There are five Group 1 races to be run across Australia and New Zealand on Saturday, with the Newmarket Handicap at Flemington the most prestigious of the lot.
First run in 1874 when won by Maid of Avenel, it has firmly established its place as Australia’s best sprint. The Melbourne Cup for sprinters.
A quick glance at the list of winners highlights the quality of the race.
Those to have won the Newmarket include Malua (1884), the only horse to win the Oakleigh Plate-Melbourne Cup-Grand National Hurdle treble, Wakeful (1901), Heroic (1926), Gothic (1927, 1928), Aurie’s Star (1937), Ajax (1938), Bernborough (1946), Baguette (1971), Toy Show (1976), Maybe Mahal (1978), Razor Sharp (1982, 1983), Placid Ark (1987), Special (1988), Shaftesbury Avenue (1991), Schillaci (1992), All Our Mob (1995) and General Nediym (1998).
Quite the honour roll.
However, the last 10 years have been among the best years for the Newmarket Handicap, with a top class winner every year. This coincides with a period where Australian sprinters have come to be recognised as the greatest in the world.
The last 10 winners have been Belle du Jour, Exceed and Excel, Alinghi, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Weekend Hussler, Scenic Blast, Wanted, Black Caviar and Hay List. With the exception of Choisir and Starspangledbanner, that is almost a definitive list of our best sprinters over the last decade.
This year, there are only a couple of horses I could see joining that elite list of gallopers.
It is disappointing this year that the Newmarket Handicap could only attract 13 runners without Black Caviar in the field.
There is hardly a more exciting race than the Newmarket when a full field of 24 is assembled. The big field thunders down the famous Flemington ‘straight six’ and the eyes of the crowd dart everywhere, not knowing where to look.
It is racing at its finest, a spectacle unlike any other.
Nevertheless, the Newmarket this year still promises to be a race of intrigue.
It is by no means a vintage edition of the race, and while the top few are classy, it drops off quite noticeably once past the few chances.
The race looks to be between Moment of Change, Barakey, Better Than Ready, Luckygray and Ortensia, with Spirit of Boom perhaps the only other chance to my eye.
However, there are a number of factors to consider when assessing the form for the Newmarket.
It is said that it is impossible to win the Newmarket first up, given the last known fresh winner was Polycrates in 1917. This is a statistic that has appeared in the last decade or so, and it has not been determined whether there has been another fresh winner since.
Certainly, no horse has won the Newmarket Handicap first up in the modern era. However, this statistic may be an anomaly given most horses go to the Newmarket Handicap from either the Lightning Stakes or the Oakleigh Plate. It is normally a target, not a stepping stone.
In fact, of the 15 runners who have been first up into the Newmarket in the last five years, only two of them could have been considered legitimate winning chances – Northern Meteor, who finished fourth to Scenic Blast in 2009, and All Silent, 11th to Wanted in 2010.
This year provides the best opportunity for that first up statistic to be shattered.
Second favourite Barakey and fourth favourite Luckygray, both from Western Australia, are both fresh heading into this race, while Salinger Stakes winner Fontelina provides another opportunity for a fresh horse to win.
For both Luckygray and Fontelina, this was by design. Luckygray is coming off a Perth campaign in which he won the Kingston Town Classic, defeating Australian Cup fancy Mr Moet.
As for Fontelina, he won the Salinger Stakes fresh in the spring. This is run under the same conditions over the same track and distance, although it invariably attracts a better field.
For Barakey, however, it was not the plan to be first up. The unbeaten Perth speedster was scratched at the barriers before the start of the Oakleigh Plate, for which he was a hot favourite.
I’d suggest he’d be more likely to struggle fresh than Luckygray, for instance.
This year gives them their best opportunity to break the hoodoo. However, if we rule out Barakey and Luckygray, that leaves us with three or four legitimate chances.
Seven of the last eight winners have finished either first or second in the Lightning Stakes, with the only exception in that time the great Weekend Hussler.
If that is any guide, it means that Moment of Change should go very close to winning. His run in the Lightning Stakes was huge and he always seems to be underrated. I’ll be having him on top, for sure.
Expect Ortensia to improve – she won on straight tracks in Dubai and England – while Spirit of Boom appears the best roughie.
And good luck to those who managed to snag $81 about Better Than Ready, who is now into $5.50. He’s a chance, although $5.50 seems well under the odds.
Sit back and enjoy Australia’s great sprint. Hopefully, next year, we can enjoy a capacity field in the Newmarket once more!