The Spring is officially in the air with the group one Makybe Stakes meeting at Flemington on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Racing Victoria announced a handful of changes which should improve the Spring Carnival program. The most important was a reduction in distance for the A.J. Moir Stakes (Group 1, weight-for-age) from 1200 metres to 1000 metres.
The change ends a ridiculous situation that had the race stand as the first of three 1200-metre, Group 1, weight-for-age night events conducted at Moonee Valley during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.
The distance reduction means there are now two 1000-metre weight-for-age Group 1 contests in Australia – the Black Caviar Lightning at Flemington in February and the Moir under lights in October. It’s a much fairer program, considering there are still 12 Group 1s contested over 1200 metres, half of which are weight-for-age races.
The Moir was run over 1000 metres until 2007 and had a reputation for being one of the most exciting races of the spring. The field would always be small but a frantic finish usually ensued. One of my favourite renewals was when Frankie Dettori, in Melbourne to ride Grandera in the Cox Plate, was the architect of a brilliant hold-up ride to prevail aboard the top Sydney mare Spinning Hill in 2002.
The Moir was always the highlight of the Cox Plate undercard until it was moved to a spot earlier in the season in 2012.
1000-metre racing is exciting at Moonee Valley because the tight track has horses working hard for a position “through the gap” to the first turn and then around the sweeping home bend. I’ve often heard the Moonee Valley 1200-metre described as the toughest in Melbourne. If that’s the case, the 1000-metre circuit probably deserves the same accolade.
The reduction in the Moir distance is definitely a winner. The next step should be to relegate the William Reid, another of Moonee Valley’s 1200-metre Group 1s, to Group 2 status. Seventy-two Australian Group 1s is at least 20 too many and to have two (certainly an improvement on three) Group 1s run over the exact same conditions and track is excessive.
The next change announced by Racing Victoria sees the Schillaci Stakes (Group 2, weight-for-age) increase in distance from 1000 metres to 1100 metres. This allows horses that run in the Moir the chance to progress to the Manikato (1200m, Group 1, weight-for-age) and Darley Sprint Classic (1200m, Group 1, weight-for-age) via an 1100-metre stepping stone.
The move makes obvious sense and should increase the chances of the nation’s best sprinters meeting several times during the spring. That is fantastic news for Australian racing fans.
The final change to the spring program has the Underwood Stakes (1800m, Group 1, weight-for-age) and Sir Rupert Clarke (1400m, Group 1, handicap) moving to the same meeting, on Saturday September 26, two weeks after the Makybe Diva Stakes (1600m, Group 1, weight-for-age) meeting on September 12.
Usually the Underwood and Makybe Diva would be run a week apart, diluting the quality of both Group 1s. This seems a positive move. Now horses can go two weeks between runs from the Memsie (1400m, Group 1, weight-for-age) to the Makybe Diva, Underwood, Caulfield Stakes (2000m, Group 1, weight-for-age) and Cox Plate (2040m, Group 1, weight-for-age).
This change in programming, however, helps create the bizarre situation that has Caulfield hosting six meetings in a month during the middle of the carnival.
Obviously missing the presence of the Underwood, Caulfield hosts a relatively low-key Saturday card on September 19 before the aforementioned September 26 meeting. Caulfield takes over from Sandown on AFL grand final Day, October 3, before kicking off its annual three-day Caulfield Cup Carnival the week after that.
Last year, Caulfield hosted one less meeting over the same period with the grand final card taking place at Sandown. As has been the case over the last two years, the grand final card sandwiches the Moir meeting on grand final eve and the Sir Rupert Clarke meeting on the Sunday after. But, because the AFL grand final takes place a week later this year, the Turnbull (2000m, Group 1, set weights and penalties) meeting at Flemington will be run on that Sunday in 2015, as it has done a few times in the last 10 years.
With the AFL grand final expected to revert back to the last Saturday in September in 2016, we should see the Underwood-Clarke meeting run the day after the AFL grand final to keep the Underwood two weeks after the Makybe Diva. If my memory serves me correct, this was the program used in the early 2000s. That surely should mean the grand final day meeting will be held away from Caulfield next year.
Regardless, it seems ridiculous to have this year’s grand final meeting at Caulfield, especially considering it could be held at Sandown or Mornington like previous years. As well as this, the September 19 card lacks a lot of drawing power and could be held elsewhere too.
It would be a shame to have the Caulfield Cup ruined by a tired track. The Melbourne Racing Club will have extra reason to be praying for clear skies this spring!