Often in sport you learn much more about an individual or a team when they are defeated. And in racing, there is no defeat like the defeat of an odds-on favourite in a Group 1 race.
Group 1 racing is the sport’s biggest stage and only the best horses are good enough to attain odds-on favouritism (odds of less than $2) in such races.
There is a certain expectation that odds-on favouritism in Group 1 racing brings – that is, of course, victory.
But in reality, it isn’t always the case.
In the history of Australian racing all champions that lost at least once were beaten at least once when they were sent out at odds-on.
There are exceptions to every rule and the exception to this rule is Makybe Diva, who was never sent out an odds-on favourite and hence was never defeated as one.
Yet as a three-time Melbourne Cup winner, Makybe Diva is so revered in Australian racing she belongs in the rung above the champions – she is a legend of the sport.
But alone she is because alongside Makybe Diva in the legends’ lounge are Carbine, Phar Lap and Tulloch – and they lost at odds-on.
It happened to Carbine and Phar Lap twice each, while Tulloch’s five odds-on defeats probably won him Hall of Fame membership in the Bookmakers’ Co-Operative the day after he was retired.
If it can happen to the legends then it can happen to any great horse.
On the weekend, odds-on defeat happened to Atlantic Jewel, who was beaten for the first time, in her tenth start, and at $1.60 in the Underwood Stakes (1800m, Group 1, weight-for-age).
The victor, It’s A Dundeel – who sat outside the mare before over-powering her at the finish – now has five Group 1s to sit alongside his Triple Crown that was won with victory in each of the Sydney autumn’s famous three-year-old contests – the Randwick Guineas (1600m, Group 1), Rosehill Guineas (2000m, Group 1) and Australian Derby (2400m, Group 1).
After his Triple Crown success, It’s A Dundeel was expected to win his first race against open-age gallopers – the Queen Elizabeth (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age) on the last day of Group 1 racing in Sydney last season.
But as a $1.28 favourite, It’s A Dundeel was comprehensively beaten by the now retired Reliable Man. And It’s A Dundeel joined the long list of great horses to go under at odds-on in a Group 1 race.
A large post-mortem was conducted on It’s A Dundeel the following Monday, because as a high-profile horse and having suffered a shock loss in his stiffest test, we got rare insight into the son of High Chaparral.
I pointed to the chinks in his armour when writing in the aftermath of the Queen Elizabeth:
“It’s A Dundeel has weaknesses – he is 0-3 (favourite each time) when racing later than fourth-up from a spell; he’s never won (0-2) the Melbourne (anti-clockwise) way of going; and he’s never won a race with good early speed (0-2),” I wrote.
“Not only that but he needs to be ridden behind the pace to perform well.”
Roar Expert Andrew Hawkins prophetically looked to the future in the comments of that article when he wrote:
“I think they need to teach It’s A Dundeel to settle closer – almost what he did in the Randwick Guineas. If they do that, he’ll be a spring force to be reckoned with.”
‘Hawk’ was right because never before has It’s A Dundeel raced as positively as he has this spring – both in the Memsie (1400m, Group 1, weight-for-age) when fourth and in Saturday’s Underwood – and never have his stocks been so high.
There is no doubting his ability now. A five-time Group 1 winner between 1600m and 2400m; from outside the leader and from last; on good tracks and on slow tracks; in an average Derby and against what we thought was the best horse in the world – Atlantic Jewel; and most importantly, in Sydney on his right leg and in Melbourne on his left.
Of course, there is more for It’s A Dundeel to prove.
He is yet to win a race with good early speed; he is yet to win a race later than fourth-up from a spell; he is yet to beat home nemesis Super Cool and he is yet to win a major.
But, in the next six weeks, he will get his chance to set the record straight and attempt to remove any doubt we have.
For Atlantic Jewel, such a task is far more difficult. New dark clouds hover over her game.
She must once again prove her wares. It is the consequence of Group 1 defeat at odds-on.
