Been a bit quiet on the blog for a while, a bit more restrained as I get older or more likely, less bothered to write something of length when short, sharp bursts on Twitter are more convenient. But the autumn carnivals in Australia have flushed me out.
Traditionally, the spring spotlight belongs to Melbourne and the autumn to Sydney. But those 'gentleman's rules' no longer exist as states are now only rewarded for their own racing, not the racing wagers placed within their state - a major change to the state of play which came about when the likes of Betfair and Sportsbet challenged the state laws which banned advertising from wagering operators other than the formerly state-owned TABs. The leading racing administrator in the country (and yes it pains me to say this), Peter V'Landys, the emperor of Racing NSW, quickly realised this and maximised NSW racing feature race opportunities to generate more turnover on NSW racing. Ambush attacks on the Victorian spring by creating a swag of (minimum) million-dollar features such as the Everest, the Kosciuszko, the Golden Eagle, the Bondi, the Hunter, the Gong and the Golden Gift on top of prizemoney boosts and/or status upgrades to existing feature races have stolen a march on their southern rivals and have kept extending that gap.
Victoria's innovation in all that time - the All-Star Mile, a gimmicky high value race with a public vote which while gaining a PR presence also pulls in a few no-hopers. It also raises plenty of money for charity so it ticks the warm & fuzzy feeling box, but that doesn't put food on the plate. Any other new races or radical upgrades in that time? No doubt I've forgotten some but the changes that have been made are minor. Some might say the Jericho Cup but that's a creation totally outside of Racing Victoria, by the remarkable Bill Gibbins. Plenty of profile for a BM90 race but not backed with buckets of cash.
There's been investment in infrastructure with the opening of the new Pakenham course, a synthetic track at Ballarat along with big upgrades in training facilities there and Cranbourne. But it's the stakemoney which keeps the participants happy - and it's lagging behind in Victoria. The jewels in the crown are keeping up with the eye-watering numbers, as are minimum purses for Saturday metro races, but in between those tiers, it's pretty dire. Group 2/3/Listed races for barely more than a standard Saturday metro race. and going backwards in real terms compared to their value 10/20/30 years ago.
And then we have this year's Australian Cup. No complaints on the prizemoney, $1.5million for this edition yet a field which is a glorified Bendigo Cup. Perhaps a touch harsh but the Australian Cup should be the autumn edition of the Cox Plate - a weaker version, but one where at least some of the contenders might run in both. Look at the honour roll from 1990 to 2005 - Vo Rogue, Better Loosen Up, Let's Elope, Saintly, Octagonal, Dane Ripper, Northerly, Lonhro, Makybe Diva - all superstars of the turf, in the spring and autumn. Since the Diva, it's been a very ordinary lot. Humidor won in 2017 when at the top of his powers but those days are long behind him. Harlem fluked this race twice ($61 in 2018, $31 in 2019) but has only won one other race out of 41 starts since he arrived in Australia. Fifty Stars won last year but has dodged the Cox Plate for the last two years because he isn't good enough. Homesman at least has won G1/G2 races in the spring but was a well-beaten roughie in the 2019 Cox Plate.
This is a very competitive race with a full field, and the favourite only $4.40, but it's not a Group 1 field. The Australian Cup has varied in format over the years. It was only 1987 when it changed to the current WFA format, previously it was a handicap since its inception in 1863, apart from a brief dalliance with WFA from 1978-1981. It became a Group 1 race in 1979 which I think is when the Group system started, before that it was a 'Principal Race'.
The depth of top-class middle distance horses in Australia isn't great and the cash is sending them to Sydney. Curiously, only seven of the 17 acceptors are northern-hemisphere bred which more often a dominant trait of Aussie races at 2000m and beyond. Perhaps this is a sign of local breeders finally fighting back? Yeah, nah...
It's time for Racing Victoria to do something here. NSW hasn't just boosted the big races, they've also strengthened the lead-up campaigns by making just about every race Winx ever ran in a Group 1, which is ridiculous in a purist's sense, but it gives those races greater cash and status. So either chuck some serious money into supporting the Australian Cup by upgrading the lead-up races in cash and status to create a more attractive path to the race, or concede the battle and revert to a handicap. There is no Group 1 handicap in Australia over 2000m, yet there is over every other 'major' distance - 1200, 1400, 1600, 2400, 3200. Whether we need another handicap as a G1 is another matter...
Onto the race!
Group 1, WFA, 2000m
1645 local, 0545 GMT
1. Humidor - a mighty old warrior who was runner-up to Winx in two Cox Plates, but that was 2017-18. He's eight now and won just once in 2.5yrs, even being pensioned off to Western Australia before landing at Chris Waller's for one last crack at glory. Showed glimpses of form in the spring, winning the Feehan at 20/1 and running second in the Underwood. OK first-up in the C.F. Orr over 1400m, and historically quite effective second-up (four wins from nine). This isn't a proper G1 and thus with a decent amount of class remaining in those weary legs, I won't rule him out.
2. Harlem - won this race in 2018 and 2019 yet is only 2-7 at course and distance. Unable to win the Coongy or the Ballarat Cup in the spring albeit with 61kg in each, at nine, he's not good enough to win this. Close up in the Peter Young Stakes a fortnight ago, finishing eighth but less than two lengths from the winner in a bunched finish against many of these rivals. Will have the services of the miracle worker Michael Walker who has ridiculous habit of popping up at huge odds in Group 1s (on board for 2018 victory).
3. Fifty Stars - favourite and tellingly, one of only two stallions in the 14 male runners (as an indicator of class). Won the race last year and has the form to repeat. Won the Blamey last year, runner-up this year beaten 0.2L when storming to the line. Second in the Mackinnon Stakes during the Spring Carnival, a much stronger race than this (same course & distance). Awkward draw as he tends to settle well back and will need a little luck to get clear.
