Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Melbourne Cup cheat sheet: Why every horse can – and can’t – win the great race

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On Tuesday afternoon, 23 horses will round the turf at Flemington in the $8 million Melbourne Cup – one less than usual after Cleveland was scratched on Monday afternoon.

Here’s why every horse can – and can’t – win the big race.

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Vauban draws barrier 3 for Melbourne Cup | 00:45

1. GOLD TRIP Barrier: (2) Approx BlueBet win/place odds: $.50/$2.50

FOR: Won it last year. So you know he’ll get the trip. In superb form again this spring, after a sub-par autumn, winning the Turnbull Stakes, running third in the Caulfield Cup and a good fifth in the Cox Plate, where it looked like he wanted this distance. Is a powerful bull of a horse who’ll likely be able to should his topweight of 58.5kg, and while regular rider dropped him to ride Without A Fight, he gets no lesser rider than James McDonald instead. Ideal inside barrier, and No.1 has a strong record in the race, with 11 winners (equal second). He’s a stallion, and they have won this the most (73 times to 54 geldings and 12 mares).

AGAINST: Won it last year. That sounds good, but only five horses in the 162 runnings have won it more than once. And one of those was the winner of the first two, Archer (when the grass at Flemington was three feet high in patches, so things were a bit rough and ready), and another was a freak called Makybe Diva, the only horse to win three. It’s so hard to win one; to win two takes an extraordinary alignment of planets. And this field is undoubtedly tougher than last year’s. And while he’s big and strong enough to carry 58.5kg, the last horse to win with a weight that big was in 1975, with Think Big (though for the superstitious, he was winning his second, as the last dual winner before Makybe Diva!) The average weight carried by the winner in the last 10 runnings has been 54.1kg. Perhaps all this explains why he eased in betting from $4.50 on Saturday.

2. ALENQUER (9) $34/$8

FOR: French-bred stayer who looks like he’ll keep running all day. Top trainer Mike Moroney, who won this with Brew in 2000. Gave one of those sneaky little pre-Melbourne Cup runs in his last start in the Moonee Valley Cup (2500m), nothing flashy, just this quiet little run where he kept coming in the straight, suggesting 3200m would be right up his alley. Plus, he wasn’t suited by that small track and short straight, and will love the extra time to go up through his gears at roomy Flemington. He’s a six-year-old, and they’ve been going great recently in this race, winning four of the past 10 including last year, and he has a good middle barrier. But most of all – it’s Ollie! Damien Oliver, 51, having his last go before retirement in the great race he’s won three times. Ollie who the nation roared home to win on Media Puzzle in 2002, a few days after his brother Jason died, in one of the great chapters of Cup folklore. Please sir, can Oliver have one more?

AGAINST: While his recent form has been a little encouraging, this import hasn’t yet won in five starts since arriving in Australia early this year, and hasn’t placed in his past eight all told. That contrasts his first 10 starts for five wins and three placings. And he hasn’t won – or even been tried – past 2400m. So while his Moonee Valley run hinted at building up to something, he’s going to need a major form lift, and you’re putting faith in him getting the distance.

3. WITHOUT A FIGHT (16) $8/$2.75

FOR: Gun jockey Mark Zahra won the Melbourne Cup on Gold Trip last year. But he chose to ride this horse over him in the Caulfield Cup last month, and won it. Then he rode Gold Trip in the Cox Plate, and he’s stuck with this horse. Jockeys do gain a feel for how a horse is going underneath them. And the horse looks like an outstanding stayer. Flew in from England to run in the Cup last year, didn’t get the chance to show his best because of a wide gate and a tough wide run, finishing 13th. Stayed here, acclimatised, then showed his class with two starts for two arresting wins in Group class at the Brisbane winter carnival. Two great runs this spring, featuring that tough Caulfield Cup win, and is in this up to his ears. By the same great staying sire (Teofilo) whose sons won this in 2018 and 2020.

AGAINST: Wide barrier, but at least he has an Australian jockey aboard, and a very good one. In last year’s Cup he was ridden by England’s William Buick, a fine rider back home, but made the mistake of thinking he could sit wide without cover in a Melbourne Cup. From gate 16, he may need to go back, then try to catch some rivals, likely with a lighter weight, at the end of a gruelling two miles. And though he had a tough run last year, he did finish an alarming 21 lengths behind the winner. So he’s not proven at the trip – one of the big checklist items for any Melbourne Cup.

