By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Godolphin's two-decade wait for a Melbourne Cup winner may be set to end on Tuesday, when the powerful stable mounts a formidable assault to gallop off with Australia's richest horse racing prize.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum's team has secured five entrants in the field of 24 at Flemington Racecourse for the famed two-mile handicap, including favorite Hartnell (7-2) and the highly fancied Oceanographer.
Godolphin has known only frustration and near-misses since their maiden bid in 1998, with three second placings by Central Park (1999), Give The Slip (2001) and Crime Scene (2009).
The Sheikh's long-serving trainer Saeed Bin Suroor prepared all three of the runner-ups and is back for another campaign with Secret Number and Beautiful Romance.
"I’m so happy with them, they have traveled really good from England to here and they look in good form, good condition,” Bin Suroor told local media this week.
Both are rated long shots by bookmakers, but the John O'Shea-trained Hartnell has shown encouraging form in the lead-up, coming second behind Winx in the 2,400m Cox Plate at Moonee Valley last week.
Considered a rank outsider weeks ago, British stayer Oceanographer (6-1) has been backed heavily since an impressive win at the 2,500m Lexus Stakes on Saturday.
Trainer Charlie Appleby has also enjoyed recent success on Qewy, who won the lead-up Geelong Cup to secure a berth in Tuesday's A$6.2 million ($4.71 million) race.
Qewy, a seven-year-old gelding rated 25-1, will be ridden by Kerrin McEvoy, a Melbourne Cup winner with Brew in 2000.
"He may lack a change of gears but he's very genuine and just keeps picking up," said McEvoy.
Northern hemisphere-trained horses have been prominent in the famed two-mile handicap over the past 20 years, transforming a formerly provincial carnival into a cosmopolitan affair.
Three of the last six Melbourne Cups have been won by 'foreign raiders', the local term for horses prepared outside Australia and New Zealand.
Flamboyant Italian jockey Frankie Dettori, runner-up behind Prince of Penzance on Max Dynamite last year, returns on another Irish stayer, the William Mullins-trained Wicklow Brave, one of 10 'raiders' in the field.
Dettori rode Wicklow Brave to victory in the Irish St Leger last month but faces a tall order at Flemington from barrier 24.
Curren Mirotic will attempt to become the second Japanese-trained horse to win the race following Delta Blues' victory in 2006.
The Osamu Hirata-trained gelding would need to defy history, however, by becoming the first ever nine-year-old to salute and achieve it from the 'unlucky' barrier 18, which has never produced a winner.
($1 = 1.3160 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)