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Australian racing calendar restructure: Melbourne and Sydney spring

The Cox Plate - one of the highlights of the spring carnival. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
29th February, 2016
83

Welcome to day two of The Roar‘s racing calendar restructure. Yesterday, Justin Cinque and I kicked things off with a discussion on why we thought the current calendar was compromised by too many Group 1 races.

Today, I’m going to walk through the changes we’re proposing to Group 1 spring racing, focussing on the Melbourne and Sydney carnivals. Particularly how they can link together to provide a better experience and narrative for the sport and its fans.

This project of ours is Group 1 focussed. I’m not sure the internet is big enough to start delving into all of the black type races!

I’m using the upcoming spring of 2016 as my reference point for dates.

Saturday, August 27 – Caulfield

Memsie Stakes: Revert back to Group 2

The Memsie Stakes has only been a Group 1 race for three years, and while it has often taken a genuine Group 1 galloper to win it, this race is more of a kick-off point than a target. It has always been a quality race, and will continue to be as a Group 2.

We want our Group 1 horses peaking later on in the spring, not in August. And if they’re not peaking in August, they shouldn’t be given a Group 1 to win.

Saturday, September 3 – Moonee Valley

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Dato Tan Chin Nam (Feehan) Stakes: Keep this day as is

Saturday, September 10 – Flemington

Makybe Diva (Craiglee) Stakes: Revert back to Group 2

Similar to the Memsie, the Makybe Diva has only been a Group 1 for three years, and an upgrade was never required in the first place. There are currently five unrestricted 1600-metre Group 1s in the Melbourne and Sydney spring, which is simply too many. There only needs to be two overall – one in each state, with one as a handicap, one at WFA.

Saturday, September 17 – Caulfield

Underwood Stakes: Group 1 WFA
Rupert Clarke Stakes: Group 1 Handicap

Finally, we reach our first Group 1s of the spring carnival.

The Underwood Stakes will continue to serve as a gathering for the elite 1600- to 2000-metre thoroughbreds, with the unusual 1800-metre distance giving both sets of horses a chance.

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There are three options for horses coming into it – off a three-week break from the Memsie, a two-week break from the Dato Tan Chin Nam, or backing up from the Makybe Diva. These horses are then going to have the option of two weeks into the Turnbull Stakes (Caulfield Cup horses) or Epsom (milers), or three weeks into the Caulfield Stakes (Cox Plate horses).

The Rupert Clarke will be the first Group 1 handicap of the spring, over the current 1400 metres. It is a second tier Group 1, which we believe there is still a place for.

This is a good race for up-and-coming four-year-olds looking to stake their Group 1 claims, can be targeted second-up from the Memsie for some, dropping back from the Dato for others, or can be seen as a target for early-season sprinters looking to run over a bit further.

Saturday, September 17 – Randwick

George Main Stakes: Revert back to Group 2

As written above for the Makybe Diva, there are too many mile Group 1 races, so this is another that needs to be cut back. These type of races will still attract good fields, for good prize money, but they don’t need to carry elite status.

Saturday, September 24 – Rosehill

Moir Stakes: Move from Moonee Valley, change to set-weights penalties, change to 1100m
Golden Rose: Revert back to Group 2, move to two weeks before Caulfield Guineas

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Sydney doesn’t currently have a sprinting Group 1 in the spring, and the Moir Stakes would be it, kicking off the first leg of a four-leg Spring Sprint Series – two states, three types of conditions, four different tracks, with bonuses and escalating prize money for those that take part in three or four legs.

The Golden Rose has been a powerful addition to the Sydney spring, but the fact is that it’s a breeders race, and we need to limit the amount of races that cause three-year-olds to retire to stud too early.

Since this race became a Group 1, winners have included Denman (retired at three), Epaulette (retired after two four-year-old runs), Zoustar (retired after one four-year-old run), Hallowed Crown (retired at three), and it’s doubtful Exosphere will race much beyond three, if at all.

For the good of racing, this race needs to be stripped of Group 1 status, but the hype around the race can remain if coupled with bonuses for those competing in both it and the Caulfield or Thousand Guineas and make it a genuine preliminary final.

Saturday, September 24 – Caulfield

Caulfield Guineas and Thousand Guineas Prelude: When the AFL grand final moves back to the last Saturday in September again, this meeting can be run on Sunday.

Saturday, October 1 – Randwick Super Saturday

Epsom Handicap: Group 1
Metropolitan Handicap: Revert back to Group 2, but make the quinella ballot-free and penalty-free into the Caulfield Cup
Flight Stakes: Revert back to Group 2

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Some controversial calls here, but let’s get rid of the simple one first. We don’t need two 1600-metre Group 1s for the fillies in the spring, let alone back-to-back, so the Flight Stakes has to go.

The Metropolitan is usually only Group 2 quality anyway, so there shouldn’t be any problems with downgrading its status, but it will get a bump in importance due to the first two home becoming exempt into the Caulfield Cup. This adds another layer of Sydney and Victorian racing working together for the greater good.

The Epsom would be structured with bonuses for horses coming into this from the Rupert Clarke or Underwood Stakes, enhancing the dual state narrative of what would be Sydney’s biggest spring race.