Without A Fight (IRE) ridden by Mark Zahra wins the Caulfield Cup.Source: Getty Images

4. BREAKUP (18) $18/$5

FOR: Is from Japan. They’ve taken breeding class racehorses to a new level there, and are making a habit of taking the right horses to various parts of the world and winning big races. Japanese horses have had a few goes at this since their only one won it in 2006 (Delta Blue), but the Japanese breed has kept getting better since then (witness Obamburumai’s slashing victory against the best Australasian four-year-olds in Saturday’s Golden Eagle at Rosehill). Importantly, had a warm-up run in the Caulfield Cup, when eighth. For the superstitious, No.4 is the most successful saddlecloth number in this race, with 12 wins. And he’s proven at 3000m in Japan, when third in a Group 2 there eight months ago. He had 59kg there, and only 55 today, and given the tough style of racing there, that means he can probably run out this trip well.

AGAINST: He’s down in “devil’s gate” drive. Gate 18 has only hatched the winner of this race since barriers were first used for it in 1958. On the plus side, that happened only two years ago (Verry Elleegant). But what are the odds of once in 63 years and twice in 65? Aside from superstition – (and don’t forget he’d come in one or two gates if a horse or two drawn inside him is scratched) – it’s very hard to win this race from out there. And his Caulfield Cup run was a bit of an enigma – not one to enthuse over or make you dismiss him either. But he should take benefit from it. Also, jockey Kohei Matsuyama – though and experienced 33-year-old who’s won four Group 1s – hasn’t experienced Australia-style race riding yet, especially the peculiarities of a Melbourne Cup. Will face a challenge navigating a path from the wide barrier.

Oliver prepares for emotional farewell | 01:04

5. VAUBAN (3) $5.50/2.15

FOR: Quite a lot. Looks an exceptional stayer from a place that breeds a lot of good ones, Ireland. Seven wins from 14 starts speaks volumes. His stablemate Absurde is said to be a very good horse, and this bloke beat him into second by 7.5 lengths at Royal Ascot over 2816m in June, after making the pace. You just don’t see horses win like that very often. Plus he’s won up to 3382m. That was in a hurdle race, but it was a Group 1, so his class isn’t questioned. Prepared by a very astute trainer in Ireland’s Willie Mullins, who’s been trying to win this race for years, and says he’s never had a better chance. One of the world’s best jockeys aboard in Ryan Moore, who rode him at Ascot. He’s English, but he’s won this before (Protectionist, 2014) so he knows how it goes. Bad luck would appear out of the equation, as he has a great inside barrier, from which he should be up in the leading division. And he’s got 55kg. He had 61 in that Ascot win, and in jumps races, he’s won with 71kg. Right age, and No.5 has a strong record, with eight wins (equal fifth-best).

AGAINST: Hasn’t had a lead-up run in Australia. That’s not crucial, but is considered advantageous. And wins by grinding away and breaking rivals’ hearts. Melbourne Cups are often won by a horse who can hang tough and then produce a burst of acceleration at the finish. Whether this horse needs that, or whether he’s just too good, we’ll find out on Tuesday afternoon. And he hasn’t struck a field in flat racing quite this size before, though there were 16 in it at Ascot.

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6. SOULCOMBE 53.5kg (4) $11/$3.50

FOR: Master trainer in Chris Waller, and one of the world’s best jockeys in Joao Moreira, of Brazil, who’s been close in this race a couple of times, including a second by a whisker (on Heartbreak City behind Almandin in 2017). And that was from gate 23, so he knows his way around a Melbourne Cup. He’s got the beautiful gate four this time. Horse has ability, shown by powerhouse win at Caulfield first-up over 1700m four runs back, a strong third in the Turnbull Stakes (2000m), before last-start seventh in the Caulfield Cup, when he made ground after blowing the start. No.6 has had a hefty 10 wins in this race – fourth highest – and had one recently with Twilight Payment in 2020. His dad was the great Frankel, perhaps the best that ever was, and who’s also turning into a champion sire. Has won to 2787m in England, which is fair form for this.

