Imagine a race this season that included the likes of It’s A Dundeel, Pierro, All Too Hard, Rebel Dane, Epaulette, Sacred Falls, Your Song, Fiveandahalfstar and Super Cool. All of them are fit, in training and primed to win.
Between them there are ten victories at Group 1 weight-for-age, two Derbies, three Guineas, two Triple Crowns, a Doncaster quinella and an incredible wealth of talent.
Collectively they form one of the greatest three-year-old groups ever produced in Australia. They are the class of 2012/2013.
Now for some details of this race.
The distance? 1600m. Weight scale? Weight-for-age. Qualifying conditions? Four-year-olds. Prizemoney? At least a couple of million dollars. The track? Anywhere clever enough to make this idea reality.
Australian racing needs a four-year-old mile championship; if only because it might mean the likes of Pierro, All Too Hard, Epaulette and Your Song are still in training today, instead of enjoying careers at stud at the tender age of four.
My four-year-old mile championship idea has a purpose similar to that of the Duke of Cambridge Stakes (formerly Windsor Forest Stakes) which is run over a mile at Group 2 level on the second day of Royal Ascot each year.
The Duke of Cambridge is restricted to mares of four years and older, and was put on the English racing calendar at the beginning of the European flat season in June, to encourage owners and breeders to race their three-year-old fillies at four years of age.
Obviously there was a concern too many fillies were being sent to stud at three in England, thereby destroying the depth and quality of mares that race in England.
In Australia, we are faced with a similar prospect. A pattern is emerging that sees some or, in the case of last season, most of our exciting three-year-olds whisked away to stud before we see them physically mature into adult horses.
Last year, three-year-olds All Too Hard and Pierro were the stars of the autumn carnival. Between them they claimed five Group 1 races at weight-for-age and were retired before the end of April.
In the case of All Too Hard, I’m certain he was retired before he even peaked on the racetrack.
And as a racing fan, his premature retirement was incredibly disappointing.
This autumn, the most exciting horse in the country, the three-year-old Zoustar, will run his last race at Royal Ascot in June.
Of course, that was same plan for All Too Hard last year but it was abandoned because the travel was too risky for a colt that was incredibly impressive in an undefeated autumn campaign. All Too Hard was retired a few months earlier than anticipated.
If Zoustar dominates like I think he could this autumn, having to say goodbye in a few months’ time is going to be incredibly difficult.
It’s hard because you realise you’ll never see a great horse race again. And it hurts because these three-year-old retirements leave our weight-for-age stocks incredibly weak.
Young retirements open up the Group 1 calendar to be dominated by the following season’s batch of top-class three-year-olds, who get the advantage of weight concessions at weight-for-age (the most prestigious weight scale mind you) simply because of their physical immaturity.
And a cycle develops. Because the top three-year-olds of the previous season, mostly all weight-for-age winners, were retired early, the next crop of three-year-olds also find it relatively easy to win at weight-for-age.
And when they claim weight-for-age victories, they set themselves up for the sorts of careers at stud the previous crop currently enjoy.
Imagine if five of the best ten 21-year-old footballers were retired at the end of each year. Eventually it would have an impact on the depth of active top footballers. And that’s the problem with Australian racing right now.
And I tell you what it would do? It would increase the amount of 21-year-old Brownlow and Dally M winners.
There is hardly any depth at racing’s elite level today. Ridiculously, whatever depth there is comes via the three-year-olds. You know, the group of 21-year-old footballers, half of whom will soon be gone.
It’s fantastic for owners of top-class three-year-olds who get a massive payday from multi-million-dollar stud deals. It’s fantastic for Australian breeders who can charge bigger service fees than ever before. And it’s fantastic for Australian racing when those top class three-year-olds produce champions.
Redoute’s Choice and Fastnet Rock weren’t raced much after three and have gone on to legendary stud careers.
But what good is a champion, or possible champion like All Too Hard, if he is retired before we see him reach his peak? All Too Hard was a fantastic horse, but he is just one in the cycle.
It’s a cycle about service fees ahead of Group 1 wins and champion performances. Racing can be so much more. Great racing, the best racing, is exhibited by horses older than three, in races with depth.
Great racing allows for narratives to develop over the course of several seasons and rivalries between horses to exist for years. Great racing is the same horse running four placings in the Melbourne Cup without ever winning.
Great racing happens when a great horse suffers an injury and comes back to win an important race. Great racing happens when a horse wins the same race three times, four times, or heck, even five times.
Right now, we don’t see great racing as much we used to.
Who are the best Australian horses over the age of three right now? It’s A Dundeel, Happy Trails, Fiorente and Buffering. They’re all good horses.
But they all have their limitations. I wouldn’t have confidence in any of them winning Group 1s in Europe or Asia at their favourite distance. They could do it, but they won’t start favourite.
Our sprinting stocks are lean. Our middle-distance stocks are lean. Our staying stocks are made up almost entirely of European imports. If it wasn’t for three-year-olds like Shamus Award, where would our racing be?
It’s not going to fix every problem, it may not even fix more than one or two issues, but a rich four-year-old mile Group 1, especially if it was held at the start of the breeding season in spring, could entice a few stud-bound three-year-olds to race on for another year.
Put yourself in the shoes of the stud that just bought the hottest three-year-old in Australia. Presumably that hot three-year-old is a sprinter-miler.
When that stud looks to the new season, specifically to spring, what do they currently see? A couple of mile handicaps, a couple of 1200m weight-for-age Group 1s, a couple of rich staying handicaps and the Cox Plate.
There is no race on the calendar in the spring that makes a four-year-old campaign enticing for an outstanding sprinter-miler.
But what if there was a $3m four-year-old mile championship race in October? It is placed in the middle of spring, a month or so before the VRC Sprint Classic at Flemington and a few weeks before the Cox Plate.
It gives a trainer the option to run in the four-year-old championship and the VRC Sprint Classic if they are a sprinting three-year-old like Zoustar. Or, the four-year-old championship and Cox Plate if they are better suited at a middle-distance like All Too Hard.
If there was a four-year-old mile championship option, All Too Hard and Pierro might still be in work today.
And the best part is, once a horse starts training at the beginning of a season, they can’t be shipped off to stud until the end of that season. A four-year-old trained for the spring should be back in the autumn.
Hopefully, there’s a racing club out there with some vision, ready to invest some money and change Australian racing. It’s happened before. The Golden Slipper was introduced as a rich two-year-old race and it changed the focus of Australian racing – from staying to sprinting – forever.
It’s time for a four-year-old championship.