What a pleasure it was to see Bell Haven take out the Sydney Cup at Wentworth Park last Saturday. Not just because of the good time (42.25) but because she raced like a stayer, trailling the leaders to the home turn and then powering away. Few do that these days – Miata aside.
This was no flash in the pan. Bell Haven performed creditably in the heat and final of the Nationals in Hobart and has run near-record times at Launceston over 720m.
Of the beaten favourites, He Knows Uno is honest enough but against his peers he is always inclined to get into trouble somewhere, coming from behind and looking for the rail. As for Irma Bale, sorry folks, she is not a stayer but a brilliant middle distance racer which sometimes manages to hang on over the longer trip. There was no chance of that here.
Which brings up the question of whether we have many genuine stayers anyway. There are a handful around but the record in recent years tells us that most staying races are won by one of two types; first, the Irma Bale-type that clears out and then flops over the line and, second, the honest triers that are always in the mix but cannot really run time – litter sister Fyna Bale is one such.
Otherwise, they take it in turns, the winner usually getting the lucky breaks in running. Consequently, by far the majority of staying races are not good betting propositions.
Let me illustrate with Irma Bale and her last eight starts. First, delete the two involving Miata as she is not in that class. In the other six, all over 700m-plus, she won two and lost four. An even $1 on each would have returned you $3.60, meaning you lost 40% of your stake money. Her SP varied from $1.40 to $2.80 so investors were relying more on emotion than good judgement.
The broader picture reveals that some state authorities are now making a significant effort to encourage stayers. First NSW, then SA and Victoria began providing bonus prize money amongst provincial clubs to go towards staying races. A nice idea but it is not working.
Of those three, only SA (at Angle Park) has regular offerings of 731m races for a variety of standards. But, for the most part, the dogs are terrible and fields are small. It is embarrassing to watch them going up and down in the one spot as they hit the home turn. The best of them manage to run around 43.50 or nearly a second outside the record. Most cannot break 44sec. And they are still hard to predict.
In NSW most clubs either have great difficulty getting a field together for 700m races or don’t have that distance to offer anyway, instead substituting events over 650m or so. Richmond is an honourable exception as it has long tried to encourage distance races, even before the incentives arrived.
Victoria is almost wholly limited to the 650m bracket (Cranbourne is the exception) so they are not encouraging stayers but middle distance racers. This is quite a deliberate policy in that state as recent track alterations have tended to reduce the available distances (eg at Bendigo and Warrnambool).
But all this avoids the key issue. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. If the dogs cannot run the trip then no amount of cash will make them do it. In short, these projects are a waste of money as they stand. The principle is fine but the execution is flawed.
So what should the industry do? Well, there is nothing wrong with 650m races. Quite the contrary. They are a good test and often attractive to watch (bend starts permitting) or even to bet on. But if we want to build up the 700m-plus sector then more radical treatment is needed, especially in the long term.
Clearly, we are not breeding enough staying dogs. To fix that – assuming that is a desirable policy – then the attack must come from the breeding direction. Yet currently there is a bias against staying sires and an almighty (albeit understandable) bias in favour of those producing good beginners – ie sprinters. No doubt that is also why the proportion of short races is steadily increasing – more evidence of a structural change in the industry.
As an ignoramus in the breeding area, I don’t want to go into any more detail on that subject, other than to say if we want more stayers then incentives, subsidies or whatever must be directed to breeding lines that can actually produce stayers. Don’t give them to ordinary dogs which are trying the staying lurk because they are not much good elsewhere.
More than that, money is also being thrown away on state-based breeding incentives generally. There is no evidence at all that these advance the cause, especially as every state has them. Far better to divert that cash as well to whatever long term breeding plans a team of experts might devise.
Finally, I can’t resist pointing out that prominent in the background of both Bell Haven and second placegetter Ebby Miss is that amazing producer, Sobbing Sal. She deserves a medal.