It’s one of the great debates among racing fans: which is the best race meeting in Australia each year?
Many favour Derby Day at Flemington on the Saturday before the Melbourne Cup. Plenty of others will say Golden Slipper Day, with a nation-high five Group 1s is the greatest.
But I don’t think either of those two meetings can place a hand on the Day 1 of the Championships.
A 10-race program that boasts four Group 1s of the absolute highest quality, Day 1 of the Championships lives up to its billing as ‘the grand finals of thoroughbred racing’ in Australia. The four 1s are some of the most important in Australia and that is exactly what elevates Day 1 of the Championships to the top of the pile.
The Doncaster Mile (handicap) is the premier 1600m contest in the country, run over the most testing and fair mile in Australia. It boasts an honour roll that just about any race in Australia would be proud of, and for a handicap that is some feat.
The TJ Smith (weight-for-age), run over 1200m, is now clearly the best sprint in Australian racing because, by dangling a $2.5 million carrot in prizemoney, it is has become the richest sprint in the world (for open-age gallopers – the Golden Slipper for the two-year-olds still holds $3.5 million in prizemoney) and, at weight-for-age, a much more reliable form reference than the Newmarket Handicap.
Australia is recognised as the breeding ground for great sprinters, and, as such, the TJ Smith is one of the best races in the country.
The ATC Australian Derby (2400m) is the premier staying contest for three-year-olds in this country. Run in the second half of the Australian season, it has always fielded a much more mature set of gallopers than its VRC counterpart, and its honour roll speaks for itself. In the last 20 years, Octagonal, Sky Heights, Starcraft, Eremein, Nom De Jeu, Shoot Out, It’s A Dundeel and Criterion have gone on to great success after winning the Sydney Derby. Each of those horses won Group 1s as older horses, or ran second in Group 1s at four.
The winners of the VRC Derby over the same period haven’t had the same success. Its best winners since 1995 are Nothin’ Leica Dane, Helenus, the great horses Elvstroem and Efficient, Lion Tamer, who perished too soon, Fiveandahalfstar and perhaps even the similarly unlucky Polanski. Only three of those horses won Group 1s at four or older.
Then there’s the Sires Produce, the classic contest over 1400m for two-year-olds and the second leg of Australia’s juvenile Triple Crown. So many of its winners have ended up at stud. Pierro destroyed All Too Hard in the 2012 version and then they fought out a legendary Caulfield Guineas before filling the placings in Ocean Park’s Cox Plate that year. Dance Hero, who sits with Pierro and Vancouver in the top 3 two-year-olds I’ve seen, won the great race in 2004.
Turning back the clock, the Sires Produce is a race that has been won by many champions including Ajax, Shannon, Tulloch who defeated the champion juvenile Todman, Wenona Girl, Eskimo Prince, Beau Babylon, who inflicted a rare defeat on the legendary sprinter Vain (whom his great jockey Roy Higgins had always insisted was cost victory by illness), Baguette and the ‘Colt from the Coalfields’ Luskin Star.
The Sires Produce doesn’t get the build-up of the Golden Slipper but it’s probably just as good a race.
Victoria Derby Day doesn’t boast a single Group 1 that I hold in higher regard that any of the four Group 1s on Day 1 of the Championships. The Mackinnon is a great race but doesn’t hold a candle to the Cox Plate run a week earlier over similar conditions. Besides, the modern-day Mackinnon Stakes is a far cry from the race that was for so many years regarded as the best Melbourne Cup lead-up.
The Myer Classic for the mares over the mile is always an exciting race but it is not in the Doncaster’s class when it comes to top mile-races. The Coolmore Stud for the three-year-old sprinters is probably the best VRC Derby Day contest and as its influence as a stallion-making race grows, so too will its quality and importance.
As mentioned earlier, the VRC Derby is a fantastic race but not as good as the Australian Derby at Randwick.
Fans of Golden Slipper Day will quickly try to argue that the Golden Slipper is a better race than the Sires Produce. The Sires has a top honour roll, perhaps better than the honour roll of the Slipper, but there is no race on earth like the Golden Slipper. It is the most important two-year-old race on the planet because of its prizemoney and stallion-producing qualities.
Slipper Day boasts the best weight-for-age mile contest in Australia. The George Ryder stands as one of the better races in the country. The trouble is that it is used as the main Doncaster lead-up.
Slipper Day has lost the BMW and Vinery Stud to their own stand-alone meeting, and in their place the Ranvet Stakes and Rosehill Guineas have been placed. The Ranvet is probably on a similar level to the Caulfield Stakes in the spring. The former is a top lead-up to the BMW and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the latter to the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate. The Rosehill Guineas, on the other hand, is a fantastic race, and along with the Caulfield Guineas, is the only Guineas contest in Australia worthy of Group 1 status. That said, the Australian Derby is the premier staying contest for the colts each season.
The fifth Group 1 on Golden Slipper Day is The Galaxy, a handicap over the 1100m short-course. In an autumn over-saturated with Group 1 sprints, this is one of weaker top-level races, although the winner has been known to produce a top performance every few seasons. Anyone who saw Bel Sprinter’s victory in this race in 2013 would attest. Sweet Idea was very impressive in the 2015 renewal as well.
Slipper Day is always fantastic racing and the fact it sits so close to The Championships leads me to believe that it will not be too long before the Sydney autumn is declared superior to the Melbourne spring.
And, to be perfectly honest, that is how it ought to be. In the autumn the three-year-olds are mature enough to tackle longer distances as well as several weight-for-age contests with confidence. The two-year-olds battle for four Group 1s in the autumn, including the Triple Crown in Sydney. In the spring, only the absolute most athletic and forward juveniles are seen at the races and the form can be very inconsistent.
Sydney has proven it can attract top horses, from Asia particularly, to compete during its autumn carnival. Aside from the Melbourne Cup, and with the obvious exception of the Macau champion Luen Yat Forever (I couldn’t help myself!) this is something the Melbourne spring has struggled to do well in recent times.
Of course, top Hong Kong galloper Dan Excel was going to run in last year’s Cox Plate but the campaign hit too many hurdles. The fact remains Sydney’s March-April carnival suits Asian racing better than Melbourne’s October-November program, when Japan and Hong Kong racing is at a high level.
Both eastern-state carnivals should always be aiming to improve the quality of their international participants, and a cleaner middle-distance program mapped out by the Australian Turf Club and Racing NSW should assist the Sydney autumn in this regard. The carnival could certainly do with more European participation.
The reason the Melbourne Spring Carnival is so successful is because it has been brilliantly programmed and administered for many years. The Melbourne Cup is the showpiece and the carnival builds to a fantastic crescendo from the Caulfield Guineas to the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate, VRC Derby and finally the Cup.
Sydney doesn’t have a Melbourne Cup in its autumn. Its strength is a wealth of great races contested over a period of a month from Slipper Day through to the end of The Championships. Its potential as a carnival is unlimited.
We will see a glimpse of that great promise on Saturday when an exceptional meeting is conducted at Randwick.