Without A Fight has won the 2023 Melbourne Cup, being the first horse since Ethereal in 2001 to win the race after also taking out the Caulfield Cup in the same spring.
His overseas record was very good before he came to Australia, with seven wins and seven placings from 17 starts. He had won twice at 2000m in the UK, three times at 2400m, and twice at 2800m. Those last two wins, at Listed and Group 3 level, were enough to show that he could be competitive in a Melbourne Cup.
Without A Fight ran in the Melbourne Cup last year, starting a well-respected $12 chance, but by all reports he didn’t handle the soft track on that occasion and tailed away to be beaten by 21 lengths. It was the worst performance of his career. His second worst, when going down by 11 lengths in July 2021, was also on wet ground. It’s clear he is a dry tracker only.
He has now had five runs in 2023, all on good tracks, and has won four of them. He won twice up in Queensland earlier in the year, beating solid but not outstanding fields, but has carried that form into this spring, returning with an eye-catching run in the Underwood Stakes, before going on to now win the Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup double.
Jockey Mark Zahra has given Without A Fight an inch-perfect ride in both Cups. His Melbourne Cup win was very similar to two of Makybe Diva’s win in Australia’s greatest race.
In both 2003 and 2005, Makybe Diva drew barrier 14 in the Melbourne Cup. Without A Fight was jumping from 16 this year. In 2003 and 2005, Glen Boss settled Makybe Diva in 16th and 14th place respectively, while Zahra had Without A Fight in 15th on Tuesday. Just worse than midfield is a great spot to be travelling in a Melbourne Cup. Zahra found the rail in the home straight the first time, just as Boss did in 2005.
Zahra didn’t have to do too much for the middle 1000m of the race, but made sure he got Without A Fight off the rail approaching the 800m. Looking for a back to follow, he saw his old mate Gold Trip moving into the middle of the track under the riding of James McDonald, and in front of him the two Irish favourites Vauban and Absurde.
They were the exact right horses to take him into the race. It was clear by the 400m than Without A Fight was going better than Gold Trip, right at the moment Vauban and Absurde were asked for their effort. Zahra got busy just after the 400m, but Without A Fight had travelled so sweetly into the race at this point that they were the only two horses in front of him. The on-pace runners further on the inside were fading after setting a hectic pace.
Without A Fight had the turn-of-foot that many didn’t, and the strength to keep going all the way to the line. He won the race between the 400m and the 300m, looked clearly the one to beat at the 250m, and by the time he passed the clock tower with 175m to go there was no catching him. It was a dominant performance by the horse and a superb piece of riding from the jockey.
The main hard luck story in the race was Soulcombe, who finished second for trainer Chris Waller and rider Joao Moreira, and there are two main arguments in the aftermath. Did he cost himself the race with his slow start, which is his glaring bad habit, and if he had clear running in the straight, would he have beaten the winner?
In terms of the slow start, no, it didn’t cost him anything in the race. From barrier 4, if he was slowly away as he was, Moreira was always going to have time to hunt him up on the inside in the first third of the race, which is exactly what transpired. For a horse that would have settled back anyway, being 17th or 18th was to be expected, and he had the back of Without A Fight for most of the race.
As for Soulcombe’s traffic problems in the straight, well that’s another story. His supporters may well argue to the end of time that he should have been the rightful winner if Moreira zigged instead of zagged on multiple occasions.
It’s of course easy in hindsight, and it’s not to say Moreira should have done anything differently. It’s not that he had bad luck, so to speak, he just didn’t have any good luck.
The first crucial moment came around the 400m. Soulcombe had the back of Without A Fight from the 800m up to that point, and could have followed that horse everywhere he went, and as we know the seas parted beautifully for Zahra. Instead, Moreira took a right hand turn, no doubt hoping to get his horse into the middle of the straight, for clear air and potentially the better going. He ran into the back of Military Mission and Gold Trip, and had to change direction back to the inside because he was going too well for those horses.
Then, he got caught between Ashrun and Sheraz. Now, those horses ended up running third and fourth, so were hardly disgraced and put in fantastic performances at big odds. But still, they were going too slowly for a surging Soulcombe. Riding with even more vigour now, Moreira made a sharp left to find clear room.
That took Soulcombe onto the back of Vauban, who was going backwards at a rate of knots, meaning Moreira had to go further left again to squeeze between the favourite and Vow and Declare. From that point on, which was only with 150m to go, he had clear passage but the race was over, as Without A Fight was too far in front.
In the space of 200-300m, Mark Zahra made every right move, and Joao Moreira made a few wrong turns. On such momentum swings can a Melbourne Cup turn.
Sheraz was fantastic at 150-1, adding third in the Melbourne Cup to his second in the Sydney Cup in 2022. That was on a heavy track and this was on firm going, so he’s a true 3200m stayer in all conditions.
Ashrun finished fourth, a remarkable performance after missing the best part of three years due to injury. He was beaten almost the exact same margin in the 2020 Melbourne Cup, but was 10th that year.
Vauban was disappointing as favourite, but he was riding close enough to a hot speed, and this ended up becoming a swooper’s race. The first four in running all faded badly, but still Vauban didn’t beat Vow And Declare home, who sat in front of him in the run. A truly run race found him out at two miles.
Last year’s winner Gold Trip, who had been in at least the equal of his career-best form this spring, never made any impression once clear at the top of the straight, and was later found to be lame in his right front leg. He can be forgiven for finishing more than 20 lengths from the winner, eased down, and may have felt the firm track today.
Right You Are was the only horse that failed to finish, and was pulled out of the race by jockey John Allen, and was also found to be lame by stewards. Thankfully, all 23 horses that competed in the Cup finished the race unharmed by serious injury.