Derby Day at Flemington is the pinnacle of the racing year for me, unfortunately it's now up to 17yrs since I was last able to attend! Not that anyone else can this year either. A day full of Group races (4x G1, 2x G2, 3x G3) and quite simply, if anyone invites you to a wedding on this day, you shouldn't be friends with them any more.
Whilst it's labelled 'Derby Day', the Derby simply isn't a feature race worthy of the eponymous title. A 2500m race just three months after horses turn three simply doesn't lead to great racing. The field is poor, with no depth, just highlighting how many owners are traditionally happy to run to get owners' tickets for the greatest raceday in the southern hemisphere, if not the world. Imagine running the (English/Epsom Derby) on the first of April? At least the Kentucky Derby at the start of May, is run at 2000m, which is about as far as any American-bred horse ever wants. All the east coast Derbys in Australia used to be run in the spring - then those states north of the Murray River decided it made more sense to run them later in the season when the horses were better conditioned to run that far. We don't see 2yos running over a mile before March in Aus, or August (I think) in the UK & Ireland, so why run over a mile & a half (or further, it's actually 2500m at Flemington) so early in the season? If Racing Victoria want the VRC Derby to become relevant again, either reduce the distance so it becomes a genuine progression from the Caulfield Guineas, or shift it to the autumn to keep the full distance. It should be a stallion-making race, or one that tests rising stayers. Right now, it is neither.
So my preview is on the big handicap of the day, the Cantala, a G1 quality handicap over the metric mile. Always one of the hardest races of the year to decipher and one of my favourites.
Fierce Impact defeats Fifty Stars and Cascadian in the 2019 Cantala.
THE KENNEDY CANTALA
Flemington, 1600m, Group 1 Quality Handicap
1620 local, 0530 GMT
Expected Going - Good 4, Rail True
Weather Cloudy, 19C.
1. Fifty Stars, barrier 15, 58kg - second last year, beaten narrowly by Fierce Impact on a Slow 7, drawing gate three. Won a (pretty weak) Australian Cup here in March, great record here. Sat three wide the trip last start and ran home OK. Exceptional third-up record, four wins from five.
2. Mr Quickie, 16, 58kg - goes for the same Toorak/Cantala double achieved by Fierce Impact last year. Expertly ridden by Jamie Kah to win last time, had soft run from an inside draw, much tougher this time from gate 16 pre-scratchings (gate 13 if emergencies come out). Probably forced to sit back and/or wide, needing a fair track in the straight.
3.Olmedo, 20, 56kg - high-class former European only sighted in Aus on a heavy track at Rosehill in the autumn. Forget that completely. Won the French 2000 Guineas and has form around Europe's best milers in Circus Maximus and The Revenant. Must take a leap of faith to think Chris Waller does not aim this horse at a Flemington G1 with James McDonald aboard unless he's going well. Car park draw makes his task very difficult.
4. Wild Planet, 8, 55kg - defeated Fifty Stars in the Moonga last start, resurrecting his form after finishing ninth in the Epsom. Look a bit further into that Epsom run and there's a lot to forgive. It was an awful ride from Tim Clark, caught 3/4W the trip from gate six, drifted way back in the field hoping for cover and still ran on in the straight. Gets Willie Pike here from an ideal gate and has never finished worse than second in four starts here. Big show.
5. Yulong Prince, 14, 55kg - finished as well as any of the trio ahead of him in the Epsom, just never got clear until the others had made their run, in a very fast time. Flemington is the only track he has won at since arriving in Australia and is flying this spring. Damian Lane taking the ride is a big plus, right in the mix here.
6. Best of Days, 13, 54.5kg - fifth in this race last year (57kg), won it in 2018 carrying 52kg. Close-up third two starts back when resuming carrying 61, then ineffective in the wet at Caulfield. Dry form very consistent, one of many with a chance here.
7. Cascadian,18, 54.5kg - run of the race last year, flying home on the wet track to finish a close third (carried 1kg less). That was from gate 16 which is about where he'll start again this time. No luck in the Sir Rupert Clarke, worked home well in the Toorak when the inside lanes seemed to have the advantage. Drops 4kg on recent runs at WFA or top of the handicap, D.Oliver stays aboard which suggests plenty of faith in his ability.
8. I Am Superman, 1, 54kg - had won two in a row before poor run in the Toorak when got shuffled back and unbalanced around the home turn. Drops 3.5kg here, gets the inside rail and can push up for a more prominent position as per recent victories. Chance of a shock win if he settles in the front five.
