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The next Phar Lap? Incentivise bids to pull off remarkable Melbourne Cup double

Incentivise: short-priced favourite for the Melbourne Cup
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Tuesday: 4.00 Flemington
Lexus Melbourne Cup (Group 1) | 2m | 3yo+ | SKY

So often, horses are touted as being the next Phar Lap. No horse has captivated the heart and soul of a nation quite like the Red Terror did at the height of the Great Depression and, while it could be debated that there have been more talented horses since then, none have come close to having the cultural impact of the mighty chestnut.

To this day, Phar Lap is used as the benchmark, as the litmus test for every Australian or New Zealand thoroughbred to walk the earth since. To win by a big space is to “win like Phar Lap”; if a horse is in an impossible winning position, they will “have to be Phar Lap” to win from there.

The trainer of 2021 Melbourne Cup favourite Incentivise, Peter Moody, had one of those horses compared to the legendary Phar Lap in the mighty mare Black Caviar (Bel Esprit) and yet the Melbourne Cup is a race that has evaded him. While the champion sprinter remained unbeaten, it is the new kid on the block that is drawing further comparisons with the 1930s icon.

If Incentivise does win this year's Melbourne Cup, he will have earned the title as the next Phar Lap for a number of reasons. In fact, one is that he will be linked with the icon as the shortest-priced favourite since Big Red in 1930 to take Australia's greatest race. No mean feat.

The pride of Toowoomba – or, more accurately Biddeston, 25 kilometres to the west of Toowoomba – Incentivise will aim to become the first horse in 20 years to land the biggest double on the Australian calendar by taking both the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup.

In doing so, he will aim to become the first Melbourne Cup winner ever to begin with the letter I, while he would become just the third horse bred in Queensland to win the Melbourne Cup, after 1940 victor Old Rowley and 1945 heroine Rainbird; both were by the same sire in The Buzzard and bred at Lyndhurst Stud Farm in Warwick.

It is a remarkable rags-to -riches story. Originally trained by his breeder Steve Tregea, Incentivise was beaten out of the placings at his first three starts at Ipswich, Eagle Farm and Toowoomba. At the last of those, which was only in March this year, he was beaten 16 lengths - there were extenuating circumstances but it still didn't suggest that he had any bright future on the racetrack and that perhaps he’d be one for the picnic circuit in Queensland.

Incentivise and Brett Prebble win the Makybe Diva Stakes at Flemington

However, a dominant Caloundra maiden win in April began a "picket fence" run that has taken him from a provincial maiden to the cusp of history in just under seven months.

That 1600-metre maiden win was followed by a narrow Class 2 win over 1790 metres in late April. However, in May and June, it would become clear that he was Queensland's most promising horse – a seven-length win in a Toowoomba Benchmark 70 handicap over 2150 metres was followed by a nine-length rout in an Eagle Farm 1810-metre Benchmark 80 handicap, victory by a similar margin under a bigger weight in a 2500-metre Benchmark 78 handicap at Ipswich before the pièce de resistance, a 12-length annihilation of his rivals in the Tatts Cup (Gr 3, 2400m) with Group 1 winner Mirage Dancer (Frankel) and the Group 1-placed Southern France (Galileo) among the vanquished.

Leviathan owners Brae Sokolski and Ozzie Kheir were interested enough that they immediately purchased part of the horse, with Covid restrictions meaning he was transferred from Tregea in Queensland to Peter Moody in Victoria.

It also meant that his regular rider, Anthony Allen, couldn’t make the trip down south with 2012 Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Brett Prebble instead taking the reins.

When he stepped out for the first time in Melbourne in the Makybe Diva Stakes, there were still enough question marks around him. This was surely going to be at a trip short of his best and the Queensland form doesn’t always stand up in these sorts of races.

Any queries though were quickly swept away as Incentivise, despite racing erratically, fought on valiantly after leading to win the Makybe Diva, with Group 1 winners second, third, fourth and fifth.

The Turnbull Stakes was set to be another test entirely, as he tackled Australia’s Horse of the Year, nine-time Group 1-winning heroine Verry Elleegant. Once again, though, he came out with his reputation intact, producing a more dominant win than he had produced in the Makybe Diva.

Verry Elleegant (left): third in the Cox Plate last time and again goes for Melbourne Cup glory

And so it was that he lined up as one of the shortest favourites in the history of the Caulfield Cup. Getting out to his right distance, he looked ominous on paper but the manner of his three-and-a-half-length victory over Nonconformist had superlatives flying around Australia.

It was the biggest winning margin since the great Might And Power in 1997, and the Jack Denham-trained “Mighty” then went on to claim the Melbourne Cup 17 days later. Only one horse has achieved the Cups double since, that being the great Kiwi mare Ethereal in 2001.

There are enough queries about Incentivise to warrant a pause. The five-year-old doesn’t boast a pedigree that screams stamina; his half-brother Ardrossan (Redoute’s Choice) is a Group 3-winning, Group 1-placed sprinter in New Zealand, while another half-brother Bergerac (Drumbeats) stretched out to win the Ipswich Cup (Listed, 2150m).

A long, long way back in his family is his distant relative Field Officer, who did win a Perth Cup in 1993 and even managed to make it to that year’s Melbourne Cup, finishing 18th to the first internationally-trained winner of the Melbourne Cup, Vintage Crop.

However, stallions like Redoute’s Choice, Snitzel, Iglesia, Snippets, Luskin Star and Marscay on a pedigree page wouldn’t usually be associated with a Melbourne Cup.

He also has to carry a weight of 57 kilograms, which has only been shouldered to victory once in the last 44 years. It took a champion in Makybe Diva to achieve that when she won her third Melbourne Cup with 58 kilograms, the highest winning weight since Gold And Black.

Add in his racing style of leading or being prominent in the run. There is quite a bit of speed engaged here – Jye McNeil produced one of the best front-running rides imaginable when leading all the way on Twilight Payment last year and is likely to employ similar tactics, while Knights Order will also push forward. Delphi is capable of leading, although will likely be just behind them.

Prebble, who is riding in the form that made him one of the world’s finest jockeys at his peak, should be able to get Incentivise into a nice position and capitalise on a strong tempo which will make it tough for those too far back to get into the race. However, if he does find himself under siege early, it may be difficult for him to fend off all challengers down the long Flemington straight.

That said, with a potential freak of nature, their greatness is defined by the ability to achieve the unlikely and the impossible. Incentivise has already achieved that to a large extent – can he cement his status as Australia’s most exciting horse with a Melbourne Cup win on Tuesday?

It would take a brave, or perhaps foolhardy, soul to suggest that he couldn’t.

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If Incentivise does win this year's Melbourne Cup, he will have earned the title as the next Phar Lap for a number of reasons
E.W. Terms