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Japan’s Group 2 races fulfil their purpose confidently while Australia, Britain and Hong Kong struggle to see past the Group 1 fixation.
Japan’s summer lull will begin the quickening lift towards an autumn peak when Sodashi takes her superstar allure to Sapporo on Sunday for the Sapporo Kinen, a contest that fits beautifully the measure of its being.
The 2000-metre contest attracted five Group 1 winners at the nominations stage, which is not at all out of the ordinary: Sodashi herself won the race last year and 11 other winners this century have also triumphed at Group 1 level including Normcore, Blast Onepiece, Neorealism, Harp Star and Admire Moon.
The importance of the race as a step-up to the autumn features becomes even clearer when you begin to catalogue the defeated: the mighty Maurice as a short-odds favourite in 2016 and last year Loves Only You en route to her heroics at Del Mar and Sha Tin.
Such a roll call might prompt elevation to Group 1 level on other shores but the Sapporo Kinen as it stands is a Group 2 race without need of pretension; it achieves exactly what the Pattern requires of it and the product each year is an enthralling race of genuine quality.
In contrast, on Saturday the Winx Stakes will take centre stage at Randwick in Sydney. That contest was a Group 2 until 2018 when the great mare Winx was successful for a third time in as many years.
That upgrade was perhaps justified if using only the narrow parameter of the race achieving the required average rating over a stipulated time span – thanks to the highly-rated eponymous heroine – but there is no good sense in a step-out contest for horses emerging from their winter spell, staged on just the second weekend of the new season, being lifted to Group 1 status. Like the Sapporo Kinen, it should be Group 2, a timely lead-up for quality horses into their main targets.
Such upgrades have been the subject of debate for years, notably in Australia and Europe. There has been talk in Britain all century about upgrading a 1400-metre race to Group 1, with the Lennox Stakes, Park Stakes and Challenge Stakes discussed at times: nowadays the Group 2 City Of York Stakes at this week’s Ebor Festival, a Listed race as recently as 2015, seems to be making a push. But instances such as the Winx Stakes highlight that the purity of the Pattern at its founding – in Europe back in 1971 – has been forgotten or fudged.
Group 2 context
The IFHA (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) website documents the European Pattern’s statement that Group 1 races are ‘Classic and other races of championship standard having major international importance,’ while Group 2 races are ‘the category of races immediately below championship standard, and also significant in an international context’. At its inception, the Pattern described Group 2 races as ‘domestic’ championship standard.
In that context, it makes sense why the Queen Anne Stakes and the King’s Stand were Group 2 contests for so long. But, while on the one hand evolution is necessary to the sport’s internationalisation, on the other, we seem to be in an age when hype and hubris are the go-to tools of the sport’s marketing teams: major meetings demand major draws, whether genuine or contrived.
Ten British races this century have been upgraded to or created as Group 1: Royal Ascot had only three elite level races at the turn-of-the-century yet now has eight; elsewhere in Britain the Nassau Stakes, Falmouth and Sun Chariot have been upgraded to bolster the distaff programme, and back at Ascot in the autumn, the Champions Sprint and Champion Filly and Mare Stakes have been added as Group 1s.
The Australian Pattern usually attracts the pot shots, though. The Winx Stakes is one example of a series of upgrades that seem frivolous, along with Melbourne’s 1400-metre Memsie Stakes – upgraded in 2013 – at Caulfield a week later.
Some of that singling out of Australia is misplaced, though. While Australia as a whole has 74 Group 1 races – six more than in 2011/12 – to Japan’s 25 and Britain’s 36, it staged 18,940 races in 2021, with 178,612 runners from a racing population of 34,365 horses.
Britain staged 6,531 races with 53,686 starters from a population of 10,167 and in Japan the JRA and NAR – combined here to give a truer comparison – had 16,221 races with 177,837 starters.
As a percentage of races, Japan’s Group 1s account for 0.15 percent of its total, Australia’s Group 1s are 0.39 per cent of its whole and Britain’s Group 1s make up 0.55 percent of its races.
Yet, in fairness, Australia cannot be taken as a single entity. It is clearly seven jurisdictions, with New South Wales and Victoria being the biggest players. NSW staged 29 Group 1s in 2021, equating to 0.28 per cent of its total 10,238 races, and Victoria’s 30 Group 1 races accounted for 0.34 percent of its 8,698 races.
In that light, British racing, whose administrators and horsemen were the main framers of the Pattern at inception, has expanded – or watered down – its elite tier more even than the main Australian jurisdictions.
Hong Kong’s line-up
But that is nothing compared to Hong Kong. Granted, the two-track – soon to be three – jurisdiction is an outlier, in that it has no breeding industry and attempts to import quality stock to fill the higher tiers, but 12 of its 836 races in 2021-22 were Group 1, accounting for a significant 1.4 percent of its races.
In contrast to this, the 2021 World’s Best Racehorse Rankings had only 13 of Hong Kong’s approximately 1,300 horses rated above the benchmark figure of 115, used as an average rating to determine a race’s suitability as an open weight-for-age Group 1.
There is no doubt, given the international participation, particularly of the Japanese contenders, that the four Hong Kong International Races and three Champions Day Group 1s warrant their top status.
However, as with the Winx Stakes, it is difficult to argue for the ‘major international importance’ of the Centenary Sprint Cup, Stewards’ Cup, Hong Kong Gold Cup, Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup and Champions & Chater Cup given the rarity of international raiders and the status quo of the same Hong Kong horses clashing over again: forget ratings, logically, they come under the Group 2 categorisation of ‘immediately below championship standard, and also significant in an international context.’
And there is no shame in that. When Hong Kong made the necessary changes and was deservedly accepted into the ‘Blue Book’ the aforementioned Group 1 races would have been better placed shifting from the ‘Hong Kong Group 1’ designation to Group 2.
Keeping up appearances should never be underestimated, though. The Europeans and the Australians have blurred the Pattern’s lines, so why not Hong Kong? And as that plays out, the Pattern is further threatened by lucrative races outside of its reach, like The Everest and Golden Eagle.
Japan, for now, seems to be upholding the Pattern’s values and the Sapporo Kinen, like the equally high-class Nakayama Kinen at a similar juncture heading into the Japanese spring, is a fine example of what a Group 2 race was framed to be: a cracking good contest, significant in its own right and vital to the sport’s balance.
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