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For the first time in the century-old history of the Cox Plate there will be no fillies, mares, or three-year-olds in the famous weight-for-age race. It is just a fluke occurrence, or does it point to a worrying trend in Australian racing?
Winx’s unprecedented four-year domination of the Cox Plate from 2015 to 2018 proved that when it came to the battle of the sexes in elite Australian horse racing, the best fillies and mares were more than a match for the best colts, geldings and entires in the land.
But fast forward to the 2022 edition of the race historically regarded as Australia’s weight-for-age championship and we see that for the first time in nine years, there are no fillies and mares engaged.
Australia’s three greatest horses of the 21st century, Makybe Diva, Winx and Black Caviar, may have all been mares, but as things has evolved this spring, with Verry Elleegant off on a French adventure and Duais aimed instead at a Cups campaign, there has been no filly or mare aimed at one of the country’s great races.
Compounding that is a lack of a three-year-old contender for the race for the first time in four years and just the sixth time since 1990.
So You Think wins the 2009 Cox Plate as a three-year-old. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
The confluence of those two factors means that for the first time in history, the Cox Plate field is made up exclusively of geldings or entires aged four years or older. It may be the race ‘where legends are made’, but for this year, those legends will be ‘males of a certain age’.
While Moonee Valley Racing Club wants the Cox Plate to be a cosmopolitan race, it is instead looking like an equine version of a corporate bookmaker ad.
This year’s edition could prove to be from the top shelf, but it won’t feature the diversity of contenders that has made the race one of Australia’s best.
The lack of locally bred three-year-olds continues a recent trend which has seen just six horses of that age contest the Cox Plate in the past seven years. In the previous seven years that number was 12, while in the 1990s, there were 25 in 10 editions, or an average of 2.5 per year.
That statistic is surprising when you look at how successful three-year-olds have been in the race since 1990, with four winners, four seconds and six thirds from 51 runners.
There are a couple of factors at play here. The most significant driver is the Australian focus on breeding sprinters, which means many of the best-bred young horses do not have the stamina to contest a Cox Plate.
The second is that trainers have far more options and prize money to chase with an emerging three-year-old. The ones that show stamina aren’t rushed and those with sprint qualities have better options to chase.
While three-year-old sprinters such as Redoute’s Choice, Testa Rossa, Canny Lad, Show A Heart and Bel Esprit all contested Cox Plates in the 1990s and 2000s, the evolution of the Australian race pattern has made pursuing that option look like bad management and bad business.
The lack of mares in the Cox Plate is even more concerning. In the past decade the Cox Plate has averaged two mares/fillies per edition, while the 10 years before that, that number was 2.7.
Champion mare Winx won four consecutive Cox Plates. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Again, Australian breeding and its need for speed has something to do with that trend. With the best broodmares being sent to elite stallions with a focus of precocity and speed, there is a disconcerting lack of depth in Australia’s middle-distance ranks.
When it comes to the geldings and entires, this is masked by the proliferation of imports. Those imports, be they short-term or long-term arrivals, are almost always exclusively male, with the likes of Japanese mare Lys Gracieux very much the exception to the rule.
Those Australian owners shopping overseas for Cox Plate or Cup contenders are, as a rule, targeting either stallion prospects or geldings. The robust stallion market in Australia means the gamble adds up to those who are willing to pay the often seven-figure sums for an elite male prospect, while imported geldings like Zaaki, who were second-rate second-tier in Europe, can measure up at Group 1 level in Australia.
The vast majority of tried horses coming into Australia are geldings, targetted at the relatively rich prize money and masking the lack of quality local product when it comes to the boys.
Cox Plate contender Zaaki at Breakfast With The Best. (Photo by Pat Scala/Getty Images)
The mares have no such place to hide. Their ongoing residual value and the nature of the market means very few elite race mares are imported from the Northern Hemisphere into Australia, let alone compete in the best races. The heat of the Australian broodmare market is also an influence, with a strong inducement for owners to sell their best fillies and mares earlier.
When you break down that earlier figure of 20 mares/fillies having contested the Cox Plate in the past decade you see how dire the problem is. There haven’t even been 20 individual mares/fillies in that time, just 15; Winx (4), Verry Elleegant (2) and Probabeel (2) having competed in multiple editions.
Just seven of those 15 are Australian-bred mares/fillies; Southern Speed, Winx, Mystic Journey, Yankee Rose, Arcadia Queen, Nettoyer and Royal Descent.
The mare drought in the Melbourne Cup is even worse. Just 21 of the 234 starters in the Cup in the past 10 years – less than nine per cent – have been mares.
James McDonald celebrates winning the Melbourne Cup on Verry Elleegant. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
That the 2022 Cox Plate features no fillies or mares should therefore be no surprise and given the appeal of the Golden Eagle, worth twice as much, the situation is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon.
Group 1-winning three-year-old fillies of last season Hinged, Fangirl, Startantes and Gypsy Goddess are all being set for the Golden Eagle in preference to a race like the Cox Plate and you can’t blame their connections when $10 million is on offer.
Times are changing and in such a dynamic environment, one of Australia’s greatest races, for this year at least, is left looking somewhat male, pale and stale.
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