AGAINST: His habit of blowing the start. It cost him dearly in the Caulfield Cup, when he was way last early and had to catch up, and that effort told on him in the straight. On one hand, that’s less important over 3200m, when you’ve got time to make up any lost ground gradually. What’s more, he tends to settle at the back whether he misses the start or not. But he’s got 23 rivals here, so he’ll likely have a lot of horse ahead and to his right to battle his way through when the whips are cracking. And there’s a slight distance doubt, since he hasn’t been beyond that 2787m. Looks classy, but there are some questions around him.

Soulcombe galloping last week.Source: Getty Images

7. ABSURDE (8) $10/$3.30

FOR: That master trainer of stayers again, Willie Mullins, who loves running them over hurdles, and this horse won such a race over 4023m in Ireland in May, so you know he’ll get this trip. Zac Purton to ride, one of the best there is. He’s an Australian who’s dominated Hong Kong for several years, and his engagement means this horse is considered a strong chance by the stable. Is the right age, as a northern hemisphere five-year-old or a southern-hemisphere six-year-old (take your pick). Beautiful inside barrier. Won the prestigious Ebor Handicap over 2816m at York, often a great pointer to this race, at his last start in August, in a field of similar size to this (22), and carrying 60.5kg – a whopping 7.5 more than he has here. Has a particularly good record on dry tracks like he’ll find at Flemington (7: 3-4-0), unlike a lot of Europeans. Huge money for him since the barrier draw, from about $21, so a lot of people like him.

AGAINST: While he looks one of these strong English/Irish stayers who’ll run all day, and he has good form behind him, he finished 7.5 lengths behind his stablemate Vauban – the favourite for this race – when they last met, at Royal Ascot in June, over 2816m. He meets him 2kg better off at the weights here, but that shouldn’t make a difference of 7.5 lengths. Since they both race in similar style, hard to see him turning the tables on that one horse at least.

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8. RIGHT YOU ARE (15) $26/$6

FOR: Leading stable in Maher-Eustace, who won this last year with Gold Trip. If you’re patriotic, he’s one of only two horses bred in Australia in this field dominated by (superior) European-bred stayers. Turned in a fine Caulfield Cup run when fifth. Sat in the leading division, and with a fierce pace set up front, he was the only one of the front few who didn’t weaken out. No.8 goes all right in this race, with eight wins. Loves this track (6: 2-1-2), and his dad was a champion in So You Think, who ran third in this race in 2010, so that bodes well for his staying ability.

AGAINST: Despite his honesty, and that meritorious Caulfield Cup run, there’s the biggest question of all Melbourne Cups hanging over him: Distance. He hasn’t won beyond 2400m, and hasn’t been tried beyond that trip. He strung together five straight wins in far weaker class over last summer and autumn, and they were between 1800m and 2100m. You wouldn’t have pegged him as a Melbourne Cup horse then, and it’s still hard to picture him running out a tough 3200m now.

9. VOW AND DECLARE (19) $26/$6

FOR: He’s won it before, in 2019, proving he can get the trip. And though he’s had two goes since for an 18th and a 10th, and he’s now eight years old, he’s been in sparkling form lately, running second in top class over 2000m at Caulfield behind only the outstanding Alligator Blood, then second again at a more suitable trip, in the 2600m of the Moonee Valley Cup. Light weight, with 53kg, after he had 57 in 2020 and 54 last year.

AGAINST: Like Gold Trip, he’s won it before. The stats for multiple winners are shocking, with five in 162 years. It takes a great horse to win two, and some might say this bloke was lucky to win one, by a whisker, under a postage stamp weight of 52kg as a four-year-old. Now he’s eight, and only three eight-year-olds have won this race, and one of them, Twilight Payment, was from England so was biologically only seven-and-a-half. Aside from all that, he’s got barrier 19. Yes he won from 21 in 2019 but, again, he was only four at the time.

