The Sydney Cup, once Sydney’s most prestigious races, needs a serious revamp – and soon – or it faces extinction.
For a race with such a history, it has produced a rather ordinary field once again.
This has been the case for a number of years, with Sydney Cup types instead heading to the spelling paddock or to other (shorter) races around the same time.
A race which boasts an honour roll with winners like Carbine, Wakeful, Eurythmic, Rogilla, Sailor’s Guide, Galilee, Kingston Town, Tie The Knot and Makybe Diva deserves more respect than it currently receives.
It is the same story with the VRC St Leger, one of Australia’s oldest races, which is being run for the 157th time on Thursday.
Won in its halcyon days by the likes of Grand Flaneur, Poseidon, Phar Lap, Tranquil Star, Comic Court, Delta, Sailor’s Guide, Tulloch and Gurner’s Lane, the race now produces more jumpers than top class stayers.
There are exceptions – last year’s winner Vatuvei went on to win the Moonee Valley Cup while the appropriately-named Exceptionally has performed well in staying races for a number of years since her victory.
But for the most part, it does not see the emergence of top stayers like it once did.
The same fate may await the Sydney Cup if steps are not taken to arrest its fall.
A country which places its worth (both in terms of prizemoney and patriotism) in two of the world’s most prestigious staying handicaps cannot provide an appropriate program for stayers outside October and November.
A horse like Fiorente, which should be contesting this race, is instead running in the All Aged Stakes over 1400m.
Horses at the head of the weights originally, like Melbourne Cup winner Green Moon and classy import Sea Moon, are instead spelling.
Both Green Moon and Sea Moon are owned by Lloyd Williams, who will have only one goal in mind for both runners. It is a philosophy which seems to have spread to every Australian trainer.
It is Sydney’s loss that neither horse is lining up. In fact, it is Sydney’s loss that the field for the Cup is so diabolical.
The top two in the market are both good stayers.
Kelinni produced a big performance to win last Saturday’s JRA Plate over 2000m under a crushing 60.5kg.
His fourth in last year’s Melbourne Cup suggests he’ll be very hard to beat here, particularly if there’s a slight hint of pace on.
Maluckyday had no chance in last year’s Melbourne Cup given the way it was run, and his only other run at the trip produced a second to Americain in one of the stronger Melbourne Cups in recent years.
However, if this race was Group 1 quality, I doubt both would be at the head of the market. Instead, they’d be more likely to be found on the third or fourth line of betting.
The race falls away outside them. We have to look at Julienas, who would need to produce a controversial performance to win given he was beaten 36 lengths in the Chairman’s Handicap.
It would be akin to the 1994 Metropolitan win of Glastonbury, who won at 25-1 after running last as a 9-2 favourite (about $5.50) in the Colin Stephen Quality the week before.
The most interesting runner is perhaps last year’s Australian Oaks runner up, Aliyana Tilde.
A Stratum winning a Group 1 over 3200m is unthinkable to anyone with an understanding of breeding. And yet, here she is, a legitimate chance in anyone’s book.
It happens occasionally. The 1992 Melbourne Cup winner Subzero was bought as a Magic Millions type. And this year’s Newmarket Handicap winner Shamexpress was being touted as a nice staying prospect as a two year old.
But when we are looking at horses like these for Sydney’s premier staying handicap, it quickly becomes clear the race is a shadow of its former self.
There is no bigger fan of two mile handicaps than me, but I am a realist and know the Sydney Cup cannot maintain its status as a Group 1 if it continues to attract the fields it has in recent years.
The easy solution is prizemoney. The BMW, the primary avenue for class horses heading to the race, is worth $2.25m. The Sydney Cup is worth a relatively paltry $500,000.
By making the Sydney Cup worth $1m, perhaps redirecting funds from The BMW ($1.75m is still quite the prize pool), it becomes a more attractive target in the current environment.
The ‘current environment’ should shape all decisions in regards to the Sydney Cup. At the moment, that environment is dominated by stayers sourced in Europe by owners hoping for Melbourne Cup success.
What started as a mere trickle has become a rush, as our booming economy strengthens the exchange rate for Australian buyers.
The exact figure number of European imports currently trained in Australia fluctuates monthly, but it would be approaching three figures if it is not there already.
A hundred horses vying for 24 lucrative spots in the Melbourne Cup field. Throw in the international visitors and the locals and it is quite obvious there’s a tight squeeze.
The connections of horses like Brigantin and Shahwardi became all too aware of this scenario last year.
The Sydney Cup needs to be marketed as a viable alternative to the Melbourne Cup, as well as a pathway to the great race for horses yet to qualify.
Under an Australian preparation, the Sydney Cup is not at a practical time of year, with many trainers having their charges in the spelling paddock or even on the verge of returning to the stables to prepare for November glory.
But many spring contenders in Europe are only just beginning their preparations in May. Next week’s Jockey Club Stakes and Prix de Barbeville are two of the initial races for those on a Melbourne Cup campaign.
Perhaps the Sydney Cup needs to be integrated into a wider staying program to ensure a European-style preparation can be followed down under.
If prizemoney and better programming fail, then perhaps the only solution will be to reduce the distance of the Sydney Cup from 3200m to 2400m, leaving the Melbourne Cup, the Adelaide Cup and the Auckland Cup as the only three city cups at 3200m in Australasia.
A drop in distance can sometimes improve the quality of the race markedly. The Brisbane Cup is a prime example of this.
Six years ago, the Brisbane Cup was downgraded from a Group 1 to a Group 2, with the race reduced from 3200m to 2400m after a number of poor editions of the race.
The last five winners before the change were Art Success (2006), Portland Singa (2005), Danestorm (2004), Piachay (2003) and Prized Gem (2002).
Of these, only two won races after the Brisbane Cup. Prized Gem won the Kelt Capital Stakes, at that time New Zealand’s richest race, while Art Success managed to win a Grafton Cup and a Yalumba Hurdle.
Clearly, although there were exceptions, the race was losing lustre.
Since then, however, the race has consistently produced Group 1 form and of all current staying races across the country, it is the closest to regaining Group 1 status.
In 2007, the first year under the new conditions, the race was won by subsequent Metropolitan winner Newport, who prevailed over the fast finishing Lilakyn.
A year later, Viewed came away to win in a canter, with Melbourne Cup and Caulfield Cup success to follow.
Among the beaten brigade was the fourth placed Scenic Shot, who would add three Group 1s (and the Brisbane Cup the following year) to his honour roll before his career was over.
The last two winners both finished third in the Caulfield Cup the same year, those being Tullamore and Lights of Heaven.
So perhaps the logical option is to move the Sydney Cup back to 2400m.
But when we already have so many other options for horses in the 2400m-2800m range – the N E Manion Cup, the BMW, the Chairman’s Handicap and a number of benchmark races – there needs to be a test for horses over the two mile journey.
I do not want to see the Sydney Cup reduced in distance, but if it continues in its current form it may be inevitable.
What is the best solution? Who knows. It is up to the Australian Turf Club to ensure this historic race is rescued from the doldrums.