What makes a champion? It's one of the most argued-about topics in racing. When does a horse graduate from being the best, or even just one of the best, to champion?

That will remain a matter of opinion, but naturally I have my strong views, just as you have yours. Maybe, by putting mine forward, I can help you to make some decisions that will determine your selections for the big races this spring, especially for the biggest of them all, the Melbourne Cup.

I have seen only a handful (or two handfuls) of champions in my many years in this game. I saw Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef in England, and both were, whatever the criteria applied, champions. Their feats were not unlike those seen here during 1957-58: then we had Todman and Tulloch fighting things out, with Todman one of the best strong sprinters Australia has ever seen, and Tulloch the equal of any stayer that has raced here this century.

When they met early in their careers the air was electric, then they parted ways more or less even. Tulloch could sprint and stay, while Todman didn't stay Todman went on to share his great inherited genes, but Tulloch was a disappointment there. Maybe Tulloch was a freak. As his trainer often said: one of a kind.

In that memorable season in the UK, Mill Reef was nutted by My Swallow in the Prix Robert Papin. My Swallow was expected to donkey-lick his field in the 2000 Guineas, with Mill Reef the major threat, but he (and we) didn't know about the other unbeaten colt. His name was Brigadier Gerard and he slaughtered both the other topliners. Slaughtered them comprehensively.

Mill Reef went through the remainder of the season unbeaten, with the major prize being his easy romp in the Derby Then on to more glory as a sire. The Brigadier was beaten once in his entire career (17 from 18), on a wet track at York, on which he should never have run. He was allowed to run because of his adoring northern public, although his owner /breeder/ trainer John Hislop was wary, and told everyone so. He ran second to the proven topliner Roberto (winner of the 1972 2000 Guineas, and both the English and Irish Derbies).

So, four champions? Yes, all four. But different. Nothing could touch Todman at up to seven furlongs or so. Tulloch could return after a spell and win first-up at the short course, as could Brigadier Gerard. So could Saintly, by the way.

Mill Reef and Tulloch at a mile-and-a-half would have been really something to see. What about Mill Reef and Phar Lap at, say, 2600 metres? Or against Might And Power?

We can only guess about the Phar Laps and the Carbines, but there seems to me to be a distinctive something that identifies champion-material. It is tied up with that elusive term "class". Class is for another day, but we all know it's there in the best horses.

One could argue forever about champion status, but nobody would deny class to, say, Let's Elope or Leilani. So why do we say that their champion status is debatable, while that of, say, the wonder filly of the '70s, Surround, is not in dispute? That's just a thought and would take a page to develop.

So where are we with regard to champions and the big races, specifically the Melbourne Cup?

Perhaps we could start by using the handicapper's ideas. Sorry! In the past forty years, no original topweight has won. True, some haven't run, but NOT ONE has won.

All right then, maybe the public gets it right. So what about their favourites? This is better. Might And Power, of course, was favourite. Since 1952 we have had ten other favourites win (two were equal-favourites, and one of the equal-favs ran second in 1990 to the favourite Kingston Rule who won that year, so that's the one quinella in 45 years).

Looking at them in turn: Dalray won coming from last in 1952 (a la Kiwi), Rising Fast won in 1954 (and should have again in 1955), Even Stevens took out both Cups in 1962, Galilee won both in 1966, Red Handed won in 1967, Van Der Hum swam home in the muck in 1976, Gold And Black won the year later, then Empire Rose got lucky over Natski in 1988, and Kingston Rule beat his equal-favourite home in 1990.

Let's Elope won both Cups in 1991, and Might And Power got home by a nose last year. Were any of those identifiable by certain characteristics that (a) made them champions and (b) could help us spot them before they won?

What about the winners who were not favourite, but after their wins were recognised as the ultimate performers? I am going to nominate a few (they may differ from your choices), then try to put this all together.

Saintly, Doriemus, Vintage Crop, Think Big, Rain Lover, Light Fingers.

They were the only ones since 1952 I could reasonably suggest had champion aspirations. Now let's apply a small number of basic questions to these horses. There is one aspect of these questions that we have to realise: we have to be able to ask them BEFORE THE RACE!

  1. What else has the horse done?
  2. What is the horse's record?
  3. What has the horse done to suggest it is in the unarguable top bracket of staying horses racing this year?
  4. What is there to suggest that the horse is well placed in the race?
  5. What obstacles are there in the horse's way (e.g. track conditions, weight, visitor, never run over the distance, obscure trainer or rider, any interruptions to preparation, etc.) ?
  6. Is it clearly the best horse in the race if all other things were equal?

There are many other questions I could pose, but those six will do.

Now, so far as what the horse has done, Think Big, when he won in 1975, had won the Cup the year before. Same for Rain Lover in 1970. But champions? Nah ... no chance. At 3200 metres? Well, that's less certain. What have you got to do besides carry the grandstand and win again? You can't help the fact that the field you beat might not have contained a Phar Lap. You beat the best that were put up against you.

And, mind you, Reader, the form was there for us all to see. The horse had WON the Cup!

In 1995, Vintage Crop might have been unlucky to miss out for a second time, or at least not to have been runner-up. His form was there to see in 1993, too, but we missed it because he was a visitor and there was another one, a floparoo called Drum Taps, that the press steered us onto. Overseas "champs" have come and gone, all of them empty-handed except for the Irish star.

I think most of us took too long to realise what a champion Saintly was in Melbourne. That's why he went off at 8/1 in the Cup. Not much to doubt now, but at the time (say the day before) he had a frighteningly narrow win in the Cox Plate, after Sydney failures, to support his claims.

Doriemus is a distance champion, in my view. He almost won last year after a big run in the 1996 Cup and winning in 1995. He won the Caulfield Cup in 1995 and went close again (well, OK, many lengths away) when second last year.

And Light Fingers won on a restricted preparation after her Oaks win. But by a nose and with a gift weight. But wait a minute. She carried a monstrous weight the following year and only Galilee beat her home. Obviously, in retrospect, she was more than smart.

As to those favourites who won, Let's Elope, Galilee and Rising Fast were surely the only ones who could be even short-listed for champion status. Non-winners who were champions are headed by Kingston Town who went oh so close.

Know what I think? I think that it comes down to either having an instinct, a feeling, that a horse is special, if you are going to get lucky in the big race. My six question set of criteria is probably about as close as we can get to identifying a champion before the race, so we have to seek something extra, that "something" we cannot spell out. I reckon that, for our generation, it is found in Bart Cummings.

If you want to add another trainer, try Lee Freedman who is still on the way up. They can make miracles happen, and they can develop horses into champions.

Is this a cop-out? No, I'd deny that very strongly. Those six questions demand answers and I suggest that question 4 can also mean "which horse has had the benefit of a very special preparation?"

I can't come up with a better way of identifying a champion before the event. Can you?

By The Optimist