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Billionaires still love the horse race that stops a nation

Melbourne

THE Melbourne Cup may have lost its title as Australia's richest horse race, but it remains a major lure for racing-mad billionaires. Wealthy horse owners from around the world sent their prized thoroughbreds to Australia's second-biggest city for a chance to take home A$4.4 million (S$4.13 million) for first place and an 18-carat gold trophy worth about A$200,000.

Known locally as the "race that stops the nation", the Melbourne Cup has a unique place in Australia's sports-mad culture. Office tipping competitions and champagne breakfasts are held across the country while well-dressed punters make their annual pilgrimage to the race track in Flemington, an otherwise unremarkable suburb in Melbourne's inner north.

Retaining its premier status is becoming more difficult for the Melbourne Cup. A flashy, challenger event in Sydney, The Everest, has lifted its total prize pool to A$14 million - dwarfing the Melbourne Cup's A$8 million. Next year's Saudi Cup will be the richest horse race of all time, with a first prize of US$10 million and a total purse of US$20 million.

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The Victoria Racing Club, which has been hosting the Melbourne Cup since 1864, has also had to contend with a rise in animal cruelty concerns after a series of reports on the mistreatment of retired race horses. Pop star Taylor Swift was set to perform in the mounting yard at this year's event - she cancelled well-prior citing scheduling difficulties, amid criticism from horse-loving fans.

For many wealthy horse owners, the race's appeal is as strong as ever. The cashed-up Godolphin stable, founded by Dubai-based Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, won last year's Melbourne Cup with Cross Counter and was trying for back-to-back wins with the same horse. Prince Khalid Abdullah, a member of Saudi royal family, is a co-owner of Finche, and Saeed Bel Obaida from the United Arab Emirates had Prince of Arran, which got A$1.1 million for second place.

One of Australia's richest men, Lloyd Williams, came close to a seventh Melbourne Cup victory. Among his horses in this year's race was Master of Reality, who finished second before being demoted back to fourth after a protest was upheld.

The problem they all face is that vast riches can't guarantee success. Chinese billionaire Pan Sutong lost his chance to win the Cup when his horse Gold Mount suffered a career-ending injury in a lead-up race. BLOOMBERG