4. Homesman - multiple Group winner who likes to lead or race handy. First-up after 14 weeks, he was collared in the final stages, beaten under a length into third in the Peter Young at Caulfield a fortnight ago. Expect improvement out of that run, but having to lead from gate 14 is fraught with danger. Lightly raced for a 7yo, right in this if he can settle/not get caught in too much of a pace battle. Has the Melbourne Cup winning jockey aboard.
5. Warning - first-up from the Melbourne Cup. Just two wins from 17 starts, but both here. Drawn wide, just one third (in a maiden) from eight starts first or second-up from a spell. Would take a miraculous piece of training to get him to win here.
6. Angel of Truth - Sydneysider chasing the easier southern riches. Now a 5yo, he hasn't greeted the judge in front since winning the ATC Derby almost two years ago when trained by Gwenda Markwell, with just two placings in 17 starts. But the talent is still in there and has only had half a dozen starts for the Hawkes camp. Ran on well from last in the Peter Young, clearly the fastest late sectionals, beaten only 1.25L after still being last at the 200. Versatile, won the Derby and ran third in the Metropolitan from the front, but likely to go back from the draw here unless the pace is slow. Will go around at a decent price, not out of this despite recent strike rate.
7. Best of Days - consistent galloper without quite being top class. Second in the Villiers, second in the Summer Cup, won the Carlyon Cup and most recently fourth in the Blamey, 2L behind Fifty Stars. In the mix but gate 17 makes it very tough.
8. Steel Prince - under a length away from the winner when finishing fourth in the Peter Young first-up, after being caught wide on the pace, and then still fighting on at the line. Better suited over further but if this is the target, he must be respected. Just wondering how much that first-up run might have taken out of him. Jamie Kah aboard who is in inspired form.
9. Chapada - another coming out of the Peter Young, beaten a length and half without much room in the closing stages. Like Steel Prince, that was first-up after a spring campaign and is better over further. Drawn to get a decent run but he's just one of those Moroney-trained stayers with a really poor strike rate (3/26). Not for me.
10. Platoon - WA gelding bringing in different form lines. 12th and sixth in last two Kingston Town Classics, the closest WA race to this level, with most of his wins over much shorter. Third in a poor G2 over 2100m in Dec, just can't see him being competitive here.
11. Shared Ambition - massive hype horse since he won his first three races in Aus at the end of 2019 but soon found his level. Might not be up to the cream in spring but won first-up in Sydney before being runner-up in the Peter Young. Should get an easy run from gate two, might start getting a realistic price about him now.
12. Defibrillate - winner of nine races from 13 starts but nothing of this standard. Has won a pair of Listed races - beat Paradee in the Lord Stakes on Boxing day, and San Huberto in Mornington Cup Prelude a fortnight ago. Not confident he is up to these but hard to knock winning form, and this isn't a genuine G1.
13. San Huberto - touted as a two-miler when he arrived last spring, can't really see him being up to this. Pushed Defibrillate first-up, beaten 0.4L. If Matt Cumani has managed to inject some pace into his legs, then he's not a complete lost cause.
14. Nonconformist - lightest-raced horse in the field with only a dozen runs under his belt. Won the Alister Clark (G2 2040m) last autumn and the Coongy (G3, 2000m) in the spring, his only two starts at the trip. Building up nicely this campaign, third in the Carlyon Cup and fifth in the Peter Young, running on late and beaten under two lengths both times. Drawn 16, so he'll almost certainly be running on late again. Blinkers first time, still has some improvement in him and this standard of race is about his level. Big chance.
15. Miami Bound - VRC Oaks winner who was poor loast spring apart from a surprise result in the MV Cup after it had pissed down rain all night and a gem ride from Jamie Kah. Entitled to be the outsider of the field.
16. Miss Siska - was flying this time last year, winning the Carlyon Cup and Peter Young, but finished eighth at $16 in this race. Didn't do much for the rest of the year but then resumed with a second in the Carlyon Cup a month ago, splitting Best of Days and Nonconformist, after a pair of trial wins. Looking back into last year's race, the track was soft, she worked over to lead then was taken on most of the trip and it was a day for swoopers. So the run wasn't that bad at all. Drawn five, she'll get the run of the race and probably park just behind the lead. Jockey Mick Dee is on the crest of a wave, winning the Australian Guineas last weekend on a 300/1 shot. Reckon she is a massive price at around $35! Each-way all day.
17. Paradee - the new kid on the block. Won a BM70 here this time last year, has progressed to be second fav in one of Flemington's biggest races on the calendar. Since running second in the G3 Matriarch over this course & distance at the tail end of the carnival, she has run second in the Lord Stakes (to Defibrillate) on Boxing Day, won a pair of $250k WFA races at the Gold Coast and then the G2 Peter Young at Caulfield a fortnight ago. That marks her as an off-season gun taking advantage of lower class races or unfit rivals as the races get stronger. So this is her acid test. This field isn't that much better, and the old adage about mares in form... I can't back her at that price but don't be put off by that if you're a believer.
A good competitive race rather than a great G1 but the latter doesn't pay extra bonuses for winning bets. Inclined to go for the boilover again but after last weekend at Flemington (Quaddie paid nearly half a million dollars for a full unit), that could be asking a bit much.
Miss Siska might just get the gun run from five, think she is double the odds she should be. Paradee is flying and must be in the mix, Angel of Truth is running well and can go close with luck, while Nonconformist and Homesman can't be ruled out.
Back Miss Siska win $35 place $9.50, with a bit more on the place.
Will also back Angel of Truth if $20 is available, and put the others listed above behind them for the trifecta.