- November 1, 2021
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Spanish Mission wins the Yorkshire Cup at York
Winning races all over the globe is not an unusual turn of events for Team Valor International.
It's actually been the partnership's modus operandi for decades.
"We've won the Dubai World Cup (G1) and Kentucky Derby (G1) and have won big races in every country and have had champions in every country," said Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin who founded the group's partnership concept in 1987.
Yet for all of that success, there is one huge international prize that has eluded Irwin as well as every other American-based stable since 1930.
But that could change come Nov. 2 Down Under.
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It is believed the last Lexus Melbourne Cup (G1) winner with an American owner was the famed Phar Lap back in 1930, adding to the multitude of rewards that will be up for grabs when Spanish Mission runs as one of the favorites in Australia's grueling $8 million, two-mile turf stakes for owners Team Valor International and California's Gary Barber.
"He's right up there with the top horses in the Melbourne Cup. He's the kind of horse that if he's feeling good and he brings it, he's going to be very live," Irwin said.
Given the circumstances, for Team Valor and Barber a victory would be one of their greatest rewards in their long and successful years in the sport.
"I've always wanted to run a horse in this race and to win it as the first Americans since Phar Lap would be a tremendous thrill. 'Phar Lap' is my second-favorite horse racing movie," said Barber, the chairman and CEO of Spyglass Media who served as the executive producer of the Oscar-nominated film "Seabiscuit" about the great Thoroughbred champion of the late 1930s. "This is one of the signature races in the world that you always want to win."
The trip to Australia has already been eventful for Spanish Mission and his connections.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, neither Spanish Mission's trainer Andrew Balding, the son of famed trainer Ian Balding, and his team nor the owners could travel to Australia and a team led by trainer Tony Noonan had to be assembled to handle the son of Noble Mission for the race.
Then there was concern that Australian veterinarians would scratch the 5-year-old horse. According to Irwin, earlier this week, there was concern Spanish Mission may have injured a leg in his stall. Then when he jogged in front of vets for the race, a sleeve to detect lameness was put on his leg and it revealed lameness on a scale of 1 out of 5, with 1 being the lowest. There was talk of the horse being scratched from the classic race, but Noonan contended it was the sleeve that was causing the problem. The vets listened and when Spanish Mission came back fine from his next jog without the sleeve, there was an Oct. 30 announcement that he was clear to run.
"What a roller coaster ride this has been," Irwin said.
And the fun part is still on the horizon, namely the race at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne.
The Melbourne Cup is contested as a handicap race with the better horses receiving higher weight assignments. The 5-year-old Spanish Mission is listed at 57 kilograms (125.6 pounds). That puts him at the same level as Incentivise and Verry Elleegant, one kilogram less than 2020 Melbourne Cup winner Twilight Payment .
After drawing post 14 in the bulky field of 24 for the Nov. 2 test, the winner of six of 15 starts is being touted as the probable second choice, at odds of about 7-1, behind the likely favorite Incentivise in the 161st edition of the Melbourne Cup. Viewers in the United States will want to tune in around midnight Eastern on Nov. 1 to catch the race.
In his four 2021 starts, Spanish Mission won the Matchbook Yorkshire Cup Stakes (G2) while finishing third in the Gold Cup (G1) at Royal Ascot and second to Stradivarius last time out in the Weathersby Hamilton Lonsdale Cup (G2).
"He can handle the distance and he's had some very good races this year," Irwin said. "The only thing he can't do is handle off turf. If it rains, he'll be compromised. It's a race that's not dissimilar to the (Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve). It's a big field and they will get stretched out at some point but the trip is going to be a big part of it."
While Barber will be watching from California, he wishes fate would have been kinder and he could have traveled Down Under to watch his $1.5 million earner in such a special setting.
"In Australia, the world stops for a few minutes when they run the Melbourne Cup," said Barber, who first attended the international classic in 2005 when Makybe Diva won for the third straight time. "It was a fantastic experience. It was something I never experienced before."
Team Valor bought Spanish Mission after a 2-year-old campaign that included a win from two starts in England.
"We bought him off a nice race on an all-weather surface," Irwin said. "He had a terrific action and a lot of ability. He got a good rating for his win and it looked like he could run all day."
American fans might recall Spanish Mission for his one U.S. start, which came at 3 in 2019 when the colt bred by St. Elias Stables in Kentucky out of the Street Cry mare Limonar was shipped across the Atlantic Ocean and captured the inaugural running of the $1 million Jockey Club Derby Stakes at Belmont Park.
At the time, Team Valor owned him in a partnership with Earle Mack, but in June 2020 Mack sold his share to Barber, adding another chapter to the harmonious partnership between Irwin and Barber that dates back to their joint ownership of The Deputy, who won the 2000 Santa Anita Derby (G1).
"Barry and I have had a lot of good horses together," said Barber, who has won more than 40 races alongside Irwin. "We've been together for a long time which shows how well everything has gone."
It was also after that victory in the 1 1/2-mile turf stakes when Irwin first pondered running Spanish Mission on the other side of the world in the two-mile Melbourne Cup.
Plans that far off in the future generally crumble long before the big day arrives, but Spanish Mission has been able to maintain top form while running in some of Europe's top races for Balding.
"We actually thought about this since his 3-year-old year. We were thinking about it last year but it's the older, more mature horses that win it because it's no joke when you run two miles," Irwin said. "If he runs well, we may try it again next year."
If Spanish Mission turns in a solid effort it will add even more sparkle to a sensational year for Team Valor, which shifted its focus to overseas racing last year. Through Oct. 19, the partnership has amassed 44 wins from 183 international starts with 29 seconds and 17 thirds while posting $2.2 million in earnings and compiling a sterling win rate of 24%.
Adding the Melbourne Cup to a roster of all-time wins that stands at about 1,200 would certainly be the icing on a superb 2021, yet it would not move up to the No. 1 spot on the list of Team Valor's all-time hits. Animal Kingdom 's score in the 2011 Kentucky Derby has a lock on that accomplishment.
"It would be unique to win the Melbourne Cup but not being there will take some of the shine off it," Irwin said. "The money is phenomenal but for an American, there's nothing that compares with winning the Kentucky Derby. If you're an American, the Kentucky Derby is it."
Of course, having a win that can be used in the same sentence as the Kentucky Derby isn't a bad feat at all.
"Any way you look at it," Irwin said, "winning the Melbourne Cup would be a feather in our cap."
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