A momentous change was announced by Racing Victoria yesterday, with the swapping of the Emirates Stakes and Mackinnon Stakes during the Flemington Melbourne Cup carnival.
The names are (sort of) staying in place, but the races are swapping underneath them.
So what we now know as the Emirates Stakes is going to be a 1600m Group 1 handicap on Derby day called the Longines Mile, and what we now know as the Mackinnon Stakes, a 2000m Group 1 weight-for-age (WFA) race, will take on the Emirates Stakes moniker on the fourth day of the carnival.
Cam: Apart from the name changes, which are now going to be confusing for a generation, what is your immediate reaction?
Justin Cinque: Firstly, these are horribly confusing and ugly name changes – what is wrong with calling it the Emirates Mackinnon Stakes?
Cam: I know, that would have still allowed the sponsor to have naming rights of the final day, but the Mackinnon would still be called the Mackinnon.
Justin: There was talk about this change happening several months ago and my reaction back then was that the move was unnecessary. The old Mackinnon served as the last Melbourne Cup lead-up and a secondary 2000m Group 1 WFA race with history that dates back to 1869. The old Emirates was the big handicap at the end of the carnival.
Having thought about it for a while, these changes will have a huge impact on the 2000m spring calendar with the Cox Plate to be the big loser. The new Emirates is now poised to become the key 2000m race of the spring – the grand final at the end of the carnival.
Cam: When we put together our calendar changes a couple of months back, we were big on grand finals. Given the history of the Cox Plate, and the fact it is still worth $1 million more than the new $2 million Emirates Stakes (formerly known as Mackinnon), don’t you think the Cox Plate will still be the ultimate goal?
Justin: As it now stands, unless Moonee Valley makes serious changes to the Cox Plate it will cease to exist as a championship race. It will instead become part-feature race, part-lead-up to the Mackinnon and Melbourne Cup.
Why does this matter? Because the Cox Plate is special. It has been known for decades as the weight-for-age championship of Australasia, kept apart from every other great 2000m race in the world because it is run over 2040m at Moonee Valley, one of the most unique racecourses on earth.
Cam: There may be a bit of Chicken Little about those claims, Justin, but let’s explore them.
If connections have a horse capable of contending for a Cox Plate, they’re hardly going to knock back the chance, and even if they want to run in the new Emirates, they still need a lead-up race.
What other options do they have? The Caulfield Cup the week before and the new Longines Mile the week after aren’t suitable. I don’t see many horses running in the Caulfield Stakes and having a month between runs into the new Emirates. Horses may now be given a preparation that allows them to be at peak fitness for both races, rather than just one.
Justin: I think where the Caulfield Stakes is the Caulfield Cup or Cox Plate lead-up, the Cox Plate will now become a Melbourne Cup or Mackinnon lead-up. The fear remains that if the Cox Plate is left untouched by the MVRC, the race will slowly slip into a groove where it is far from a championship race but just another Group 1 used by trainers as a lead-up to bigger and better things.
Cam: The Cox Plate has had something of a chequered recent history anyway, with average winners like Pinker Pinker (her only Group 1 win from six attempts) and maiden Shamus Award, along with the disgraceful rails bias that tarnished the victory of Winx. The race might be in a state of flux right now?
Justin: In a few years Moonee Valley will undergo an enormous renovation that will see the configuration of the track completely changed. The side straight where the 2500m races begin will become the new home straight.
Racing will change forever at the Valley and for fans of the Cox Plate that is something to be viewed with trepidation. And now, after these Melbourne Cup Carnival changes, it is possible that the Cox Plate will be surpassed by the new Emirates well before the Moonee Valley track has had any work done to it.
Cam: Perhaps the race was due to undergo some change, and it could be argued that things like the Strathayr track and tight, turning circuit preserved the uniqueness of the Cox Plate but also prevented it from reaching greater heights. Internationals have a long history of running well at Flemington as we know, but not so much at Moonee Valley.
Now with two features to come down for, we should see more internationals take on that unique circuit, changes to the track notwithstanding.
Internationals have won two of the last three Mackinnons, backing up from the Cox Plate, which makes sense because if they’re good enough to be invited out here for the Cox, they’re more than good enough to beat our B- and C-grades, which the Mackinnon had become. Now we have a stronger lure for internationals to come out for two runs?
Justin: Yes, there’s no doubt Racing Victoria along with the VRC have pushed through these changes in the hope of luring more 2000m stars down under. This in the end may be extremely beneficial for Australian racing because as hard as the Moonee Valley Racing Club tried, they were unable to attract many superstars for the Cox Plate from overseas.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the best weight-for-age horses in the world came to Australia to run in both the Cox Plate and the new Emirates?
Cam: I think it would, and the MRC can join forces with the MVRC and VRC, and bump up the Caulfield Stakes too. Make it a three-race series of mile and a quarter weight-for-age races.
But let’s go back to you thinking this could be the beginning of the end for the Cox Plate. What can be done in your mind to preserve the sanctity of this great race? You have the lectern. Go!
