By Rob Harris
All smiles: Sam Freedman poses with Melbourne Cup winner Without A Fight on the Mornington Peninsula.Credit: Getty Images
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To win a Melbourne Cup takes a rather remarkable alignment of planets. Big hyped foreign raiders come with big reputations and return home humbled. Horses which cost more than six figures can be beaten by unlikely underdogs.
Lightly raced seven-year-old Without A Fight, bred by Dubai-based Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum, finished 13th in last year’s race and was almost forgotten. Just 12 months later he, along with his trainers Anthony and Sam Freedman and jockey Mark Zahra, occupy rare air in Australian horse racing.
Having raced last year as a “raider”, who was brought from Europe especially to race in the Cup, where he finished 13th, Without A Fight had a winter acclimatising to Australian conditions. It might just have proved the difference when it came to handling the warm weather in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Prominent owner John O’Neill said it was clear the horse was better for having spent more than 12 months in Australia, preparing in the warmth of Queensland during the Melbourne winter.
“There was no possible way known that Without a Fight was going to stay in my mind,” he said on Tuesday. “I watched the race last year and he was gone a furlong and a half, probably two furlongs out.
He said it was proof that bringing a European-bred to Australia was far more likely to be successful in the Cup if they are given the opportunity to acclimatise properly.
“This horse came out last year, and he had some issues. He’s obviously had a full season or actually two seasons almost now here, and what a wonderful job the Freedmans have done with that horse,” he said.
The Freedman family’s history rich history in the race is well documented. Anthony Freedman was alongside his brother in five Cup wins in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s but Without A Fight, co-trained with his son, is the first time his name appearance by itself on the trophy.
By Australian standards, the horse’s preparation was unusually light for a Melbourne Cup, a big departure from the time where 12-time winning trainer Bart Cummings would give a horse at least 10,000 metres of races from August to November, including a run three days before.
Without A Fight had only 4200 metres and has not raced since his Caulfield Cup win two weeks ago.
O’Neill, a co-owner of past winner Verry Elleegant who has also had several near misses – including with runner-up Soulcombe on Tuesday, said it was a remarkable training feat.
Trainer Sam Freedman with the newest Melbourne Cup champion – Irish horse Without A Fight.Credit: Racing Photos / Getty Images
“For a horse to have ran as badly as what it did (last year), fail a CT scan, have some screws put into leg, come back, be sound, be cared for by Anthony and Sam and the team. A lot of work goes into that,” he told Melbourne radio SEN.
“So for that horse to come back and win what I believe is the best race in the world – again, highlighted yesterday – and win the Caulfield Cup prior is just an extraordinary training performance.
“Breed the best to the best and hope for the best” is an old thoroughbred breeding adage which is still used today. A horse’s pedigree is traditionally considered to be of utmost importance.
By assessing the performance of close relatives, breeders can get an idea of the likely genetic merit of their horse.
Bred by Emerati sheikh, Mohammed Obaid, Without A Fight has the same sire as 2020 winner Twilight Payment and 2018 winner Cross Counter – victorious for Darley Stud’s Teofilo.
Teofilo is described as “a big, tough horse with good bone and a lovely walk. And a great temperament, very laid back and easy to do anything with.”
He is the sire of 24 individual group 1 winners and 112 Stakes winners and stands at Darley’s Kildangan Stud in County Kildare, Ireland at a fee of €30,000. He is enjoying another superb year as the sire of Nations Pride, who has won top races in the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Canada as well as multiple graded stakes winner Eternal Hope.
Without A Fight is also the third recent Cup winner to descend from the acclaimed matriarch Lady Josephine, after 2021 winner Verry Elleegant and 2019 winner Vow And Declare.
He is out of the talented race mare Khor Sheed, a group 3 and dual listed winner. Another three of her foals are winners.
But to what degree are any of these traits heritable? Does pedigree actually relate to racing ability? Industry estimates are that genetics only accounts for around 30 per cent of racing performance, with the rest influenced by environmental factors such as nutrition, trainer, track surface and, of course, luck.
Mark Zahra became just the ninth jockey in the famous race’s 163 years to go back-to-back, and the first since the great Harry White in 1978-79 to do it aboard different horses.
“You wouldn’t want anyone else on a big race,” Freedman said.
“We were confident we had the horse, so we didn’t have to push too hard. We gave him till six o’clock Cox Plate night and sent through the message saying ‘I’ll go with your horse’.
“We’re pretty glad he stuck with him.”
Two for the road: Mark Zahra salutes in the saddle with Without A Fight.Credit: Getty Images
In the previous year’s Cup, Englishman William Buick took the ride but made the mistake of thinking he could sit wide without cover in a Melbourne Cup. He struggled on the wet track for 13th.
Zahra’s local knowledge proved critical on Tuesday, telling journalists after the race he’d followed three-time winner Damien Oliver in the race because although he wasn’t on the best horse “you know he’s going to take you to a certain point and in these big races you got to be following the right jockeys as well”.
“When I ended up going from fifth last on the fence to right behind the favourite Vauban and Absurde, and I spent no energy doing that, I thought if I get out here it’s all over. Then Gold Trip wobbled a bit and it was game, set [and] match.”
The first horse since the mighty mare Ethereal to take out the Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double in the same year, Without A Fight looked a happy horse as he strutted out onto the Flemington track.
Poor behaviour before or during the race can often seriously have a negative impact a horse’s performance. Horses with over-excitability before the race, usually shown by agitation and excessive sweating, tend to perform less well than their calmer race mates.
Horses which do not relax during the running of the race pull hard against the jockey’s trying to restrain the horse. This costs energy, so the horse’s efficiency of galloping is decreased, resulting in poor performance.
Freedman credits his father’s efforts with Without a Fight to ensure the horse was relaxed before Tuesday’s race after some anxious moments while he was based in Queensland.
“He’s settled perfectly yesterday and that was the key,” he said. “I think in both his Caulfield and Melbourne Cup starts he relaxed and got into a rhythm. He was a little bit fierce in Queensland and really he beat them on class, but to go to that next level he needed to get everything right. And the old man has been pretty amazing at getting imperfect.”
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