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COMMENT | Target 50: What an Australian racing calendar looks like with 24 fewer Group 1s

Ahead of the first of 74 Group 1s this season, it is clear that there are too many Australian races run at the elite level. So what does the Group 1 calendar look like cut back to 50?

The Australian calendar is overgrown with supposedly elite races, so let’s get the slasher out and cut back the weeds to promote the premium crop. What does an Australian racing calendar look like with 50 Group 1 races instead of 74?

The initial establishment of the international pattern in the 1970s described Group 1 races as ‘Classic and other races of championship standard having major international importance.’

Therefore the criteria that is most important when wielding a scythe through the Australian Group 1 calendar is that they must be ‘championship races’. That is, they must be the best race for their category (age, sex, conditions) in that distance range at that time of year.

We have gone through each category/distance range of races and come up with the races we think should stay and the ones that should be demoted in this 50-race scenario.

Two-Year-Old Races

There are five two-year old Group 1 races in Australia, spread across the autumn/winter. Four of the five fit the category of ‘championship races’ in that their geography and timing help determine the best two-year-olds in Australia. The question is whether there is enough of a differentiation between the Sires and the Champagne in Sydney.

The Champagne Stakes misses the cut as there is a question if it is a genuine championship race in its own right at that time of year. Because of its timing and geography, the 1600-metre JJ Atkins Stakes in Brisbane deserves to stand alone as the mile two-year-old championship.

Demote: Champagne Stakes
Net: Minus one

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Hugh Bowman, riding Samantha Miss, gets the better of Blake Shinn, riding Sebring, in the 2008 Champagne Stakes. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Three-Year-Old Races    

There are 19 currently Group 1 races for three-year-olds. Given Australia’s disposition for speed, it is surprising that there are just three Group 1 three-year-old races below 1600 metres, all three of which have been upgraded in the past 17 years. Two of those races, the Coolmore Stud Stakes and the Golden Rose, have become the dominant breed-shaping races in the country.

The third is the Surround Stakes for the fillies. Its position at the start of the Sydney autumn makes it a pathway race, not a championship race, making it a natural to cut. In this case, the option the ATC could consider is moving the Flight Stakes – held very close to the Thousand Guineas, a race of the exact same Group One format (1600m for fillies) –  to the autumn, giving a fillies championship race at each time of the year.

The other ridiculous clash between Sydney and Melbourne in the three-year-old ranks is the Australian and Randwick Guineas. One of the two has to go.

Then we get to the Derbies and Oaks, which are an historical anachronism whose importance has been undermined further by the ‘internationalisation’ of Australia’s great staying handicaps. Winners of Derbies and Oaks would once become Cup contenders, now most become spring feature seat-fillers as the Cup’s red carpet is rolled out to overseas visitors.

The Derbies and Oaks in Melbourne and Sydney remain, although the ‘championship’ aspect of the Victoria Derby and Oaks would certainly be enhanced by reducing them back to 2000 metres.

Only two of the South Australian and Queensland classics can make the cut. Perhaps the option for those states is to stage one Group 1 staying race for three-year-olds each, making a feature 3YO Classic championship encompassing both sexes.

Demote: Surround Stakes or Flight Stakes, Randwick or Australian Guineas, Australasian Oaks or South Australian Derby, Queensland Oaks or Queensland Derby

Net: Minus four

Filles and Mares Races

There are five Group 1 races specifically for fillies and mares in Australia. To reduce numbers, you would demote the Robert Sangster, which has been a Group 1 race since 2005, but it has been historically the weaker of the two end-of-season Group 1 mares races, the other being the Tatts Tiara. In a reduced Group 1 calendar with fewer elite races, one of the two would have to be sacrificed.

The Sydney autumn hosts two Group 1 races for fillies and mares over similar distances and that means one or the other doesn’t fit into the ‘championship’ criteria befitting a Group 1 race. The Coolmore Classic or the Queen Of The Turf may have been useful for stuffing pedigree pages over the years, but they lack a clear distinction and one needs to go:

Demote: Robert Sangster Stakes and the Coolmore Classic or the Queen Of The Turf

Net: Minus two

Open Age Sprint Races 

There are 14 Group 1 races contested in open company between 1000 metres and 1300 metres in Australia each year. While Australian sprint racing is the envy of the world, that is far too many to retain the elite nature intended for the status.