2019 Melbourne Cup winner Vow And Declare.Source: AAP

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10. CLEVELAND (23)

FOR: Will stay all day, having won up to 3749m in England. Is in form, after winning the Moonee Valley Cup at his last start, often a decent trial race for this one. Jockey Michael Dee is a fine rider who’s had a knack in the past couple of years for winning big races when he’s not really expected to, such as with Durstan in last year’s Caulfield Cup and – get this – Lunar Fox, the longest-priced Group 1 winner in the nation’s history in taking the 2021 Australian Guineas at 300-1! Owned by Lloyd Williams, who’s won seven of these. Right age and sex. AGAINST: Terrible barrier, hence his price blew out after the draw. And did have a lot of favours at Moonee Valley, with a nice cushy run, and only got up by 0.75 lengths. Bit of a class doubt about him, which counts against him coming home from a long way behind (most likely from the wide gate) to whiz past a lot of these.

UPDATE: Cleveland was scratched on Monday afternoon on the advice of a veterinarian.

11. ASHRUN (11) $23/6

FOR: The Maher-Eustace touch is a big plus. And jockey Kerrin McEvoy has won three of these things, on lightweight chances. If you’re superstitious, he’s No.11 from barrier 11 (and pray the gate isn’t changed by scratchings inside him). In any event, jumping from the middle is a great thing. The horse has tended to get back in a lot of his races, but McEvoy also has an option of being in the front half, like the horse was in his last-start Geelong Cup run. That was a great effort, running a narrow second, third-up from a long spell of three years, and it circled this horse as a definite smokey. He was brought out for the 2020 Cup by the German trainer who won it in 2014 with Protectionist, and he won the Archer on the Saturday then backed up well to run 10th in the Cup, beaten only 4.8 lengths, after going back from a horror barrier (23) and making good ground. He then had three years off with injuries, but now looks like he could still be ready to deliver on his earlier promise. He’s now eight (seven-and-a-half biologically) but he’s only had 17 starts, so he’s certainly not worn out.

AGAINST: Despite that, history says precious few of his age group have won it, be they northern of southern hemispherians. Then again, it happened only three years ago with Twilight Payment. Another worry is whether, at 43, McEvoy’s best days are behind him. His strike rate, regularly around 15% a few years ago, has been 9% for the past three seasons.

Ashrun finished second in the Geelong Cup and backs up well.Source: Getty Images

12. DAQIANSWEET JUNIOR (12) $67/$17

FOR: Another for the numerologists – he’s No.12 from barrier 12. That’s great news for the saddlecloth number; it’s equal second-best with 11 wins! Not so great re the barrier, which has had one winner since the early 1980s. At least that was Twilight Payment, only three years ago. He’s well proven at the distance, having won the 3200m Adelaide Cup, run second in the Sydney Cup, and sixth in last year’s Melbourne Cup. He goes like Forrest Gump, until someone tells him to stop.

AGAINST: Bit of a class question mark over him, as the Adelaide Cup isn’t a biggie any more. Jockey Daniel Stackhouse is competent but not known as a big race heavy hitter, with no G1 wins from 45 attempts. Nor is trainer Phillip Stokes, though he does have six G1s from 96 attempts. And while Prince Of Penzance was 100-1 when he won in 2015, those three-digit longshots don’t have a great record in this race (or any other).

13. OKITA SOUSHI (20) $61/$12

FOR: Trained by Joseph O’Brien, who brought out Rekindling from Ireland to win it in 2017. Lightly raced with just 13 starts, for four wins and five placings, and the right age group as a six-year-old (northern five). Proven at the trip, having won at 3219m in Ireland. Nice light weight, at 51.5kg, after he won at Royal Ascot this year with 61kg. Has had a lead-up run and that will have helped him acclimatise.

AGAINST: Class: his top achievement is placing third in a G3 in Ireland. Form: Turned in a shocking run in the Caulfield Cup when 12th. Barrier: drew gate 20, after which his odds blew right out. Also has an apprentice jockey on board in Dylan Gibbons, and while he’s a fine rider, not many of those have won in recent history, the last one being Jimmy Cassidy in 1983.

14. SHERAZ (22) $91/$20

FOR: Trained by Chris Waller. Proven at the trip, having run second in last year’s Sydney Cup, and winning over 3000m in France. Decent last start run when eighth, beaten less than two lengths, in the Moonee Valley Cup (2600m), when he kept plodding to the line like a two-miler.

