Group One upgrades fail to elevate Australian racing
Manawanui, ridden by Glyn Schofield, wins the 2011 Golden Rose at Rosehill, the first Group One race of the spring. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
On Monday the Asian Pattern Committee announced it had upgraded three Australian races from Group Two to Group One level, effective at the beginning of the 2013/14 racing season.
The Memsie Stakes (1400m, weight-for-age, Caulfield), Moir Stakes (1200m, weight-for-age, Moonee Valley) and Canterbury Stakes (1300m, weight-for-age, Rosehill) were the three races to receive the boost that not only guarantees top-level status but prize-money of at least $350,000 for each race.
Along with those three races, the Australian Pattern Committee unsuccessfully nominated a further three races for elevation – the Makybe Diva Stakes (1600 metres), Schillaci Stakes (1000 metres) and Apollo Stakes (1400 metres).
Using a criterion that places emphasis on the quality of the placegetters in Group Two races, the aforementioned six are considered to be the strongest second-tier contests in Australia.
But the process is flawed.
By only considering the strongest races for upgrades the Pattern Committee is encouraging the strengths of Australian racing to prosper, while its weaknesses continue to be exposed.
Each of the six races mentioned are sprint or mile races. There is not one middle-distance event, let alone the nomination of a staying race. A race like Geelong Cup (2400 metres, Group Three) – that has produced three winners and four placegetters in the last ten Melbourne Cups – was worthy of consideration.
It continues a trend that, in its extreme, shortened (from 3200 to 2400 metres) and downgraded (from Group One to Group Two) time-honoured races like the Brisbane and Perth Cups.
This trend accurately reflects the current state of Australian racing, where sprint racing has grown to prominence at the expense of staying races, as owners go in search of a quick return on their healthy investments.
And as a result, the racing world has come to view Australian sprinting as top class. But, undoubtedly, at a distance longer than a mile we’re correctly perceived as poor.
Australians are proud of their gun sprinters, but that pride is not dissimilar to a champion T20 cricket team beating its chest to a world that places more importance on Test and 50-over contests.
As it currently stands, there are more than enough Group One sprint races in Australia – 17 races at a distance of less than 1400 metres enjoy the highest status.
Apart from being unnecessary, the upgrades of the Memsie, Moir and Canterbury are encouraging imbalance in Australian racing.
Four of Australia’s five richest races are run over 2000 metres and longer, and quite uniquely, two of those races are handicaps. But many of the support races for the majors are underwhelming in comparison.
A big reason why we have so few quality stayers is because there isn’t a strong staying program, even with important races like the Melbourne Cup. This is something that can be addressed.
The Australian racing industry is built upon handicaps, yet there is not a single Group One 2000-metre handicap on the calendar. There are, however, Group One handicaps run at 1100, 1200, 1400, 1500, 1600, 2400 and 3200 metres.
2000 metres is the perfect distance for a thoroughbred horse race. The mile and a quarter asks questions of a horse’s speed and stamina; brings to the fore its brilliance and its strength. It is the quintessence of the middle distance – the reason why horses like So You Think endear themselves to fans around the world.
Greg Carpenter, the General Manager of Racing at Racing Victoria, told Melbourne radio station RSN on Tuesday that the Australian Pattern Committee will support any race that can fill a gap in the pattern.
As an example, Carpenter mentioned the Naturalism Stakes (2000 metres, handicap). The Naturalism has been run as a Caulfield Cup lead-up since its inauguration in 2000, and in 2009, with the help of the Pattern Committee was upgraded from Listed status to Group Three.
In the 2012 spring, the Naturalism will be the fourth-strongest staying handicap behind the Melbourne, Caulfield and Geelong Cups because the winner is guaranteed a place in what is likely to be, because of an international presence, one of the best Caulfield Cups in years.
The Naturalism experiment shows the 21st-century value of a race that offers ballot exemptions for internationally-contested handicaps.
On Saturday, the first Group One of the season will be run – the Golden Rose. The Golden Rose was only formed in 2003, starting off as a $1m non-graded three-year old race.
Using its prize-money to consistently draw high-quality fields, the Golden Rose quickly developed into one of the best Caulfield Guineas previews each season. And within seven years of formation, the race was promoted to Group One status.
With the Golden Rose and Naturalism templates for success, there is merit in the creation of two $1m 2000-metre handicap races to be run in the Spring and Autumn Carnivals respectively.
Not only would both races fill a void as the only Australian races of their kind, but by offering the first three placegetters automatic entry into the next Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, they can provide necessary drive for Australian staying racing.
For the first time in a few years, Australian stayers would have a definite, clear and realistic path into to Australia’s two biggest handicaps.
The Spring Carnival race can be run on the final day of Flemington Cup Week, giving any horse (Aussie or otherwise) the opportunity to be the first to make the following year’s Cup fields.
It also provides an incentive to keep progressive stayers in work until the end of the Carnival and encourages greater international participation in the spring.
The autumn race can be run at Randwick on Derby Day, serving the dual purpose of a Sydney Cup lead-in and Carnival drawcard.
And if races like the Queen Elizabeth at Flemington and Randwick City Stakes have to make way for these two new races, so what? The Peter Pan Stakes was replaced by the Golden Rose and no-one even noticed.
This week’s news about the upgrading of three Group Two sprints may seem a little perplexing, but perhaps it can be the catalyst for positive change in Australian racing.
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