Saturday, October 1 – Flemington

Turnbull Stakes: Revert back to Group 2, but make the winner ballot-free into the Cox Plate, and the quinella penalty-free into the Caulfield Cup

The Turnbull Stakes is the classic fork-in-the-road race, but has only been a Group 1 race for six years. The quality of the fields remain the same as it always was, so there was no need for the upgrade. Just in the 2000s, horses like Sunline, Northerly, Elvstroem, Makybe Diva and Efficient won this race as a Group 2. If it was good enough for them, it can still be good enough today.

Similar to the Metrop, making the first two home Caulfield Cup exempt will ensure strength in the Turnbull and the strongest possible field in the richest 2400-metre handicap in the world.

Saturday, October 8 – Caulfield

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Caulfield Guineas: Group 1
Thousand Guineas: Group 1
Caulfield Stakes: Group 1 WFA
Oakleigh Plate: Group 1 Handicap, move from the autumn to spring, second leg of the Spring Sprint Series (note, the Schillaci Stakes usually run on this day will move to the autumn)
Toorak Handicap: Drop back to a Group 2

What a race day this would become. From this point on, each and every Group 1 is either a preliminary final or a grand final, the best of the best racing against each other, all of the spring narratives combining for an explosive six-week period.

The two Guineas maintain their place, as does the Caulfield Stakes as the main lead-up for the Cox Plate for horses that want it.

The Toorak Handicap has a rich Group 1 history and is always won by a smart horse, but how many genuine champions have won the race in the last 30 years? Restructuring involves some painful cuts, and this is one. As explained previously, we don’t need so many Group 1 1600-metre races.

Moving the Oakleigh Plate is part of the overhaul of the sprint program, and Justin will delve more into what’s happening in the autumn tomorrow. In the spring, we’ll have four Group 1 sprints, with two weeks between each, so the best in the land can meet each other under a range of conditions, distances and tracks.

Saturday, October 15 – Caulfield

Caulfield Cup: Group 1 Handicap, make the first three home ballot-free into the Melbourne Cup
Spring Champion: Group 1, move down from Sydney and replace the current Caulfield Classic (which was the Norman Robinson)

The Caulfield Cup maintains its place as one of the big four of Australian racing. Making the placegetters exempt into the Melbourne Cup along with the winner will add a bit more spice to the race, attract more internationals, and ensure the Melbourne Cup is full of horses in prime form.

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The Spring Champion has always been a bit of a lost race up in Sydney, and now we have a situation where it’s being run on the same day as the Guineas, and also conflicting with another high profile 2000-metre race for three-year-olds, in the revamped Caulfield Classic.

Currently a week apart, no horse has run in both the Spring Champion and Caulfield Classic in the last two years. We want these horses racing each other in a strong race, not staying in their own state against weaker fields.

Saturday, October 22 – Moonee Valley

Cox Plate: Group 1
Manikato Stakes: Group 1

The Cox Plate continues to be a marquee race. The Manikato Stakes is the third leg of the Spring Sprint Series, and the first time the elite sprinters meet at Group 1 WFA in what is their preliminary final.

Saturday, October 29 – Flemington

VRC Derby: Group 1
Myer Classic: Group 1
Coolmore Stud Stakes: Group 1
Mackinnon Stakes: Drop back to a Group 2

The Mackinnon Stakes is very much a second tier Group 1, usually reserved for those that finished mid-field or worse in the Cox Plate, or the old school Melbourne Cup runners having a pipe-cleaner three days before the big race. It was only two years ago that the Cranbourne Cup winner started favourite in it. This one’s a no-brainer.

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The three-year-old stayers and sprinters are the feature of the day, and the breeders still get thrown a bone by the Coolmore Stud keeping its status. The mares get their only specific Group 1 of the carnival.

Tuesday, November 1 – Flemington

Melbourne Cup: Group 1

Thursday, November 3 – Flemington

VRC Oaks: Group 1

Saturday, November 5 – Flemington

Emirates Stakes: Keep as a Group 1, convert to weight-for-age
VRC Classic: Keep as a Group 1

Currently, the spring has five open 1600-metre Group 1s, with the three highest profile being handicaps, and the two weight-for-age races being early in the spring. It’s the wrong way around. The Emirates should be a weight-for-age race, a true grand final for the milers, and more attractive to Cox Plate horses.

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The hardier milers can have a five, six or even seven-start campaign spaced out evenly across the calendar, culminating in the big one. Alternately, they can hit this race fresher at start three or four if they wish, and then perhaps head to Perth.

The VRC Classic is the fourth leg of our Spring Sprint Series, the grand final, a day for the best of the best to meet in the truest sprint test – down the Flemington straight six.

So, there you have what a restructured Group 1 spring racing calendar could look like, if politics and partisan interests could be put aside and the two states worked together for the good of the sport, and the industry didn’t bow down to the breeders. Twenty-eight Group 1 races cut back to 19.

Let us know in the comments what you think, but before you start bagging me out for being a parochial Victorian slashing the status of Sydney races, remember this was a collaboration between myself and Justin, a proud New South Welshman!

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow, to see what Justin has in store for Sydney and Melbourne in autumn. I can promise you plenty of changes and an excellent program.