AGAINST Horror barrier draw. Brew won from gate 22 in 2000, but it’s a rare feat, and he was a decent $14 chance, whereas this bloke is $126, and probably deserves it. Lacks the class of a lot of rivals.

Can champion trainer Chris Waller deliver the goods with Sheraz?Source: Getty Images

15. LASTOTCHKA (21) $120/$5.50

FOR: Top stable in Mick Price and Michael Kent Jr. Leading, experienced jockey in Craig Williams, who’s won this before on Vow And Declare in 2019. Light weight, and lightly raced with 12 starts for four wins and three placings in France. Should get the trip, having won at 3100m in France only two months ago, so she should be nice and fit still, rather than having had a long time off before moving to Australia.

AGAINST: Is a mare moving from France to Australia. It’s generally harder to switch hemispheres with mares, taking them longer than males to acclimatise due to hormones. That’s why not many mares come here for the Cup. And she’s only a lightly-raced four-year-old, and mightn’t know what’s hit her in this big field, as she’s mostly been in single-digit sized fields back home. Plus, has a terrible barrier. That said, Williams won it from 21 on Vow And Declare, and it’s hatched two winners since 2009. But, there’s a lot of the unknown about this mare, and she’d have to be good to win from out there. The mail is, she likes racing up near the pace, so there’s a good chance she’ll be caught wide.

16. MAGICAL LAGOON (7) $91/$20

FOR: Master trainer Chris Waller. Good breeding, being by super sire Galileo. Has won in top company before being imported, taking the Group 1 Irish Oaks (2400m) last year. Good, inside barrier. Showed some toe in trying to lead before fading late in the Geelong Cup (2400m).

AGAINST: Untried beyond 2400m. Weakened out at the end of the Geelong Cup, which doesn’t augur well for the extra 800m here. Hasn’t been closer than sixth in five Australian runs.

17. MILITARY MISSION (5) $26/$6

FOR: Right age, as a six-year-old. Top stable in Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott. Two years after coming from Ireland has hit top form, with two wins and a G1 fourth in his past three starts. Gains a strong women’s vote with Waterhouse and jockey Rachel King, who’ll be confident after winning the big race on Saturday in the G1 Coolmore Stud Stakes. And how’s this for some spooky numerology: barrier five is THE most successful in the Melbourne Cup, with eight winners, and it recently went back-to-back through Green Moon (2012) and Fiorente (2013), and the latter was trained by … Waterhouse! A lot of money has come for this horse since that barrier draw, firming from around $51 to $23, so a lot of good judges rate it a strong lightweight hope.

AGAINST: Distance doubt, having not won nor even raced beyond 2400m, and until you see them do it in a race, it’s a major question mark. Hasn’t raced at Flemington before. Likely to take up a forward spot from that gate, as per the stable’s style, which magnifies any distance doubt.

Military Mission (IRE) ridden by Joao Moreira (BRZ) at Caulfield last month.Source: Getty Images

18. SERPENTINE (1) $41/$9

FOR: The Waterhouse-Bott touch. And great jockey in Jye McNeil, who rode a masterful frontrunning ride to get Twilight Payment home in 2020 – a rare thing in a Melbourne Cup. With a great inside barrier, he may try the same trick again. And barrier one has recent form, with Prince Of Penzance scoring from there in 2015. Light weight for a tough seven-year-old. Another owned by Lloyd Williams, who likes winning this race. Has class on his side, having won the English Derby in 2020, which takes a very good horse. Came here for last year’s Cup but was essentially pulled up with a problem. Form this spring has been better, with a fourth over 2500m here before a last start third over 2520m here, when he kept coming to the line to suggest he wants this longer trip.

AGAINST: Hasn’t been beyond that 2520m distance. And, if you’re superstitious, he has probably the worst saddlecloth number, with 18 only ever having won it once, and nearly a century ago, in 1932. And if he leads, there’ll be more pressure on him in this field – with several on-pacers – than Twilight Payment faced.

19. VIRTUOUS CIRCLE (6) $101/$21

FOR: Is in the field, somehow. Ran a fair second at $19 in the ATC Derby (2400m) in April. Inside barrier. Bred in New Zealand, which has a great record for winning this race. AGAINST: Everything else, and even gate six is a bit of an albatross, with no winners since at least the early 1980s. And has had three goes at Flemington for no placings.

