In an era of racing that will be defined by early retirements, multi-million-dollar stud deals and protected career records, it is refreshing to be looking forward to a heavyweight clash on the weekend.
The best two horses in active training in Australia – Fiorente and It’s A Dundeel, (listed in alphabetical order) – will clash in Saturday’s Ranvet Stakes (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age) at Rosehill in Sydney.
It’s an important race, because Fiorente and It’s A Dundeel will duel for the title of the best horse in the country.
As I wrote two weeks’ ago, The Championships in mid-April will determine the horse that exits the season as the nation’s best.
At The Championships, we will learn who the best sprinter and middle-distance horses are in Australian racing. Then, with so many questions hopefully answered, we can argue about just who is the best.
Some pundits, including the ABC’s race-caller Gerard Whateley, declared Fiorente the best horse in Australia after his victory in the Australian Cup (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age) two weeks ago.
The Australian Cup matched-up the Cox Plate (2040m, Group 1, weight-for-age) winner Shamus Award with the Melbourne Cup (3200m, Group 1, handicap) winner Fiorente.
The Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup are widely regarded – at least they were until a few months ago – as the best two races in Australia.
So when Fiorente won the Australian Cup, with Shamus Award finishing sixth, Whateley tweeted immediately afterwards, “Splendid win by Fiorente in the Australian Cup. He’s the horse racing needs and he’s the best.”
But Fiorente did not ascend to the top of our racing ranks in the Australian Cup. He may’ve beaten the Cox Plate winner easily, but the Cox Plate winner was ranked ninth in my ‘Top 20 horses in Australian racing‘ piece at the end of last spring.
For the record, I had Fiorente six places higher in third.
Of course, Shamus Award beat Fiorente in the Cox Plate but, on balance, I’ve no doubt Fiorente is a superior galloper to Shamus Award.
In any event, I posted It’s A Dundeel at the top of Australian racing in that Top 20 article, with Happy Trails second, but Happy Trails is currently injured.
And even now, two weeks after It’s A Dundeel ran second in the Chipping Norton (1600m, Group 1, weight-for-age) on the same day Fiorente won the Australian Cup, I still have the Kiwi galloper, It’s A Dundeel, clinging to the title of Australia’s top horse.
Furthermore, since I wrote that Top 20 piece, the Cox Plate can no longer be regarded as one of the two best races on the local calendar.
That means the match-up between Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup winners in the Australian Cup wasn’t as telling as it usually would’ve been.
The recent $3.5m boost to make the Queen Elizabeth (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age), a $4m race and the flagship race of the newly-formed Championships, has changed the landscape of Australia’s weight-for-age races.
The Queen Elizabeth – run on April 19 this year and towards the end of racing’s annual August-July season – will now boast more mature three-year-olds and superior prize-money to the Cox Plate.
The QE Stakes also enjoys genuine ‘grand final’ status. Last year, almost half the Cox Plate field used the race as their final Melbourne Cup lead-up.
I’m sure the Queen Elizabeth will be, from this year onwards, a better race than the Cox Plate. Certainly, it will reveal, as a minimum, the best middle-distance galloper in the country.
Fiorente or It’s A Dundeel: Who is better?
On Saturday, before the Ranvet is run, opinion about just who is the superior galloper will be divided.
But should one of the duo win decisively, they will take the title of Australia’s best horse into The Championships, almost unanimously. Then, they will have the chance to defend the billing.
Fiorente and It’s A Dundeel, both stallions, have met twice.
In the Memsie (1400m, Group 1, weight-for-age) last August, when they were both first-up, It’s A Dundeel, a four-year-old, was able to run to fourth. Fiorente, a six-year-old, was a further half-length away in sixth.
Both gallopers weren’t at their favourite distance or peak fitness, and they didn’t have a lot of luck. It was largely inconclusive.
In the Underwood (1800m, Group 1, weight-for-age), racing second-up in the spring, It’s A Dundeel became the only horse to beat Atlantic Jewel, when he prevailed in a driving finish.
