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Too many Group races spoiling Australian racing

Manawanui to be retired (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Expert
20th March, 2013
27

Imagine that the AFL grand final was not the most anticipated match of the year, just a simple game that garners a little interest but none of the anticipated atmosphere.

Imagine that every single tennis tournament was a grand slam, a test of the skill and endurance of the greatest tennis players of the time. Grand slams would become meaningless.

Imagine that the State of Origin concept revolved around every game between a team from New South Wales (say the Roosters) and a team from Queensland (say the Broncos) – in fact, in 24 out of the 26 rounds of the NRL, there are games between teams from NSW and Queensland. It wouldn’t have any of the prestige it has gained over the last three decades.

All of those are the pinnacle of their individual sports, the peak which all players strive to conquer.

Although it may seem far-fetched, racing is struggling with that very question at the moment.

While the ordinary punter may only think of the Melbourne Cup or perhaps the Cox Plate when thinking of elite races, there are actually far more that are considered to be at the highest level.

For those who know about racing, forgive me as I explain the system. I remember, when I first came into racing, this was something that intrigued me greatly, hence the explanation.

The Australian grading system sees our top races ranked – Group 1 races are the most prestigious, Group 2 races are the next best, Group 3 races are a tier below that, while Listed races are one rung further down.

These races are known as ‘black type’ races, as a winner of these races is then presented in bold black type in pedigrees. For a breeder, black type is crucial.

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This season in Australia, from August 1 2012 to July 31 2013, there will be 69 Group 1 races, 84 Group 2 races, 120 Group 3 races and 305 Listed races.

Together, these 578 races form what is known as the Pattern, the system by which races are graded in Australia.

On Tuesday, the Australian Racing Board (ARB) – considered to be Australia’s peak national administrative body for racing, although a bit of a toothless tiger compared to the state-based regimes – released a monumental press release regarding the Pattern.

The release stated that 41 races – that’s right, 41 – were to be upgraded from their current status, meaning a Group 3 would become a Group 2, a Listed race would become a Group 3 and a race without black type could become a Listed race.

Seven Group 3 races were upgraded to Group 2 status, a whopping 33 Listed races were upgraded to Group 3 races, while one non-black type race was upgraded to Listed status. All were below 1600m, once again ignoring our staying stock.

Upgrades are not uncommon, but normally they are accompanied by downgrades at the same time. The most recent occurrence came in 2011, when Perth’s Winterbottom Stakes was upgraded to Group 1 while the WA Derby was downgraded to Group 2.

This time, there are no downgrades.

If no upgrades or downgrades are announced before the new season begins on August 1, there will be 71 Group 1 races (with the Memsie Stakes and Moir Stakes already upgraded to Group 1 status), 89 Group 2 races, 153 Group 3 races and 273 Listed races in the 2013/2014 season.

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There seems to be something wrong with this system, for mine. Why do we need so many black type races? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on quality, as opposed to quantity?

Look at some of the horses that have won black type races this season so far. What if I was to tell you Cavallo Pazzo was a Listed winner? I expect your answer would be, who?

(Answer: He won the Belmont Newmarket and the Goodwood Sprint over in Perth in August.)

The ranks of black-type winners are full of horses who were in the right place at the right time.

It is probably time to completely overhaul the Pattern to adapt to a completely different racing environment than the one for which it was designed. That’s for another time, another article, as it requires far more space than I’m provided here.

However, there are a couple of questions which come from these basic facts listed above.

The first is, why do we need so many Group and Listed races? And in particular, why do we need so many Group 1 races?

In my opinion, Group 1 races should be the pinnacle event of their class, the ultimate test for a thoroughbred under a certain set of conditions (weight for age, handicaps, set weights) over a certain distance at a certain track.

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So why, for example, do we now have three Group 1 races run under weight for age conditions over 1200m at Moonee Valley?

Why do we have three Group 1 races run under weight for age conditions over 1400m at Caulfield?

Why don’t we have a Group 1 staying race for fillies and mares?

There are numerous irregularities that should be fixed.

The same cases could be made for many Group 2, Group 3 and Listed events. There are just too many of them. Profligation only serves to devalue black type victories.

Let’s cut it right back. Why not have, say, 35 Group 1s, 70 Group 2s and 100 Group 3s? Even that seems excessive, but it at least allows for quality, over quantity

Quality, not quantity, will provide the basis for a strong, competitive racing.

The second is, who is pushing for more and more higher class Group races – as in, Group 3 as opposed to Listed and so forth?

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Looking at the makeup of the Australian Pattern Committee, who makes recommendations to the Australian Racing Board, it is clear it is the breeders on the board who are pushing for more black type races to be rated higher.

The likes of John Messara and Trevor Lobb have done wonderful things for racing. More and more black type only benefits them, though, as it bolsters the pedigrees of horses they breed.

The problem is, though, they seem to only want to encourage sprinters. It is what has made them successful and what they’ve built their studs around.

Sprinters have a quicker turnaround time, so to speak, so buyers are more likely to be back buying stock quicker having raced a sprinter as opposed to a stayer.

They have no interest in seeing the revitalisation of the Australian staying industry, and that is bothersome.

This is clearly represented in the fact that none of the 41 races mooted for upgrade were beyond 1600m.

Furthermore, it is widely expected the next Group 1 downgrades will be for staying races – either the South Australian Derby or Queensland Oaks is likely to be at risk.

However, at what point does it become diluted? At what point does black type mean nothing?

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We don’t want to get to the point where black type is meaningless. A Group 3 winner, for example, should be celebrated and admired. It shouldn’t be so easy to get as so it loses its lustre.

There needs to be some value in our best races – otherwise, what makes them so special?