I have made comparisons between Atlantic Jewel and Black Caviar on a few occasions but right now they look a bit silly, because while the undefeated mare continued to win when things went against her, Atlantic Jewel has never been as exposed as she was on Saturday and she has never previously disappointed in the same way.
Mark Kavanagh threw Atlantic Jewel in the deepest end she’s ever seen and she didn’t swim like Michael Phelps. No, her medal was coloured silver.
This was a farcically-slow run race. Bar Puissance De Lune, who made steady ground out wide and was good in defeat, the field more or less finished in the same positions they settled in.
And so, when Atlantic Jewel and jockey Michael Rodd had control of the tempo in the lead, they probably should have been the first pair home – they should’ve won!
But because they didn’t, we learnt a lot more about Atlantic Jewel in the 300m run down the straight than we have in any of her nine previous victories.
In explaining Atlantic Jewel’s narrow defeat, I’d say it was because she could not pinch a length on It’s A Dundeel at any stage in the final 600m of the race.
Atlantic Jewel’s inability to shake her opponents before the home straight must not have concerned Rodd, because he didn’t move on the mare – Atlantic Jewel wasn’t asked to break It’s A Dundeel’s heart until the final 200m of the race.
And, in hindsight, that surely must be regarded a poor piece of tactical riding. Rodd banked on Atlantic Jewel being able to out-sprint It’s A Dundeel in the final furlong but she couldn’t.
For a mare who had previously been untroubled each time she had gone to the races, I would have thought Rodd would’ve gone for home on the point of the home bend in an attempt to get Atlantic Jewel clear.
Having horses – It’s A Dundeel to her right and Dear Demi (who was fantastic in third) to her left – breathing down each side of her neck, would’ve been unfamiliar when she straightened for home.
Rodd had adopted the Luke Nolen-Black Caviar style of riding and, well, it didn’t work.
Maybe it didn’t work because Atlantic Jewel is not as good as Black Caviar but I think a more accurate reason for the tactic’s failure is that Atlantic Jewel’s sprint is not as sharp as Black Caviar’s (hence she was in an 1800m race).
Atlantic Jewel, leading for the first time, needed time to be stoked up just like most horses do.
Atlantic Jewel is a great mare but she does not possess a push-button acceleration. She certainly didn’t on Saturday.
I’ve no doubt Rodd was surprised when Atlantic Jewel could not race clear before the 200m – he expected her to break the race open without his persuasion.
His pulling of the whip was clearly desperate. Close-up replays showed a strained look on his face inside the final furlong.
Atlantic Jewel’s Underwood became a war of attrition on a soggy track and the stronger, more seasoned stayer was too powerful.
Atlantic Jewel was beaten by a better horse in It’s A Dundeel.
Just whether It’s A Dundeel was a better horse on the day or is generally superior remains unclear.
It is just one of a number of questions that inevitably pop up when an odds-on favourite is buried in a Group 1.
And so we are left to ponder how, in a sit-and-sprint more accustomed to the trotting circuit than the races, can the best horse in the country – I thought the world – lead and be beaten by the horse sitting outside her in the death?
Can Atlantic Jewel run out a strong middle-distance? Can Atlantic Jewel sprint well on slow going? Should she be raced on a seven-day break again?
Should she be ever ridden without cover again? Has she found her right level? Have we over-rated this mare?
It all sounds glum. But Atlantic Jewel fans can find solace in the fact the negative aftermath of an odds-on defeat is something almost all champions must face during their career.
A big question is – will Atlantic Jewel have to face the Monday doubts after odds-on defeat again? Or, like Tulloch, will it be a common occurrence?
Racing, like all sport, thrives on uncertainty. Black Caviar proved inevitability can be special because it is so rare, but there’s nothing as engaging as an unpredictable conclusion.
And that’s why odds-on defeats in Group 1 races are generally better for the greater good.
The 2013 spring is wide open again!