It was his fifth Group 1 victory, his fourth of 2013 and his first in Melbourne, where racing is conducted in the anti-clockwise direction.
Fiorente and It’s A Dundeel met for a second time in the Cox Plate under completely different circumstances to the Memsie.
It’s A Dundeel had missed track-work and his final lead-up because of a hoof abscess. He raced wide in the Cox Plate and failed to fire before finishing eighth.
Fiorente, on the other hand, was positively outstanding in third. He too was trapped wide but did a mountain of work in the middle stages to take up a position near the lead.
Despite racing without cover and in a completely unfamiliar on-speed role, Fiorente was only beaten half a length in third.
Without surprise, he then won the Melbourne Cup, his maiden Group 1.
In the Australian Cup, Fiorente claimed his second Group 1 overall. Both top level successes have come at Flemington, on his Melbourne leg.
On Saturday, It’s A Dundeel and Fiorente meet for the first time in Sydney, where racing is conducted in a clockwise direction. Fiorente shouldn’t be affected by racing the opposite way. But It’s A Dundeel has always been more comfortable on his Sydney leg, where he has won eight times from 11 starts, with a further two second placings.
In Melbourne (the city that hosted their only other two meetings), It’s A Dundeel has only won once from five starts. He also has one second and three unplaced finishes.
At weight-for-age, the most revealing weight scale, It’s A Dundeel has a 1-4 win-loss record. Fiorente, in Australian races, has a more impressive 3-3 weight-for-age win-loss record. But two of those three victories came at Group 2 level.
It’s A Dundeel has only raced in Group 1-rated weight-for-age races. Group 1 weight-for-age racing is generally the highest level of racing in Australia.
Fiorente has won a single Grand Slam, the Melbourne Cup, but It’s A Dundeel hasn’t won any. It’s A Dundeel, however, is only one of five Australian three-year-old Triple Crown winners.
Fiorente has never run a poor race in Australia but he also has never won by a winning margin of a length or more since being imported from England.
When It’s A Dundeel won the Triple Crown, his winning margins across those three races were a half-length (Randwick Guineas, 1600m), six lengths (Rosehill Guineas, 2000m) and seven lengths (Australian Derby, 2400m).
It’s A Dundeel has never lost a close race. He has a 5-0 win-loss record when his official margin is less than a length. Twice I’ve been at the races when he has won after defeat looked certain 200m from the finish.
In Australia, Fiorente has a 4-2 win-loss record when his official margin is less than a length.
If it gets close on Saturday, I’d probably want to be in It’s A Dundeel’s corner but Fiorente is no novice when it comes to toughing out victory.
I hope we get to crown Australia’s best horse, even if only on an interim basis, on Saturday. But the Ranvet is not a two-horse race.
Foreteller, who won the Ranvet last year, has been racing well this autumn. He was a closing third in the Australian Cup and he ran fourth in the Cox Plate last year.
Hawkspur was fantastic in the Chipping Norton. He would’ve passed It’s A Dundeel in second in another 50m. But It’s A Dundeel lacked race fitness on that occasion.
In any case, Hawkspur finished alongside Fiorente in their only meeting outside of the Melbourne Cup, which coincidentally was over the Ranvet distance of 2000m, in October’s Turnbull (2000m, Group 1, set weights and penalties).
Finally, Carlton House, owned by Queen Elizabeth, has outstanding 2000m form in England. We are yet to see his best in Australia but he did show glimpses of it when running well in much lesser grade last start. He is capable of causing an upset.
In recent years, the Sydney Carnival has boasted time-honoured and prestigious races that couldn’t draw the nation’s best horses.
The Championships have restored Australian racing’s focus on Sydney in the autumn. Saturday’s Ranvet is the most anticipated renewal in at least a decade.
It should be advertised a clash of the titans. I expect it to deliver on its promise.