Refreshed after a couple of weeks away from the racing circuit, I’m back in the saddle this weekend as the industry returns to the major tracks.
While all attention is likely to be on the Group 1 Underwood Stakes (1800m) at Caulfield this weekend, there is another race on the card which is a pivotal stepping stone to the rest of the spring.
The Group 3 Naturalism Stakes (2000m) precedes the Underwood on Saturday, but its importance cannot be underestimated, for it rewards the winner with ballot exemption from the Caulfield Cup.
First run in 1983 as the Royal Show Handicap when won by Mevron Boy, it was renamed the Naturalism Stakes in 1994 when it was extended from 1800m to 2000m.
For many years, it has represented a bridge between lower grade affairs and black type contests.
This can be seen in the list of winners before 2007, including subsequent Melbourne Cup placegetters Mapperley Heights (1984), Sea Legend (1986) and Second Coming (1999), subsequent Caulfield Cup placegetter Celestial Show (2000) and eventual Group 1 winners Sarrera (2005) and Zipping (2006).
However, it was in 2007 that it gained even more credence with the Melbourne Racing Club granting the winner ballot exemption from the Caulfield Cup.
The decision came at the same time as buyers began to look to Europe for appropriate stayers for Australian conditions.
And as the quality and quantity of imports have grown, so too has the significance of the Naturalism as a qualifying race for local runners.
Since gaining ballot exemption, no horse has completed the Naturalism-Caulfield Cup double, with Douro Valley the closest when second to Master O’Reilly in 2007.
But only two winners have not gone on to contest the Caulfield Cup – Zagreb, who was a late scratching in 2008, and Rainbow Styling, who wasn’t even among initial nominations in 2010.
This year, a top field which once would have been acceptable as a Caulfield Cup in itself will line-up in the hope of gaining ballot exemption.
2012 Queensland Oaks winner Quintessential is the only Group 1 winner in the race, but Group 1 placegetters include Seville (Irish Derby, Turnbull Stakes), Tanby (Australian Cup), Ibicenco (Preis von Europa), Moudre (Makybe Diva Stakes), Pakal (Criterium International) and Sahara Sun (Clasico El Derby – Chilean Derby).
Of the remainder, we have the winners of the Perth Cup (Talent Show), Grafton Cup (Mr O’Ceirin), Mornington Cup (Tuscan Fire), ATC Chairman’s Handicap (Tremec) and last year’s Naturalism Stakes (Folding Gear), as well as a horse like Kesampour that finished fourth in the Prix du Jockey Club.
And when a horse like Let’s Make Adeal, who has a low rating but was a very good fourth in the Makybe Diva Stakes last start, is an emergency, it demonstrates the quality of the race.
The only horse in the race guaranteed a Caulfield Cup berth is Tuscan Fire, who gained ballot exemption with his win in the Mornington Cup in February.
Seville, Tanby and Quintessential are right on the cusp, but given natural attrition would be a strong chance to make the field.
Therefore, victory in the Naturalism Stakes is crucial and it will be an eagerly contested race.
For those that lose, though, they can take heart from a mare who finished 19 lengths off them in 1991.
This mare was a wet track duffer, but she was coming off a slashing run in the Milady Stakes at Flemington.
She finished 10th to Newbury Star as favourite on a slow track, but it was to be her last defeat that spring.
Her name? Let’s Elope. She went on to win the Turnbull Stakes, Caulfield Cup, Mackinnon Stakes and Melbourne Cup at her next four starts. (And the Milady Stakes is now better known as the Let’s Elope Stakes).
So with such a strong field assembled on Saturday, who knows how the form will stack up. But don’t be surprised if this race produces a horse to follow for the rest of the spring.