The 2015 Sydney Carnival comes to a close on Saturday when the final two of 21 Group 1 races are run at Randwick.
It’s certainly been an interesting event, with debate divided about its success on and off the track dominating the past few days.
From my point of view the Carnival has been a resounding success. The Group 1 racing was among the best I’ve seen in at least the last few seasons in Australia and it was fantastic to have internationally-trained gallopers competing in several races at weight-for-age against the best Australia has to offer at the mile and beyond.
This Saturday, the All Aged Stakes (1400m, Group 1, weight-for-age) gives a fair insight into the quality of the carnival. Offering the base Group 1 prizemoney of $400,000, it has managed to attract a field of 13 – including eight previous Group 1 winners and a further four that have been placed at the highest level.
There is no doubt that the 2015 All Aged will be the best 1400-metre race conducted on these shores since at least the 2013 Memsie, when Atlantic Jewel gave Australia’s best weight-for-age performers a lesson on the art of galloping.
I was not alone when criticising the programming of the carnival, and the positioning of The BMW (2400m, Group 1, weight-for-age) particularly, not too long ago on The Roar. However, having seen the racing play out in what is now a truly modified autumn, I thought the program worked quite well this year.
We were able to see Criterion take a two-race weight-for-age path through to his Queen Elizabeth (2000m, Group 1) success via the Canterbury (1300m, Group 1) and the George Ryder (1500m, Group 1). This allowed David Hayes and Tom Dabernig to leave enough petrol in the tank for a Northern Hemisphere campaign that will see the chestnut son of Sebring fly the Australian flag in Hong Kong and England.
When Criterion returns in the spring, Hayes and Dabernig intend to aim the stallion at the Cox Plate (2040m Group 1, weight-for-age) before another trip to Hong Kong in December. But I can’t see how they can realistically get Criterion to the Cox Plate third-up without starting his campaign off in a handicap. Criterion will undoubtedly be seen at least four times in the spring and that is a positive for racing fans. Hopefully his trainers can still find a way to keep him fresh because that has been attributed to his spike in form.
The Sydney Carnival is crafted around The Championships. There is a weight-for-age path for all types of horses – sprinters, milers, and middle-distance gallopers alike – to take to Randwick. And if that didn’t entice the owners and trainers of the best horses in Australia to travel to Sydney, then The Championships prize-money did.
I just wonder how long Lloyd Williams can hold off before he sends his best horses north in the autumn. Lloyd is a big fan of the Spring Carnival, its majors and giving his best horses a light start to the year, but it would be a brave man to say his Fawkner would not earn more plaudits for winning the $4m Queen Elizabeth than the $3m Cox Plate.
All ratings experts I’ve seen have the Randwick feature rated the better race this season.
Of course it is strange to have the BMW run two weeks before the Queen Elizabeth. Not many trainers are keen on racing their horse back in trip on a fortnight turnaround. But, in promoting such a program, perhaps the Australian Turf Club and Racing NSW have breathed great life into the Sydney Cup (3200m, Group 1, handicap).
The best stayers in Australia – European imported or otherwise – now have a top staying program to target in the autumn. The $1.5-million BMW continues to provide the best 2400-metre horses with a shot a big weight-for-age money (albeit not as much as it used to), while the $1.6-million Sydney Cup is once again a great race. It didn’t have the depth of recent Melbourne Cups (3200m, Group 1, handicap), but the top-end talent in the 2015 Sydney Cup was as close to as good as any of the last few from Flemington.
Where that puts $41 winner and bottom-weight Grand Marshall is not just as clear. He obviously benefitted from a wet track and if we are to get a wet Melbourne Cup in 2015, only the fourth since 2000, he would have to be a chance.
For all the positives I have mentioned, the carnival has not been short on negatives or detractors. A Group 1 track with a super coverage of grass and great drainage should not be rated heavy after 44 millimetres of rain. But Randwick was on the morning of Saturday April 4.
The rain came down heavily later that morning. With the track already rated a Heavy 9, fears of a bog and the dangerous racing surface that goes with it led to the meeting being postponed to the following Monday. The track dried out somewhat on the Sunday, but with the turf cut-up by the ten races that took place on Monday, we were once again racing on a heavy surface on Queen Elizabeth Day.
The criticism levelled at Racing NSW and the Australian Turf Club is fair. The club spent $150-million on a grandstand that is best suited to hosting crowds of less than 10,000 people. They could have spent half as much and ended up with a much better facility, and lots of money left over to spend on the track.
The ATC Members have the entire ‘old’ grandstand at Randwick to themselves, as well as all two thirds of the seating on Level 1 of the new stand and a third of the seating on Level 3. That leaves the public to battle for about 2000 seats on Level 3. Not only is it difficult to secure a seat on a Group 1 day, but the view from the clouds is not as good as John Tapp, Ian Craig or Mark Shean may have had you believe!
On another point, whose idea was it to build a $150-million grandstand that can only seat about 5000-6000 people? Randwick had 24,000 attend Day 2 of The Championships but it was so cramped in some areas that you could have been fooled for thinking the crowd was 40,000.
Gone are the days when Randwick could host a big crowd. It’s just as well because the Australian Turf Club has no idea about how to draw a proper crowd to the races at any point of the year. There has not been 30,000 people attend the races in Sydney in at least five years. Black Caviar came twice and could only draw 25000. Of course, the second time, Randwick was in a rebuilding phase and the capacity of 23,000 people was exhausted on that particular afternoon.
I think the Australian Turf Club has realised that they can no longer rely on the party crowd to make up the numbers. But just how they entice the rusted-on fans back to the races is another question. If you don’t hold a membership pass, you’re going to have a long day at Randwick!
As for my highlights of the Carnival, I loved Vancouver’s victory in the Golden Slipper (1200m, Group 1, two-year-olds) when he sat three wide at Rosehill. Along with the brave Pride Of Dubai, the winner of the Blue Diamond (1200m, Group 1, two-year-olds) and Sires Produce (1400m, Group 1, two-year-olds) with a never-say-die attitude, we have a pair of two-year-olds that are sure to dazzle racing fans next season.
Surely I’m not the only one who sees a bit of Pierro and All Too Hard in these two gallopers? If either of their owners decide to race these colts to the age of four, they will do the sport of racing a great deed.
I loved watching the great grey mare Catkins strut her stuff this autumn. Is there a better Rosehill horse than Chris Waller’s five-time Group 1 placegetter? She has won eight races at the western Sydney circuit and deserves her maiden top-level victory. I hope she can achieve it in Brisbane’s Tattersalls Tiara (1400m, Group 1, mares, set weights and penalties) at the end of the season.
My other highlight was Criterion’s dominant victory in the Queen Elizabeth. After a bit of dry spell for the locally bred, it was great to see an Australasian horse stick it to the international raiders. Criterion continues to improve.
I think he’s a live chance in any race he contests on the world stage, especially at a time in world racing when there is no horse officially rated over 130. Watch out if he manages to strike another wet track!