BRIAN MELDRUM analyses past form and warns that big money does not always produce prestige races:
ONCE UPON A TIME it was common practice for the racing press and the stewards to meet up in the race club’s committee room after a race meeting, to get a copy of the stewards’ report, have a drink, and talk racing.
On one occasion, back in the mid 1980s, talk turned to the fact that race crowds were in decline, and what could be done about it. Better on course tote dividends, better catering, less time between races, there were all kinds of suggestions.
Victoria’s chief steward at the time, Pat Lalor, listened for a while, then said, “Only good horses will get people back to the races; the rest is minor.” There was a nodding of heads, then someone said, “Yeah, but you can’t invent them, they can only happen.”
I recalled that conversation just recently, when I was asked what I thought of The Everest, the $10 million sprint race to be run at Randwick in mid-October that has provoked plenty of comment, not all of it positive. Not by a long chalk.
Now, I understand that races can’t just happen – they have to be programmed. But great races, iconic races, do just happen, albeit over a period of time. The Cox Plate was first run in 1922, yet despite being won by some of the greatest horses ever to race in Australia – Phar Lap, Ajax, Rising Fast, Tulloch, Tobin Bronze, to name a few – it played second fiddle to the Moonee Valley Cup until the early 1970s, let alone being Australia’s premier weight-for-age race. Likewise, the Doncaster Handicap, first run at Randwick in 1866, was a race that evolved over time to become Australia’s premier 1,600 metre handicaps.
Both those races, in particular the Cox Plate, get recognition abroad, but mainly from those linked to the racing industry. Only the Melbourne Cup can rightfully claim to be well known to the broader racing public in countries around the world. And the reason, quite simply, is the fact that since Vintage Crop emerged from Ireland to win the Cup in 1993, an ever-increasing number of top class stayers have come from countries such as England, France, Germany, Japan and Hong Kong, to contest and not infrequently win the race, thus giving it an affinity with racing fans in those countries.
Which brings us back to The Everest.
Similar in concept to the Pegasus World Cup, worth close to $A20 million and run for the first time in Florida last January, The Everest offered 12 slots priced at $600,000 per annum each, for a minimum of three years, and these were quickly snapped up. These slots can be on sold, thus becoming available to anyone with a top-notch sprinter who fancies a crack at the $5 million first prize.
Already slots for the inaugural running have taken up or sold, and confirmed runners include Australia’s, and possibly the world ‘s best sprinter, Chautauqua, and this year’s Golden Slipper Stakes heroine, She Will Reign. The catch, though, is that so far only one overseas speedster has been marked down as a possible runner.
Straight after the Aiden O’Brien-trained Caravaggio made it seven from seven in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot in mid-June his Coolmore connections indicated they were keen for him to head “down under” for a tilt at The Everest. Immediately the prospect of him going head-to-head with Chatauqua was mouth-watering.
But last Saturday the gloss went off that possible encounter when Caravaggio was beaten out of the placings in the July Cup at Newmarket. The Everest is still on the colt’s agenda, but as is said “one swallow doth not a summer make”.
If he doesn’t come, and nor do any other sprinters from overseas, then The Everest becomes a lesser, albeit much richer version of Randwick’s T.J. Smith Stakes, until now the richest ($2.5 million) open class sprint in Australia, and unlike The Everest a race with Group One status. Not The Everest, perhaps The Kosciusko?
Big prizemoney does not necessarily mean a better race, and if you want evidence of that you only have to look to this year’s running of Randwick’s Queen Elizabeth Stakes, with prizemoney of $4.1 million the richest weight-for-age race in Australia.
Just before the gates opened to send the nine-horse field off on its 2,000 metre journey racecaller Darren Flindell announced, “This is it – the Grand Final of Australian racing – the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.” Well, if that was the Grand Final then they must have run the semi-finals out the back of Bourke!
Consider this. The eight horses opposed to the mighty Winx in the Queen Elizabeth had won just three Group One races between them, and prizemoney of $10.2 million, some $200,000 less than that earned by Winx.
Just five months earlier Winx, whose prizemoney then totalled $9.3 million, went up against nine opponents in the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley, who between them had won 17 Group One races and amassed stakes totalling more than $18.7 million. Enough said.
The Everest will be the world’s richest sprint race run on turf, but will it be the best? Without an overseas component, and a significant one at that, one would have to say, probably not. And there has to be some doubt as to whether that much needed component can ever be realised.
You see, the reason so many overseas horses come for the Melbourne Cup is that, by and large they are better, much better stayers than the home-grown product, particularly those that come from Europe and Japan. Five of the past six Melbourne Cup winners began their racing careers in Europe.
It’s not the same with the sprinters. In fact, it is fair to say the opposite applies. Our top speed horses are the equal of the best in the world on turf, as evidenced by the Royal Ascot successes of Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast, Starspangledbanner and Black Caviar.
Outside of Coolmore and Godolphin, overseas stables would have to be very wary of sending their top sprinters halfway around the planet to take on their equals on their home turf, more so given it would likely cost them $600,000 plus to do so.
There has been talk of some exotic bets being offered about various aspects of The Everest, and that will sharpen punters appetites. But do you have to have a $10 million race to do that?
Full marks to the Australian Turf Club for engaging in some lateral thinking, but one suspects the two or three million dollars the club will spend to top up The Everest might have been better spent elsewhere. Only time will tell.
Oh, and if you’re wondering if the press boys and the stewards still get together for a drink and a chin wag after the races, in this new age of digitalisation it’s a wonder they even know each other.
Author: Brian Meldrum
Brian Meldrum has been a racing journalist for more than 47 years, and is a former Managing Editor – Racing, at the Herald Sun.