Twilight Payment bidding to retain Melbourne Cup for Joseph O’Brien

Trainer says it has been a ‘nightmare’ getting defending champion down under for race

It has been a “nightmare” getting him there but Twilight Payment will try to win the Lexus Melbourne Cup back-to-back in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The Irish star gave Joseph O’Brien a second victory in Australia’s sporting institution a year ago with the impact of that 2020 renewal stamped all over this contest due off at 4am Irish-time and live on Sky.

Twilight Payment made all to emulate Rekindling (2017) although it was the fatal injuries suffered by the 2019 Epsom Derby hero Anthony Van Dyck that dominated much of the aftermath.

He became the latest in a grim cluster of catastrophic injuries to international runners at Flemington in recent years.


Already under pressure from animal-rights groups, racing authorities in the state of Victoria responded by introducing a series of veterinary screening processes that has effectively turned a deluge of overseas ‘Cup’ raiders into a trickle.

Only the Andrew Balding trained Spanish Mission joins Twilight Payment and his participation depended on passing a weekend veterinary panel.

Both Aidan and Joseph O’Brien have been unusually forceful in publicly criticising the new measures, particularly nuclear scintigraphy testing - effectively a sort of bone scan - that they have said is excessive.

O’Brien Snr hasn’t sent any runners to Australia for the big ‘Spring Carnival’ races and although his son saddled Son Of Rest to win the Cox Plate last month he has cast doubt on carrying out future raids under the current rules.

“If I’d 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,” O’Brien said last week.

He added that at one point State Of Rest had to be sedated four times in a single week in order to get through veterinary protocols. He has urged for a review of the “nightmare” screening processes.

With internationalisation having been a byword for the Melbourne Cup ever since Vintage Crop’s pioneering victory in 1993, the latest renewal of a race that still stops the nation appears to be something of a regression.

However the most important outcome for racing in Australia is likely to be an incident free race. Under easing of Covid-19 restrictions 10,000 people will be at Flemington, a fraction of the normal attendance, although it is the much wider public focus that is the priority.

If it represents a rather fraught atmosphere there looks to be rare unanimity about the actual outcome among many Australian observers.

The presence of just two interlopers has produced a rather throwback field of local gallopers trying to stretch their stamina to two miles although with one outstanding candidate.

The Caulfield Cup winner Incentivise could start the shortest-priced favourite in years on the back of a substantial but lengthy big-race winning streak.

His trainer, Peter Moody, is best known in this part of the world for the unbeaten sprint star Black Caviar and he warned on Sunday: “The big unknown is - the Caulfield Cup was his Grand Final. Am I as confident as I was for the Caulfield Cup? No, plain and simple.”

Typically Moody still believes his horse is a worthy favourite although he cautioned against ignoring the defending champion despite his topweight.

Twilight Payment is reunited with jockey Jye McNeil who gave him an outstanding ride in 2020 and has a good drawn in box 2 of the 24 runners.

Makybe Diva was the last horse to defend the crown in 2005 but Twilight Payment is still one of the top three in the betting to give owner Lloyd Williams a remarkable eighth win.

Williams’ son Nick pointed to the shallow international pool as evidence to support the Irish horse’s case.

“With all due respect, it’s not nearly as good a race as it was last year. It’s substantially narrower and I think the way it has fallen into place he actually looks attractively weighted,” he said recently.

As an eight-year-old Twilight Payment will be the oldest horse ever to win the Cup if backing up.

Ex-Irish horses lining up include Twilight Payment’s former stable companion Pondus as well as the former Ballydoyle pair, Sir Lucan and Delphi.

Separately, the Irish flat season ended on Sunday but the unique Laytown races take place a day later.

Europe’s only official race meeting run on a beach usually takes place in September but was postponed to November 1st due to the difficulty of imposing pandemic protocols at such a ‘pop-up’ event.

Ahead of engagements at the Breeders Cup in Del Mar later in the week, champion jockey Colin Keane skips the strand although top National Hunt names Jack Kennedy and Rachael Blackmore will be in action.

Kennedy has four rides including Gordon Elliott’s new recruit Business in the seven furlong maiden.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column