Willie Pike admits that he had not heard of the Cox Plate when he was growing up at Coolgardie on the Western Australian goldfields.
Now, nearly 20 years later after doing his early apprenticeship at bush meetings, he has some 2,600 winners and nine W.A. jockeys’ premierships to his credit and is renowned as the “Wizard of the West”.
On Saturday Pike, rather ironically, has every chance of winning Australasia’s most prestigious weight-for-age race at his first ride in the event aboard Arcadia Queen.
Appropriately the Pierro mare is from the west and is raced by the nation’s most successful owner-breeder Bob Peters.
She looked a Cox Plate type when she won the Group 1 Kingston Town Classic (1800m) at Ascot as a three-year-old but last spring Mr Peters elected to send Arcadia Queen to Chris Waller in Sydney.
Her objectives were The Everest (1200m) and The Golden Eagle (1500m) but when the plan failed she was sent back to her original trainers Grant and Alana Williams.
A husband-and-wife team they have timed her preparation to perfection.
After being brought across from Perth in the winter months Arcadia Queen began her quest for the Cox Plate with a fifth in the Lawrence Stakes (1400m) at Caulfield on August 15.
Placings in the Group 2 Let’s Elope Stakes (1400m) at Flemington and Group 1 Underwood Stakes (1800m) at Caulfield followed before she staked her claim for the $3 million first prize being offered at Moonee Valley in the Group 1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) at Caulfield.
Brilliantly ridden by Pike she came from the rear to sweep by her opposition – including Russian Camelot, who was an odds on favourite – to score in comprehensive fashion.
Since then Arcadia Queen’s track work indicates she has continued to progress, she has drawn reasonably in barrier 8 and has Willie Pike in the saddle.
The only reservation about her is that the going does not become worse than a soft 6. .
Significantly after going more than 40 years – Surround was a three-year-old when she won in 1976 – mares have become a dominate force in the Cox Plate.
When the Bart Cummings-trained Dane Ripper broke the drought in 1997 it triggered an era which has resulted in 10 victories in 23 runnings. Sunline’s successes in 1999 and 2000 were followed by Makybe Diva (2005), Pinker Pinker (2011) Winx’s four wins from 2015 to 2018 and Lys Gracieux last year.
This year Probabeel, who is a four-year-old by the 2004 winner Savabeel, will be backing up Arcadia Queen along with longshot Nettoyer.
Probabeel has proven herself to be a class act since she began racing with eight wins and six seconds from her 18 starts.
She produced an amazing performance to win the Group 1 Surround Stakes (1400m) at Rosehill in February and has been even better this time around with successes in the Group 3 Bill Ritchie Stakes (1400m) and the Group 1 Epsom Handicap (1600m), furthermore she is accomplished in all conditions.
The Aidan O’Brien trained Armory – a four-year-old by 2014 Cox Plate winner Adelaide – shapes as the strongest of the internationals.
Last year he was placed in three Group 1’s following a win in the Group 2 Futurity [1400m] at The Curragh.
Armory resumed with a luckless fourth behind the highly-regarded Siskin the Irish 2000 Guineas in June then overcame interference when successful in a Group 3 over 2000m at The Curragh.
He went on to record a career best when third to the two top rated horses in the world this year Magical and Ghaiyyath in the Irish Champion Stakes [2000m] on September 12.
Interestingly Sottsass who was fourth behind Armory went on to win the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.
Another invader Aspetar, who is trained by Roger Charlton, must also be rated among the leading contenders.
He has won five of 13 and last year he was impressive winning a Group 2 over 2400m at Chantilly and a Group 1 over 2400m at Cologne.
This year he peaked on his effort when beaten in a Listed race over 2000m on the uphill finish at Sandown before running away with the Group 2 York Stakes (2060m) in July 25.
The fact that he has been dropped back in distance in this campaign suggests he has been specifically set for the Cox Plate.
Added to that from barrier 3 he is drawn to get a nice favourable passage behind the speed and further enhancing his claims is that Aspetar has the versatility to quicken from the back, if required.
Russian Camelot, who is trained by Danny O’Brien and will be ridden by Damien Oliver, has been favourite since winning the Group 1 South Australian Derby (2500m) in May.
His performances in three outings this preparation have enabled him to hold his place at the head of the market. He travelled wide when beaten a head in the Makybe Diva, was always in control in the Underwood Stakes but was no match for Arcadia Queen in the Caulfield Stakes.
Russian Camelot’s prospects will be improved if rain has an impact on the going.
The Japanese bred Fierce Impact, who is a winner of three Group 1’s over 1600m in Melbourne defeated Russian Camelot in the Makybe Diva at Flemington and was then returned home by trainer Matthew Smith. He then stepped up 2000m when finishing his Cox Plate preparation with an eye-catching third behind Kolding in the Hill Stakes at Randwick when coming from last.
- Arcadia Queen 
- Probabeel 
- Armory 
- Aspetar