First of all, we’d have to upgrade The Everest. Then there are three other sprints which clearly fit the Championship criteria, the VRC Sprint Classic (now the Champions Sprint), the Newmarket Hcp and the TJ Smith.

Of the rest, in order to clear out the calendar, five would need to make way. The first to go would be the Moir Stakes at Moonee Valley. It is a lead-in race for the Manikato. The Canterbury Stakes, over 1300 metres early in the Sydney autumn is another one which doesn’t fit that criteria and it was only upgraded in 2013.

The William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley is an afterthought to the triple crown of Melbourne Group 1 sprints while the Kingsford-Smith Cup in Brisbane is the third best sprint race in the state, well short of ‘Championship’ status.

This is where the cut gets harder. You either have to demote the Doomben 10,000 or The Goodwood, both historically important sprints. It’s a close call, but the Doomben 10,000 would be most in danger as Queensland already has a feature winter sprint, the Stradbroke (although it is over 1400 metres).

Demote: Moir Stakes, the Canterbury Stakes, the William Reid Stakes, the Kingsford Smith-Cup, one of the Doomben 10,000 or The Goodwood

Promote: The Everest

Net: Minus four

James McDonald and Nature Strip win The Everest in 2021. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Open Age 1400m-1600m Races

There is a glut of these races in the distance range on the calendar which have benefited from needless upgrades in the past 20 years. Overall there are 15 Group 1 races staged for open aged horses in this distance range at either handicap or weight-for-age conditions.

You’d first put a quick pen through any race which is a kick-off for a campaign. That rules out the Winx Stakes and the Orr Stakes, while one of the Memsie or the Sir Rupert Clarke should be demoted under this criteria. You could shift the Memsie to an end of spring weight-for-age championship Group 1 over 1400 metres.

Early-campaign 1600-metre Group 1 races such as the Makybe Diva and Chipping Norton also fall short of the mark as does the G1 Futurity, which lacks relevance.

Cutting deeper and the George Main and the George Ryder are both historically wonderful races, but one of them needs to make way. The George Ryder being staged in the Sydney autumn probably gives its clearer air, especially with the Chipping Norton gone.

The Melbourne spring handicap the Toorak is another which doesn’t fit the elite category, while the Cantala/Championship Mile has struggled for identity in recent years.

The one addition would be the elevation of the All-Star Mile as Victoria’s premier autumn mile race.

Demote: Winx Stakes, Orr Stakes, Memsie or Rupert Clarke Stakes, the Futurity, Makybe Diva Stakes, Chipping Norton Stakes, George Main or George Ryder, Toorak Handicap, Cantala/Champions Mile

Promote: All-Star Mile

Net: Minus eight

Open Age 1800m-2040m Races

There are 10 Group 1 races staged for open-age horses in Australia over this distance and four of them would need to make way to make the necessary room.

The Kingston Town Classic in Perth, run over 1800 metres at weight-for-age, has historically been won by some important horses, but has dropped in quality and given it is staged two weeks after the Railway Stakes, a handicap over 1600 metres, it can’t be genuinely considered a championship.

Melbourne has several Group 1 races in this spot in the spring and the Underwood Stakes would have to be demoted. It is a pathway, not a lead-in, as is the Ranvet in Sydney, which too would need to make way.

The Doomben Cup may be the best weight-for-age 2000-metre race in Queensland, but it doesn’t stand up as a championship quality race in a reduced calendar.

Demote: Kingston Town/Northerly Classic, Underwood Stakes, Ranvet Stakes, Doomben Cup

Net: Minus four

Open Age 2400m-3200m Races

There are five Group 1 races staged in the staying range in Australia, and this is the area where the depth of local horses is the weakest.

The Melbourne Cup and Sydney Cups are staying championships in their respective times of year and the Caulfield Cup is a historically great race, and the best 2400-metre race in Australia.

That leaves us with two others under question. The Metropolitan Hcp can not retain its status under the stricter criteria, while the Tancred Stakes stays in, just, although there is an argument that the Queen Elizabeth Stakes has become the championship weight for age race of the Sydney spring.

Demote: Metropolitan Handicap

Net: Minus one

 

Total Races: 50

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