We learned a lot from last week’s Sandown Cup.
First, it was good to see a big crowd turn up to farewell a worthy champion in Miata. Her record is unequalled in recent times and she must go down as the equal of Brett Lee in modern racing terms. Her impact on the public was worth its weight in gold.
On the other side of the coin, while the bitch was apparently healthy, she was obviously not match-fit so it was a pity connections could not have organised things better than that. Still, they did take home $25k for their trouble.
The race itself was both exciting and disappointing. In a blanket finish, Irma Bale won in what you would have to call just solid time – 42.10. That’s better than average but a long way short of great. Miata’s track record is a good 13 lengths quicker.
No surprise there as Irma Bale is not a genuine stayer but a brilliant middle distance racer with early speed and enough tenacity to plug along over the last 100m. In fact, only a couple of starts previously she was run down over 600m at Albion Park (due to Queensland’s winter heat, connections have claimed?).
Her win in last year’s Cup was pretty much the same as the back markers bunched on the home turn and let her get away again. Still, that’s the luck of racing and demonstrates the huge advantage that accrues to leaders, no matter what the distance. Proven Impala races the same way but this time began a little slower than usual, which put paid to her chances (and made life easier for Irma Bale).
The rest of the field contained just two good stayers – Bell Haven which has run some terrific races, particularly at Wentworth Park, but can get cluttered up in a field, and Destini Fireball, one of only two males in the race, but which is a fraction short of top class. At this high standard, the other runners were just making up the numbers.
Betting on the Victorian tote was not quite up to the amazing figures of 2012 but very healthy with $70,680 in the Win pool and a First Four take of $30,706 - more than in the Trifecta. The NSW Win pool of $26,883 was useful but not spectacular. NSW punters seem to have a set against Sandown as, aside from the Cup, Albion Park again out rated Sandown all night (and this week their times did not clash). Four of Sandown’s First Fours exceeded $1,800, which is normal for this awkward track.
Some additional perspective on the Cup is available in several ways.
First, there was another 715m race on the card, involving mixed grades of racers. That was won by an honest and versatile performer in Bagget Bale in 42.07. Had he been in the Cup field he would have beaten Irma Bale by half a length. A nice double for the Wheelers.
Second, it’s worth looking at the sixteen parents of the Cup runners. Two of them have international origins, Larking About (Steve Allen) from Ireland and Greys Destiny (Destini Fireball) from USA are said to be strong but without experience at distance racing. However, 600m in the USA is often classified as “distance” racing. Of the other fourteen, all but one were pure sprinters. For example, Miata’s sire, Bombastic Shiraz, never saw any 600m boxes in its life, let alone those for 700m. The exception is Oh Behave (Maddison Dee) which had some sparkling performances over 600m and pretty fair form over the longer trips as well.
Third, Irma Bale’s racing pattern is not new to distance racing. We can go back to racers like Flashing Floods and Bentley Bale over the last decade to see that. They were terrific competitors but not genuine stayers. It has become common to see dogs spear out, set up a lead, and just hang on for a win over the long distance. They rarely run great times but take advantage of scrimmages behind them and, presumably, the lack of top class staying types.
But where are those top staying types?
Over the last decade or so Boomeroo, Arvo’s Junior and Mantra Lad have attractions but my personal selection would be Chinatown Lad, which ran fast, won big and won often. Too often, probably, as its final few months of racing were dogged by injury or illness, too many frequent flyer points and far too frequent seven-day backups.
However, there are not nearly enough of these good types to keep the distance flag flying. The lower ranks in particular are erratic, to say the least. So where do we go from here? How do we produce more good stayers? These days, with the passing of Token Prince, the main method is by accident – as with Miata.
Current distance racing is clouded by two issues: money is being thrown away in every state in subsidies for ordinary to bad dogs, particularly at provincial tracks, and breeders are massively favouring sprint sires, no doubt using the logic that much more prize money is available for those races than for long trips. Neither is of any help in improving the breed’s stamina, if that is a desirable aim.
Indeed, it completely illogical to see extra support for crook distance races at a time when the industry is pushing more and more 300m-350m squibs’ races into the program. Neither serves any real purpose and customers often are frustrated that they don’t get much of a run for their money over the shorts. (Many of today’s gamblers have not the faintest idea of the distance of their upcoming race).
The industry must surely address these challenges from policy, investment and genetic viewpoints. If we want more stayers then things have to change. How do we want to see racing profiles in 10 years time? What are the public’s preferences – 300m or 700m? Do we want more robust dogs, as used to be the case decades ago? If not, why not forget the 700s and concentrate on the 600m category, which is always popular anyway, despite many disruptive starting positions?
Today, our policies are neither Arthur nor Martha. And it is little consolation that the thoroughbreds are in the same boat where two- and three-year olds are all the go, traditional Group 1 races are being shortened and the Melbourne Cup is won by imports. They never planned that either – it just happened.
An obvious starting point for both horses and dogs is the sire. But let’s hear views from breeding experts, please.