Justin: There are many things that can be done to ensure the Cox Plate remains a cut above the new Emirates.
The first thing the MVRC should do is stop handing out international invitations. Each July or August the MVRC send out ten invitations to the best horses in the world to come to the Cox Plate. Simply put, the best horses on the invitation list don’t come. The club should instead work with Racing Victoria and the VRC as a team to bring out the best horses possible for the string of 2000m weight-for-age races during the carnival.
The second thing I would like the MVRC to do is to scrap the automatic Cox Plate start given to the winner of the Dato Tan Chin Nam Stakes. Instead the club should announce that the Cox Plate field will comprise a field of ten or 12 horses picked exclusively by the MVRC on the Tuesday before the Cox Plate from the acceptances received for the race.
This does two things. First, it creates enormous fan and media interest, and secondly, it gives the club the power to pick the best possible field. These changes are necessary if the Cox Plate is to remain a championship race.
The last thing I would like the club to do is announce the type of horse they want running in the Cox Plate. That horse should be one that is not going to use the race as a Melbourne Cup lead-up but, instead, is best suited to 2000m with weight-for-age form, or, in the case of any three-year-old entrant, the best colt, or dare I say it, filly, of their generation.
If the MVRC can successfully present the Cox Plate as an elite race for elite horses, then it gives the race a critical point of difference in this country.
These changes may even restore the Cox Plate to a position well above the Queen Elizabeth which is run over 2000m in Sydney as the showpiece event of The Championships. All is not yet lost for Moonee Valley and the Cox Plate.
Cam: A sound case indeed. Speaking of those on the Melbourne Cup trail, where do the horses that used the old Mackinnon Stakes as their final Cup lead-up go now?
Justin: A hard 2500m handicap in the Lexus? It is not ideal for most horses. A competitive Group 1 handicap mile? I doubt it. The Moonee Valley Cup? Perhaps. The vast majority will look to the Cox Plate for the simple fact that it is run at the same conditions as the Mackinnon.
Cam: How do you see the Longines Mile affecting the program? The Crystal Mile at Moonee Valley could now become a ghost town. And what does it mean for three-year-olds? Will we see them more likely to tackle the Longines Mile rather than the tough 2040m of the Cox Plate?
Can a three-year-old aimed at the Caulfield Guineas stay up for another three weeks? Not many of them run in the Carbine Club run on Derby day over 1600m.
Justin: Well this is really interesting. For years, the Emirates field has comprised runners from either the Chatham Stakes (1400m handicap on Derby Day) or the Crystal Mile (weight for age) at Moonee Valley. That is going to change.
The Moonga (1400m, handicap) on Caulfield Cup Day is now two weeks before the Longines Mile and may seem like the logical lead-up but I expect most horses to run in the Toorak (same conditions as the Longines Mile) three weeks out, into the Crystal Mile before backing up into the Longines Mile the next week.
The other option, which is quite popular these days, is for horses to go three weeks between the main lead-up Toorak Handicap and Longines. If that happens we may see less of the best milers each each spring. With the three-year-olds, perhaps some of the second-tier types may have a crack at the handicap Longines.
I would hope the best colts would still eye the Cox Plate. Don’t be surprised if the odd filly and mare prefers the Longines Mile to the Myer Classic. Obviously because both mile races are now run on the same day, none of the girls will be able to run in both. That’s disappointing because mares especially have a reasonably good record in the Emirates Stakes.
Maybe the Myer Classic should move to Oaks Day? I like that idea but when I posed the question to Paul Bloodworth, head of racing operations at Racing Victoria, yesterday afternoon he said it was impossible. The VRC will not run less than four Group 1s on Derby Day.
Cam: Should the MRC look at moving the Toorak handicap to Caulfield Cup day, which would then give two weeks from it into the Longines Mile, and also bolster the Caulfield Cup program, which has long only had one Group 1?
There are currently four Group 1s on Guineas day, so one can be moved to make for a more evenly spread Caulfield carnival. I can see horses running in the Toorak/Longines/new Emirates treble, so we’d be seeing good horses run three times in four Saturdays.
That is one bonus of the switch, we should see a lot of horses back up from the Longines Mile into the new Emirates Stakes, while we seldom saw the reverse under the old format. The new Emirates Stakes should attract big fields and become a very tough race to win.
Justin: I don’t mind your Toorak Handicap idea. It creates a lovely four-week program and gives some punch to an increasingly lethargic Caulfield Cup Day undercard.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the new Emirates Stakes is the big winner out of these changes. It is now placed in such a way that it’s poised to become Australia’s second best 2000m race behind the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
As a Sydney racegoer that sounds fine at face value but there isn’t an Aussie racing lover who doesn’t hold the Cox Plate dear, and I cannot get over the fact that the weight-for-age championship’s future has been threatened today like never before.
Cam: Strong fears from you there about the future of the Cox Plate. I still think it will be the premier weight-for-age race of the spring, and I’m interested to see how the new races slot in.
Let’s put it to the Roarers now, and see what they think the biggest strengths and weaknesses of these changes are.