The Caulfield Cup is one of Australia’s great handicaps over 2400m, first run in 1879. One of the races of the year looks like it will be set for a dramatic and underwhelming shift to weight-for-age conditions.
The Herald Sun reported the news last night, with the Melbourne Racing Club (MRC) stating it was keen to switch the race even as early as this year, and almost certainly from 2018 and beyond. It has the support of other race clubs and Racing Victoria.
The race will also get a prizemoney boost to $4 million from the already rich $3m purse, taking it past the Cox Plate ($3m) and making it Victoria’s second most valuable race behind the Melbourne Cup ($6.2m).
It’s a massive change to the spring racing carnival and the flow of distance races in spring, where the Caulfield Cup sits just a week before the Cox Plate (2040m) and just over two weeks before the Melbourne Cup (3200m).
So why shift to weight-for-age (WFA)?
Handicappers are penalised for the Melbourne Cup
One big element of the move is to attract more elite international runners, whether that’s a good thing or not.
Part of beating the handicapper for top horses that don’t need to win to get into the Melbourne Cup field has been to whack home late to do well without necessarily winning, or avoiding the race completely to dodge a penalty. More horses seem to be graduating through races like the Cox Plate, where winners are exempt from a re-handicap for the Melbourne Cup.
The new Caulfield Cup run under new WFA conditions would seek exemption status as well.
MRC chairman Mike Symons stated that European stars Highland Reel and Order Of St George did not run in the Caulfield Cup in 2016 because of the handicap conditions and ramifications for the Melbourne Cup.
Jameka won the 2016 Caulfield Cup and was given a 1.5kg penalty that saw her finish well back in the field of the Melbourne Cup.
The rise of WFA
Australia offers a great curiosity in our handicaps at the highest level. We’re one of the few racing jurisdictions to offer this.
One reason thrown up to move to WFA is to join the international competition. It’s likely to be a boost to global wagering, which is seen as a growth opportunity for clubs and jurisdictions, who don’t think that the local scene will be hurt too much.
Caulfield isn’t what it was
The Caulfield Cup carnival isn’t quite what it was. The Caulfield Guineas has been overshadowed by the Coolmore Stud. The Toorak is now second to the Cantala Stakes. The Caulfield Stakes isn’t a shadow of the Cox Plate.
The Caulfield Cup remains a big race but it can’t be argued that it has lost something with the Melbourne Cup hugely more popular. The MRC aren’t content to let that go on.
A great race ruined, or overdue for a shake-up?
The reaction has been a mixture of curiosity to outright rage.
Yes, Australia should be able to attract the best horses, and quality international runners add depth, glamour, and a way to measure up.
There’s also no question that the spring carnival in Victoria could benefit from some changes. And there’s also no question that Australia lacks a high-quality deep-purse 2400m race run in spring. There’s really only the BMW (nee Tancred) in Sydney at that level, and that’s in autumn. (As a relevant extra, The Roar looked at a re-shuffle of spring races in a highly-enjoyed series. The Caulfield Cup was retained with the first three home exempt into Melbourne Cup)
To make that 2400m WFA race, the Caulfield Cup takes away a lot of the joy that the great handicap races bring where anything has a chance.
I’m not in favour based on the reasoning of attracting international horses alone. I’m not as angry as some, more bewildered that administrators would be so quick to change something that feels the general public own.
Pandering to international horses won’t be a justification enjoyed by many punters. Bringing the best to Australia should be encouraged, but not at the sacrifice of a great race.
Many have suggested that a lot of the issues would be solved by simply seeking exempt status for the Caulfield Cup. Other races, such as the Herbert Power Stakes over 2400m, could be shifted to WFA without affecting one of the ‘grand’ races of Victoria.
For mine, history matters. Moving the Caulfield Cup to weight-for-age drains a huge amount of the great colour of the race. The fields will be smaller. Attracting absolutely top-liners will scare off the hopefuls.
There are valid reasons for a wider spring shake-up that would still likely do away with some traditions.
But this move alone decimates one of the great races in a year in order to attract a few good horses from overseas and more gambling revenue. And that just doesn’t sit well.