A typical sliding-doors racing moment has comeback jockey James McDonald on the cusp of a stirring victory aboard hot favourite Yucatan for the Melbourne Cup today.
McDonald, who was banned from riding for 18 months in 2016 for placing a $1000 bet on his own mount, Astern, has been in stunning form since his return earlier this year.
But it was his decision to forgo the ride on Le Romain in the $13 million The Everest (1200m) at Randwick last month that could land him the nation’s most revered racing prize today. Instead of taking the Everest mount, McDonald headed south to ride boom colt The Autumn Sun in the Group 1 Caulfield Guineas (1600m).
McDonald had also been in touch with high-profile owner Lloyd Williams, who is chasing a seventh Melbourne Cup, and was told if he was in Melbourne he may have a horse to ride.
That horse was Yucatan in the Group 2 Herbert Power Stakes (2400m) at Caulfield the same day.
Not only did The Autumn Sun smash his Guineas rivals, but Yucatan won in dominant fashion to surge straight to the top of Melbourne Cup betting.
“I came here for The Autumn Sun, then Lloyd and the connections gave me Yucatan to ride and I was lucky enough to have won and to have stayed on,” McDonald said. “It was a little bit of luck for me that the big races clashed on the same day, but we’ll find out how much luck tomorrow. The sport is a bit of swings and roundabouts — you get suspended one day and you’re here the next.”
The New Zealand hoop said his time away from the sport had driven a greater hunger for it.
“You come back and work harder and enjoy it a lot more,” he said. “And this time of year it’s not hard to get excited.”
McDonald said he was keeping his cup chances in perspective, but knew he was going into the race with great hope.
“Everything is going well and the preparation has been pretty faultless,” he said.
“I had a good chance two years ago when Hartnell started favourite and finished third and Yucatan looks pretty special. He’s been prepared in a faultless manner all the way through and I’ve competed around the world, so I’ve been a bit lucky getting that experience.
“This race is no different and I’ve got a live chance. I’d rather that than not be in the race.”
McDonald said tactics from the wide draw in barrier 23 — which saw his price drift to $6.50 from $4.50 — were not decided.