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The constant theme of record rains and wet tracks has continued from the autumn to the spring for Sydney, dampening the blue sky attitude that has defined the past decade of Australian racing.
For much of the past decade, investment in Australian racing, whether it be through wagering, bloodstock, breeding or other areas, has skyrocketed off the back of the unfailing confidence in the racing product.
But the confidence of those investors has taken a hit in 2022, largely due to circumstances beyond the racing industry’s control, the weather. While late last decade it was a drought at the centre of concerns, it is the persistent re-appearance of La Nina, and the flooding rains that accompany her, which is the source of bother.
Sydney has already broken the annual record for rainfall in 2022. Some 2300 millimetres of rain has fallen and the broader thoroughbred heartland, particularly the Hawkesbury Valley, has been on near constant alert for emergency flooding.
But, for racing, it is the impact on the major tracks in Sydney which is causing the most headaches. Ten of the 12 Group 1 race meetings in New South Wales so far in 2022 have been held on heavy tracks. Last Saturday, the feature Silver Eagle meeting at Randwick was abandoned with four races left to run, leaving owners and trainers seething that feature races were not prioritised ahead of inferior races earlier on the card.
Certainly, Racing New South Wales’ determination to run 10-race meetings every Saturday has come under the spotlight, but while the best use of the premier racing surfaces is something that is rightly up for discussion, it is hard to apportion any blame to racing authorities for what the weather has done to Sydney racing this year.
As the most outdoor of sports, racing is always subject to the weather, and no premier turf track could cope with what Randwick and Rosehill have been asked to withstand.
Victorian track managers have been praised for their management of Flemington, Caulfield, Sandown and Moonee Valley, but the reality is that Melbourne has received 477 mm this year, just over a fifth of what Sydney has copped in the same timeframe.
What that has meant is that while 58 per cent of Sydney’s Saturday meetings in 2022 have been held on heavy tracks, in Victoria that figure stands at just 7.3 per cent. Track management is part of the solution, but the two cities operate in very different climates.
While it is difficult to provide direct wagering comparisons between the two jurisdictions – New South Wales does not provide regular data on this – it is accepted wisdom that punters bet with more confidence on drier tracks. Certainly, losing the final four races on a major spring Saturday will not help the coffers of Racing NSW.
That argument can also be extended to the value of bloodstock, and the constant Sydney rain has certainly dented the confidence of those looking to invest further in this space on a number of levels.
Let’s look at the current crop of three-year-olds. The feature Sydney two-year-old races in the autumn were blighted by wet tracks, meaning a race like the Golden Slipper, one of the most important in terms of identifying future stallion prospects, became a stage for a filly who was simply superior on the heavy ground.
Fireburn backed that up by winning the Sires’ Produce on a heavy track two weeks later, while She’s Extreme completed a clean sweep for the fillies in the Champagne Stakes. Was it a particularly poor vintage of colts? Perhaps, but it could have been that they were simply undone by the wet tracks.
The skewing of results also impacts sire values. Fireburn’s sire Rebel Dane sprung to prominence almost solely off her heroics, which catapulted him from a backwater Victorian stud, where he stood at $8,800, to a prime position on Widden’s roster at a fee of $27,500. Would that have been the case had Sydney had a dry autumn?
Meanwhile a sire such as So You Think, whose progeny are noted mud lovers, put himself right in the mix to be crowned Australian Champion Sire, propelled along by a string of good results in big races on heavy tracks, including a Group 1 treble during The Championships.
There is also the impact on the residual commercial value of those horses that do perform well on wet tracks.
Buyers and bloodstock agents, like punters, trust dry track form much more when it comes to assessing the value of race track performances. Those looking for broodmares in the future are likely to be more cautious when assessing the relative value of black type in Sydney racing in 2022. Are they buying a superior performer, or a horse that was just better suited to the extreme conditions?
This extends to the tried horse/private market in Australia, especially when it comes to buyers from places like Hong Kong. Wet tracks are a rarity in Hong Kong, so how can a buyer assess a potential PP if their only guide are race performances on heavy surfaces? It’s a similar dilemma when buying horses out of trials. How can a buyer make a proper assessment of the value of a purchase if the only pointer is a hit-out on a bottomless track?
Such deals are a crucial part of the business model of many Australian trainers and owners and if, as has been suggested, Hong Kong buyers are dodging Sydney horses because they can’t trust the form, then there will be knock-on effects.
All of this, beyond putting a giant dome over Randwick and Rosehill, is of course beyond Racing New South Wales’ control. Peter V’landys may be powerful, but he can’t change the weather!
However, it does put a spotlight on the timing of Sydney’s prime racing. Three of the four wettest months in Sydney in 2022 have been March, April and October, the precise times when New South Wales has put its best equine athletes on show.
The climate may be more unpredictable than ever and it may be a year like no other when it comes to Sydney rain, but perhaps it’s time to assess the schedule and try to find a way to dodge the umbrellas and heavy tracks.
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