9. Rock, 2, 54kg - Dual Cameron Handicap winner at Newcastle, then close without threatening last time in the Epsom, similar to last year. Never a chance in this race 12 months ago when settled back near the rail and then had every runner ahead of him at the 400. Drawn two but has no gate speed and thus has to swing wide in the straight or rely on luck to get a clear run. In the mix but would want a bigger price considering how much luck he'll need from gate two.
10. Streets of Avalon, 11, 54kg - very good 1200-1400m horse just off top class, the type who wins the August or February feature races before carnivals get into full swing. Did win the G1 Futurity in February when a savage leader bias saw him backed heavily for success. Six runs at the mile for one second. Hasn't gotten close in his last two starts and 100/1 for a reason.
11. The Velvet King, 4, 53.5kg - WA-owned runner with solid formlines over there. Not fast enough first-up over 1200m, was blocked early in the straight and ran strongly through the line. Likely to push forward here from a favourable gate in his right distance range. Drops 8kg and will go around at a massive price. Ignore Moody + Nolen in a big race at your peril.
12. Age of Chivalry, 19, 53kg - beaten no more than 3L in nine runs since last success. Horror draw, likely to push forward and sit on the speed. Does he get across into the running line though? Not won at the mile but has been placed all three times. Damian Lane jumps off, replaced by Daniel Moor, a notable downgrade. Won't be far away but in a race like this, beaten 2.5L could mean finishing eighth.
13. Buffalo River, 9, 53kg - the former John Gosden-trained horse changed hands for 180,000 guineas at the Horses In Training Sale two years ago, to the same buyers as English King this week. The horse has blossomed in Australia, winning five of eight starts, with cheques for second at his last two starts, and one blip in the Silver Eagle last year. Jumps to the front and makes them run, will be worth noting through the day what the track is doing in regards to favouring leaders and/or the inside lanes. 7/1 seems about right in a tough field, but with any advantage to the leaders, that soon becomes an attractive price.
14. Chief Ironside, 3, 53kg - arrived in Melbourne last spring winning the G2 Crystal Mile at MV but bookended by poor results in the two G1 handicaps (Toorak & Cantala). Better acclimatised a year on, he's not won another race in five more starts. He's just a good honest horse rather than a chance in a G1. No.
15. Nonconformist, 10, 53kg - dual Listed winner who sneaks in off a light weight in solid form. Last time out he won the Coongy Hcp holding off G1 winner Harlem in a more than handy field for that race. It became a sprint home for the last 1000m and he was very strong at the end. This race is likely to be set up with a fast pace, potentially playing right into his hands. Best Of Days won in 2018 off the same formline. Big chance.
16. King's Legacy, 6, 51kg - the wildcard of the field, a G1 mile-winning 3yo at the bottom of the weights. Found to have a throat issue in the Caulfield Guineas so they're having another crack at a G1 mile for that stallion page. Overraced early at Caulfield, settled at the tail, made ground off the turn but never looked likely and wasn't pushed out. Was diagnosed with a throat issue post-race so we should look to his previous run of finishing third in the Golden Rose, behind subsequent Guineas winner Ole Kirk. Gate six, Glen Boss, underlying class - right in this if back to 100%.
17. Reykjavik (em1), 12, 53kg - 50/1 shot but live chance if he gets a run. Unlucky in the Sir Rupert Clarke two starts back then no chance from the draw in the Toorak, when parked out the back and they flew home with runners near the rail were advantaged. Three wins from seven at Flemington, should be able to park midfield from the draw. Not the worst.
18. Junipal (em2), 17, 53kg - disappointed as favourite last time in the Toorak, overraced in a muddling early pace, then got flatfooted when the tempo increased, then worked home ok without ever troubling the judge. Needs rain to be a chance in this, especially from the draw, and unexpected heavy rain is about the only way he gets a start.
19. Harbour Views (em3), 7, 53kg - unlikely to get a run.
20. Reloaded (em4), 5, 53kg - fourth emergency, not getting a start without divine intervention.
As the 12th Man impersonating Kenny Callander would say, "it's harder to pick than a broken nose". 4 and 5yos tend to dominate the race, only three winners in the last 20 haven't fitted that profile (but bear in mind all the European imports will get ticked over into the next year as far as age goes).
For a pace map, I reckon it will look something like this upon settling, perhaps with a little more compression, and pace to pick up from about halfway.
That sets the race up nicely for Nonconformist to come home over the top of them.
The Velvet King 40/1
Wild Planet 11/1
Yulong Prince 12/1