While Derby Day is named for the spring staying test of three-year-olds, the Victoria Derby, it is the Mackinnon Stakes which has long been the true highlight of the day for racing purists.
With every horse in the Victoria Derby stepping out to the 2500m trip for the first time, the Derby form is always hard to gauge and cannot be adequately assessed until we see what emerges as the season progresses.
For example, I thought last year’s Derby was weak after 40-1 shot Fiveandahalfstar came off a restricted Rosehill race to run them off their legs.
Twelve months on, I can see that was harsh.
The Derby quinella beat the older horses in running one-two in the Australian Cup, albeit with Super Cool getting the better of Fiveandahalfstar. Two starts later, Fiveandahalfstar won The BMW.
Among the beaten brigade were Australian Derby winner It’s A Dundeel, South Australian Derby winner Escado and Queensland Derby placegetters Electric Fusion and Honorius.
It was one of the stronger Derbies in recent years, and the subsequent form suggests third placegetter Rawnaq – unraced since the Derby with injury niggles – may be a very smart galloper. He’s in light work at the Euroa property of David Hayes, and I can’t wait to see him back.
But I digress. It is an impossible race to judge at the time, while the Mackinnon Stakes features fit horses – some best at 2000m, others preparing for the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday.
The Mackinnon Stakes, first run in 1869, features an honour roll which perhaps can only be matched by the Cox Plate.
There are Melbourne Cup winners galore, with the double completed 16 times – Malua (1884), Carbine (1890), Phar Lap (1930), Peter Pan (1932 and 1934), The Trump (1937), Comic Court (1950), Delta (1951), Dalray (1952), Rising Fast (1954), Rain Lover (1968), Gold and Black (1977), At Talaq (1986), Empire Rose (1988), Let’s Elope (1991) and Rogan Josh (1999).
There are some of the great horses of the Australian turf – Wakeful (1901, 1902, 1903), Eurythmic (1920, 1921), Gloaming (1924), Manfred (1926), Gothic (1928), Rogilla (1933), Ajax (1938), Beau Vite (1940, 1941), Tranquil Star (1942, 1944, 1945), Flight (1946), Tulloch (1960), Sky High (1961), Tobin Bronze (1966), Leilani (1974), Dulcify (1979), Better Loosen Up (1990), Lonhro (2002) and So You Think (2010).
There’s no doubting it’s been a great race, which makes Saturday’s renewal a great disappointment.
The best judgement I saw on Twitter was from Steve Meakes (@ourmaizcay), who tweeted, “Good Werribee Cup field lining up in the Mackinnon.”
That may be an exaggeration, given Group 1 winners Mourayan, Mr Moet, Solzhenitsyn and Dear Demi are joined by last start winners Pakal and Hvasstan, two of the eye-catching runners from the Caulfield Cup in Moriarty and Jet Away, and international visitor Side Glance.
However, it has raised serious questions about the purpose of the Mackinnon Stakes.
The best weight-for-age horses have fallen by the wayside, either before or in the immediate aftermath of the Cox Plate, leaving a disappointing field to tackle the Mackinnon.
It may be too early to raise the white flag, but if this trend continues, something needs to be done urgently to restore the Mackinnon to its rightful place.
One suggestion was to move the race to Melbourne Cup day, to bulk up an undercard which is decidedly thin.
However, I think there is a real opportunity for the Victoria Racing Club to reinvent the Mackinnon Stakes by placing it at the end of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, on the Saturday after the Melbourne Cup.
Of course, in that position it would clash with the Emirates Stakes, so why not move the Emirates to the first day of the carnival instead? And while we’re at it, why not change the Emirates to weight-for-age instead of the current handicap conditions?
Melbourne is lacking an appropriate weight-for-age mile during the spring. Yes, the Crystal Mile is now being run at weight-for-age on Cox Plate day, but in my opinion, it cannibalises the Cox Plate and seems to lack purpose. For example, Sacred Falls should have been running in the Cox Plate last weekend, not the Crystal Mile.
A top weight-for-age mile as a lead in to the Mackinnon Stakes seven days later makes plenty of sense. And while the Myer Classic is on the same day, it is no different to running the George Ryder Stakes and the Queen of the Turf on Golden Slipper day.
The argument that there would be no 2000m lead-up for Melbourne Cup horses is moot. Last Saturday’s Cox Plate was more of a lead-up than the Mackinnon, and these days, the link between the Mackinnon and the Melbourne Cup is tenuous at best. A horse like Jet Away could come out and make a mockery of that analysis, sure, but in recent years the Mackinnon has had little influence on the Melbourne Cup itself.
Times are changing, and the Victoria Racing Club has to adapt. By placing the Mackinnon Stakes on the final day of the calendar, the race could in time inherit the weight-for-age championship tag that goes with the Cox Plate, especially once the cauldron that is Moonee Valley is reconfigured by the end of the decade.
Opposition to a change would come from the Moonee Valley Racing Club, determined to keep the Cox Plate as Australia’s weight-for-age championship.
But there is a real opportunity awaiting the Victoria Racing Club if they decide to act.
Imagine the winners of the Victoria Derby, Emirates Stakes, Myer Classic and Cox Plate all lining up in an end-of-carnival Mackinnon. It would be a great way to bring a close to the spring carnival.
In the coming years, I expect the time will come when the entire program is rewritten and changed. For now, though, switching the Mackinnon Stakes to the final day of the carnival is the only way to reinvigorate what was once a top race.