Inside the public reserve of the JR Fleming Stand at Rosehill Gardens used to hang a large photograph of the finish of the 1996 Rosehill Guineas.
The photo, a low-angle shot, showed Nothin’ Leica Dane, Octagonal and Saintly stretched across the track, unable to be split, fighting out the race.
17 seasons on, the 1996 Rosehill Guineas is still celebrated as one of the best races ever run in this country. And its combatants – the aforementioned trio, along with Filante who was fourth – are regarded as the greatest collection of three-year olds to have raced in Australia in the modern era.
There have been better individual three-year olds– and undoubtedly dozens of other colts and fillies that won ‘champion’ status at a more mature age – but rarely, if ever, has there been more depth in the three-year old ranks than what there was in the 1995/96 crop.
But this season there is.
On Saturday, Super Cool and Fiveandahalfstar became the first three-year olds to figure in the finish of an Australian Cup (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age) since Delzao ran second, nearly upsetting Lonhro, in 2004.
Super Cool, the victor in a thrilling finish, became only the third three-year old to win the race.
That statistic looks even better when the two previous three-year olds to win the Australian Cup are Saintly (1996) and Dulcify (1979).
What esteemed company he joins.
And it wasn’t a fluke. This was third time Super Cool and Fiveandahalfstar have fought out a race. I dare say it mightn’t be their last battle royale at Flemington!
In the Newmarket Handicap (1200m, Group 1), Shamexpress, another three-year old, upset the older horses in a driving finish. He is the sixth three-year old to win the race in the new millennium.
And the most exciting thing is that the benchmark colts in this current crop of three-year olds – Pierro, All Too Hard, Rebel Dane and Proisir – were at home, resting in their stall.
Depth like this is unheard of.
You can interpret Saturday’s results in two ways.
Either this group of three-year olds is the greatest in decades; or the quality of Australian racing is at such a low point that our great races are being served on a platter to talented youngsters who are able to take advantage of age-influenced weight concessions.
I think there is merit in both interpretations. Black Caviar aside – Australian racing has been in the mire since Makybe Diva retired at the end of the 2005 spring.
Our weight-for-age ranks at the middle distances have been thin, if not poor, and except for a few star performers, namely Weekend Hussler during the 2007/08 season and So You Think in the spring of 2010, there has been little to write home about.
Since the beginning of 2006, our best sprinter-milers have remained top class – Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast, Starspangledbanner, Haradasun and Black Caviar won races at Royal Ascot.
And in the last two years So You Think showcased the best of Australian racing by taking five Group 1s under the Coolmore banner to become a European powerhouse.
But – besides So You Think – at distances longer than a mile, it’s almost become dire. Five years ago, Australian owners en masse, started going to Europe to buy racehorses and their purchases have been propping up our weight-for-age ranks ever since.
Yet, except for Manighar– a three-time Group 1 weight-for-age winner – and to be fair, a couple of others, these imports have been unable to improve the dwindling quality of our weight-for-age races.
And that’s because many of them are handicappers, bought to run in the Melbourne Cup.
The good news is that the next wave of imports includes Sea Moon and Reliable Man – genuine, world-class gallopers. But they won’t be campaigning properly until the spring.
Using Saturday’s Australian Cup field as an example, five runners (Green Moon, Glass Harmonium, Foreteller, Mourayan and Mawingo) were imported to Australia from Europe. Between them, they have won two Group 1 weight-for-age races.
Of the remaining seven runners, two are three-year olds (and they ran the quinella); Tanby, Invest, Durnford and Niconoise are genuine handicappers; and Mr Moet, the winner of a Group 1 Handicap, has only made the progression to weight-for-age racing this preparation.
That puts the performances of Super Cool and Fiveandahalfstar into perspective.
The fact they were able to beat an Australian Cup field by four lengths is not only an indication of their obvious quality – and their ability shouldn’t be underestimated – but a big wake-up call for Australian racing.
Our middle-distance ranks are poor. And that’s why a vintage group of middle-distance and staying three-year olds is exactly what Australian racing needs.
It’s easy to take pot shots at the imports but imagine if they weren’t here. Our top-level racing would be farcical.
And even though these three-year olds have the potential to take Australian racing back to its glory days there is no guarantee it will happen.
In the 2009/2010 season, Black Caviar, So You Think, Manhattan Rain, More Joyous, Shoot Out and Starspangledbanner were three-year olds; all of them outstanding gallopers with unlimited potential.
But Australian racing didn’t get the full benefit of the breeding industry’s good work. So You Think and Starspangledbanner were sold to Coolmore in their prime and Manhattan Rain was retired to stud at three.
Shoot Out, the winner of five Group 1s including Saturday’s Chipping Norton Stakes (1600m, weight-for-age), hasn’t gone on to become the superstar we hoped. All his Group One wins have come in Sydney and he hasn’t won a race worth more than $360,000 since the 2010 Australian Derby.
Racing is blessed to have Black Caviar and More Joyous but it could’ve been so much more. And, there’s every chance we may be saying the same thing about this current group of three-year olds in a few years’ time.
All Too Hard will be retired at the end of our winter and there’s no guarantee Pierro and Proisir will remain in work for more than another 15 months.
So we should enjoy these youngsters while we can. They may be flattered by underwhelming older opposition but, in my mind, their quality is undoubted.
These are special three-year olds. And it may be another 17 seasons before we get another crop like them.