Japanese horse Mer De Glace trots during early morning trackwork at Werribee on Monday ahead of the Melbourne Cup on November 5Japanese horse Mer De Glace trots during early morning trackwork at Werribee on Monday ahead of the Melbourne Cup on November 5 (AFP Photo/William WEST)
Melbourne (AFP) - Japanese stayer Mer De Glace and European import Constantinople have firmed as favourites for the Tuesday's Melbourne Cup as horse racing in Australia faces surging image problems.
First staged in 1861, the "race that stops a nation" has been a fixture on the first Tuesday of November since 1876, attracting tens of thousands of punters in their finery to the track at Flemington, with boozy parties held nationwide.
It is a cultural institution -- the winning horse instantly becoming a household name in Australia -- and the day is considered so important it is declared a public holiday in the race's host state of Victoria.
The Hisashi Shimizu-trained Mer De Glace, who won the Caulfield Cup, consolidated favouritism after drawing gate two at the weekend just ahead of Constantinople, ridden by champion Hong Kong-based jockey Joao Moreira, who drew gate seven.
"Great gate. We were hoping for between five and 10, snap-bang in the middle," one of Constantinople's trainers Ben Hayes said.
"He (Moreira) should be able to get him in a lovely position from that gate and he should get luck."
Many of the 24 horses on the card are overseas gallopers, with Irish father-and-son trainers Aidan and Joseph O'Brien boasting seven runners.
Dubai-based global racing operation Godolphin, who ended a long wait to win the Melbourne Cup last year with British gelding Cross Counter, have the same horse primed again over Flemington's 3,200 metres (two miles).
- 'Need to do more' -
While hordes of people are expected to flock through the turnstiles, Melbourne's annual spring festival is battling a growing image problem.
It has been targeted by animal rights activists after a spate of fatalities at the event in recent times, including Irish five-year-old The Cliffsofmoher after a fall early in last year's race.
The sport is already under intense scrutiny in the United States, where a thoroughbred was euthanised at the weekend after being injured during the high-profile Breeder's Cup Classic race at Santa Anita in California.
Mongolian Groom was the 37th horse to die since December at Santa Anita alone, a grim tally that has sparked outrage, an investigation by law enforcement authorities and dire warnings about racing's future from federal legislators.
Criticism of the sport in Australia has surged since national broadcaster ABC last month revealed that thousands of retired racehorses were being sent to abattoirs in secret, where many were allegedly beaten and abused before being killed.
While the Melbourne Cup was not directly linked to the slaughterhouses in question, the images rocked the industry and days later pop superstar Taylor Swift pulled out of a planned performance at Tuesday's race.
Activists took credit for her change of heart after leading a social media campaign claiming she was "endorsing animal cruelty", although her promoter cited scheduling issues.
In a bid to address public concerns, Racing Victoria last month pledged Aus$25 million (US$17.3 million) to improve welfare for retired racehorses.
Separately, the Victoria Racing Club said 10 percent of ticket sales from the Melbourne Cup this year would go toward a new equine welfare fund.
"Whilst the industry has achieved many great outcomes over recent years and has a clear pathway for the future, it is clear we need to step up and do more," said Racing Victoria chairman Brian Kruger.
"There are many challenges to overcome, particularly when the racing industry has no jurisdiction or oversight of retired racehorses, however we are committed to making important steps in the interests of our equine stars and the sport more broadly," he said.
Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews stressed the importance of horse welfare, but also defended the Melbourne Cup.
"It's about ordinary, hard-working Victorian families who will be there in record numbers and many hundreds of thousands more who will watch the race that stops the nation," he told reporters last week.