20. MORE FELONS (23, was 24) $29/$7.50

FOR: Chris Waller trains. Jamie Kah rides, an outstanding jockey seeking to become just the second female winner, after Michelle Payne in 2015. Proven at the distance, having won a hurdle over 3298m in England. First Australian run was solid, when coming home well for fifth in the Geelong Cup (2400m). Will take great benefit, fitness and experience wise, from that. Is in the prime age as a five-year-old (northern four-year-old). Tiny weight of 50.5kg. AGAINST: Horrible gate, starting from somewhere in the car park. It’s a very tough ask even though Brew won it from the outside gate in a 22-horse field in 2000. He’ll likely have to go way back, although with his postage stamp weight he might be able to make a fair amount of ground in the last 600m. But you’d like to have seen a bit more from him at Geelong to back him from that alley.

The beautiful More Felons after trackwork this week.Source: Getty Images

21. FUTURE HISTORY (13) $19/$5.50

FOR: The Maher-Eustace polish. If you’re looking for female riders, he has the third one in the field, and a very accomplished jockey in England’s Hollie Doyle. Won the 2520m Bart Cummins two starts back, which gives him a perfect one-from-one at this track. Then a decent third in the Moonee Valley Cup. Will love dropping to 50kg from 56kg at the Valley. Barrier 13 may be unlucky for some, but it hatched the winner last year in Gold Trip, for its second success in 11 years. Has been solidly backed since the barrier draw, from $34.

AGAINST: Distance, again, as he hasn’t been beyond that 2520m trip. Plus he likes to be up front, again putting staying power to a sterner test. Class-wise, has come through the easier route than the Caulfield Cup. And Doyle is an accomplished G1 rider, but hasn’t ridden in a Melbourne Cup before, and it won’t much resemble what she’s used to back home, with race fields a lot tighter here.

22. INTERPRETATION (17) $81/$18

FOR: Maher-Eustace again. Has won up to 2816m in Ireland, which means he should be right for the trip. Won the Bendigo Cup last week, and winning form is good form.

AGAINST: Wide gate, though Almandin won it from 17 in 2016. He was a better horse than this bloke though, which is reflected by him blowing way out in the betting since pulling his wide gate, from about $51 to triple figures.

23. KALAPOUR (14) $51/$9

FOR: In winning form, having led and taken out the Archer Stakes (2500m) on Saturday to get into this field, to be one-from-one at this track. Before that was a solid third in the G1 The Metropolitan (2400m) at Randwick. Talented young apprentice jockey in Zac Lloyd. Consistent Irish-bred galloper with five wins and seven placings from 18 starts.

AGAINST: For one thing, there’s the quick back-up from Saturday. It’s hard to do, but not impossible, with Shocking having done it in 2009. However, it also means he had to scramble into the field at the last qualifying chance, and that reflects he hasn’t got a huge amount of the runs on the board required to win this. Lloyd is talented but still has to defy the odds about apprentices winning it. Moreover, the horse is attempted the gruelling back-up with a distance doubt over him, with a third over 2600m his longest race.

Kalapour (IRE) ridden by Damien Oliver wins the Lexus Archer Stakes at Flemington Racecourse on November 04, 2023 in Flemington, Australia. (Photo by George Sal/Racing Photos via Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

24. TRUE MARVEL (10) $91/$20

FOR: Will get the trip, having won to 3800m, and placing second in a G1 Sydney Cup over the 3200m in April. Good trainer in Matthew Smith, an expat New Zealander, and they love training stayers. Ideal middle barrier.

AGAINST: Everything else. He’s an eight-year-old, and not one of these age-defying eight-year-olds who warms the heart and you wonder how they keep doing it. He’s had four runs this spring for 8th, 10th, 8th and 10th. And has had three goes at Flemington for no placings.

TIPS: 1. VAUBAN; 2. Alenquer; 3. Gold Trip; 4. Without A Fight

BEST LONGSHOTS: Alenquer, Ashton, Serpentine.

(NOTE on barrier stats: If a horse is scratched, all those drawn outside it move in one, except if there’s a scratching at the barrier, when it’s too late).

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