Melbourne Cup: Magic Circle aims to break curse of British trainers

Posted at 6:46 AM, Nov 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-04 10:57:05-05

It’s one of racing’s holy grails, but the Melbourne Cup remains a mystical prize for British trainers.

Plenty have tried, but it’s as if there is a curse on the British in Australia’s famous “race that stops a nation.” Hoping to break that spell this year is Magic Circle, trained by Ian Williams.

Another strong European contingent will descend on Melbourne for Tuesday’s showpiece, but instead of the power houses of Godolphin or John Gosden, it is the less-heralded Williams who will be spearheading the British attack.

“It’s a national event and is very exciting to be involved in,” Williams told CNN Sport.

“To have a runner in such a race is a great privilege and to have a horse good enough to compete in such a race is an even bigger privilege.

“This year’s event is probably one of the most competitive races the Melbourne Cup will ever have seen.

“And, of course, to win a race like this would be a huge accolade.”

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Williams trains not out of the Flat racing heartlands of Newmarket or Berkshire’s Lambourn Valley, but in Alvechurch in the West Midlands.

Not quite as racing-glamorous perhaps, but perfectly placed as he became the first trainer to win at every racecourse — Flat or jump racing — in the UK.

Now Williams is attempting to make more history with Magic Circle, a six-year-old gelding he bought last October for owner Dr. Marwan Koukash, a former refugee from the Middle East who has built up a multimillion dollar business in England’s northwest.

Koukash has quite the celebration planned if his horse does win on Tuesday.

“I fit into my G-string now,” Koukash told “When we win nobody at Flemington is going to stop me providing the best or most colorful celebrations we’ve ever had or likely to have.

“I’m going to take off my clothes off, keep my tie and thong and shoes socks on. I know they’re going to employ security, but I know how to evade them and I’m going to deliver.”

Magic Circle was already a six-time winner when he joined Williams’ 100-strong string at Dominion Stables, and he has rewarded them further with stellar victories in the Chester Cup and a Group Three race at Sandown this season.

A Group race win qualifies the horse for the Melbourne Cup, and from that moment on the famous race and its $2.8 million first prize became the focus for Williams.

Magic Circle, who will be ridden by last year’s winning jockey Corey Brown, is second favorite behind esteemed Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien’s Yucatan for the two-mile (3,200 meter) marathon.

Another Briton Charlie Appleby will pose a strong threat with Cross Counter for Godolphin.

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‘Carnival atmosphere’

Williams is excited to be heading back for a second time after saddling a horse called Munsef to 12th in the race in 2009.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences to see a city the size of Melbourne literally grind to a halt for a horse race,” he says.

“The whole atmosphere and build up the week before the race was incredible. There’s an electric atmosphere.”

On the day before the Melbourne Cup, tens of thousands line Swanston Street for a parade featuring cars carrying the jockeys, owners, trainers and connections of each of the 24 horses.

“It has all the pomp and glory of a carnival and a carnival atmosphere,” adds Williams. “It’s one of the most exciting racing experiences you can be involved with.”

For European horses it’s a serious undertaking, with two weeks in quarantine in Newmarket, followed by a 30-hour flight followed by a further two weeks quarantine at Werribee, a racecourse facility south west of Melbourne.

Williams’ traveling head lad Fabrice Smeulders is on hand to look after Magic Circle and keep his exercise ticking over.

‘Special horse’

The journey in itself isn’t the barrier to victory. After all, Joseph O’Brien, son of famed trainer Aidan, led an Irish one-two-three with Rekindling ahead of his father’s Johannes Vermeer and Willie Mullins’ Max Dynamite last year.

Countryman Dermot Weld was the trailblazer, becoming the first non-Australian trainer to win the Cup in 1993 with Vintage Crop.

He followed it up with Media Puzzle in 2002, while trainers from Germany, France and Japan have since clinched the Cup.

European horses are regularly in the first three, but a victory still eludes O’Brien Sr. — and the British.

“It’s probably all about the horses,” says Williams. “It takes a special horse to travel halfway around the world and run at its best and the English trainers haven’t been as lucky as they could have been. Let’s hope the luck is stacked up for one of them this year.”

For all his success traveling around the UK, Williams has to fight to get noticed among the bigger yards backed by major breeding operations such as Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Godolphin or O’Brien’s Coolmore Stud-backed Ballydoyle yard.

“The big wins are always tough and it always boils down to the horses you’re able to train,” says Williams.

“We maybe don’t have the quality in general compared with the Maktoum horses or large owners, breeders or trainers but we’re lucky with what we’ve got.

“The challenge is to keep training winners to keep the business flowing and to keep interest in your abilities and what you achieve as a trainer to encourage people to send you the better horses to do the job with.”

Whoever you are, the big prizes still mean a lot.

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“The Melbourne Cup looks good on anyone’s CV,” says Williams.