he go?
Oliver ended up going between Mr Brightside and Romantic Warrior, even though he had plenty of room to the outside of the Hong Kong star, and ended up getting trapped in behind the Alligator Blood and Zaaki pairing – Mr Brightside went to their inside, Romantic Warrior to their outside, which left Duais all dressed up with nowhere to go. It was her best performance since the autumn of 2022, and proves she is still a force to be reckoned with.
GOLD TRIP (5th)
Mark Zahra rode four winners on Cox Plate day, and was coming off an inch-perfect ride on Without A Fight to win the Caulfield Cup, but surely he would like to have his time on Gold Trip again.
Gold Trip jumped with them from barrier 8, and while he was always going to settle in the back half of the field, Zahra angled him to be last on the rail, in what may have been a pre-determined move. After 100m, he was alongside Mr Brightside, and we saw what Craig Williams did on that horse to get him into the race and finish a nose second. Zahra had chances to be a little more assertive and get on the outside of My Oberon early, and from there he could have settled seventh or eighth off the rail, instead of being trapped away behind an entire Cox Plate field after 300m.
The race wasn’t run at a hectic pace, so he did at least sneak a run to move ahead of Fangirl and Pinstriped during the race, but this was a Cox Plate where the moves from the back half were later than expected. What hope did that give Gold Trip from his position, rather than being outside horses where he could have started the moves and used his superior stamina.
Instead, Gold Trip was facing rump all the way around the home turn and for most of the straight, only finding clear air with 100m to go. The horse ran superbly again, but essentially had his time wasted by blunt tools.
After going down by 1.35 lengths in the Cox Plate last year, Zaaki has finished 1.5 lengths behind the winner in 2023. Whereas last year he led the race on a day the fence was off given wet conditions, this year he drew wide and had to work early.
Damian Lane could get no closer than five and six wide around the first turn, and in such an even field of depth and quality, it was always going to be hard for him from there. While he was comfortable tracking King Colorado, that horse dropped out earlier than he should have, which left Zaaki in front earlier than he might have wanted. That said, it was go time at the top of the straight, and while he never looked the win, he never gave in at any stage either.
To be beaten by slim margins in Australia’s WFA championship when having things against him two years in a row, when he is likely past is best, shows what a classy customer Zaaki is.
Many will have marked Fangirl the unluckiest runner in the Cox Plate this year, but you know what you’re getting when you back her, and can’t cry poor afterwards. She’s won seven of her 22 starts, and has probably been the run of the race in at least half of those she’s lost. The likes of Mr Brightside and Alligator Blood rarely offer such excuses – they put themselves in the race and make others beat them.
Fangirl was the slowest away, but was only half a step behind and not as bad as she can be, and went back to where she was always going to race. She had a chance to be a pair further forward and on the outside, than where she eventually settled, which was last on the rail. It was either lazy or ill-judged work from Zac Purton.
Purton had plenty of horse under him, but similar to Gold Trip, was trapped on the inside. Those two should have been making sweeping runs around the outside in the classic Cox Plate tradition, but were instead trapped in traffic and forced to sweat on runs.
Fangirl’s penalty was having the fading King Colorado fall right into her lap at the 300m, causing the biggest check of the race, but even the 100m before that, she was itching to build momentum but had nowhere to go. She still ran the quickest last 600m of the race, but traffic issues prevented her from doing so over 400m and perhaps 200m.
Like a handful of jockeys in the race, Zac Lloyd in his first Cox Plate would love his time on Militarize again. Connections purposely chose barrier three, and clearly the idea was to be much more positive than the Dundeel colt traditionally is. When you have a three-year-old in this race, you want to be on-speed and use the weight advantage with only 49.5kg’s on your back.
Militarize jumped beautifully, and had race position on both Mr Brightside and Duais in the early stages. The Cox Plate was the 17th race in 24 hours at Moonee Valley, and it was clear all the way along that the rail was the place to be. For some reason, Lloyd stayed off it despite having ample opportunity. He allowed Mr Brightside to take his position on the inside, and then kept getting shuffled back. By doing so, he also ensured a lack of tempo in the race, as he didn’t force the hand of those around him to push harder.
When the business end of the race came, Militarize got the splits at the right time so couldn’t claim to be unlucky, but was also a little wayward around the turn. He ran the third-quickest last 200m of the race and was beaten less than two and a half lengths, so was hardly disgraced. A more positive ride early may have seen him finish a length closer and on the heels of the placegetters.
VICTORIA ROAD (9th)
Victoria Road was one of the biggest disappointments in the race, especially given how well horses with his profile have gone in previous editions. He jumped well and was caught in a bit of hustle and bustle early, when half a dozen horses were competing for the same few spots on the speed and just behind. Blake Shinn looked like being caught in no man’s land at some point, but found a midfield position with cover after 500m.
Victoria Road was given every possible chance in the straight, pulled out at the right time, but had nothing under the hood. Ultimately, it was quite a plain performance, and it will be interesting to see how he develops under the care of Ciaron Maher & David Eustace going forward.
MY OBERON (10th)
My Oberon started as the second roughest runner with the bookies, and ran about as he was always going to.
Jamie Mott wanted to be positive early, and looked to be tracking well enough to take a position behind the speed, but lost his conviction and/or got bullied out of it by more experienced big race riders. After looking likely to settle fifth or sixth, he ended up being in the back three, got shuffled all the way back to last at one point, and never came on in the straight. He’s desperate for a wet track.
Pinstriped started at 100-1 as the despite outsider of the field, went back to the tail, and essentially stayed there. Ben Allen tried to make a move from the back before most, and tracked widest into the straight, but ultimately didn’t have the quality to make an impact. Seven lengths off the best horses in the country is probably about his level, especially given it was his first crack at a mile and a quarter.
KING COLORADO (12th)
King Colorado was by far the worst performance in the race, and while a Group 1 winner at two over 1600m, he either isn’t a 2000m horse or doesn’t have the class that we might have thought. He got to the front easily enough, led at a tempo that was only steady by Group 1 standards, and was the first one beaten.