If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times: “60 years ago when I started out, you could count on one hand how many 5 furlong races were run on the Eastern Seaboard.” That provocative statement comes straight from my Grandfather JB Cummings, who suggested I help him in one of his last efforts to instigate change in our local industry.
After finishing our satisfying purchases of 8 unbeaten yearlings from New Zealand Bloodstock’s 2014 Karaka sales, I agree that it is time the quality controllers of Australian horse racing take a more active role in developing, promoting and nurturing staying potential amongst our most valuable industry assets: the horses themselves.
Trainers in New South Wales would agree that there is no better place to develop and educate precocious and fast young horses than Sydney. Our training tracks, and, more importantly, our barrier trial systems are second to none in the world. Every fortnight at all the major tracks our young 2 and 3 year olds trial, under strict raceday conditions, over distances ranging from 740m through to, occasionally, 1200m. Our un-raced horses are getting smarter every year as trainers have identified the value of this system, and, from a personal viewpoint, horses like Eurozone and Shamalia are beginning to dispel the myth that ‘raced’ horses have such a quantum advantage in maidens against their ‘debutant’ opposition. Indeed, the best trainers Sydney has been blessed with over the past decade have been significant exponents of frequently trialling their horses a number of times: Size, Waterhouse, Hawkes, Snowden and Waller.
However, concerning the particular thoroughbreds in question, there is a distinct lack of equal service. Young, developing staying horses should get the opportunity to barrier trial over at least 1600m.The average sprinter can win or place in a barrier trial and provide hope to the horse’s owner, or even advertise himself to a potential new buyer. Conversely, the average stayer, which Bart and I know through 10 years of experience with these trials, cannot get within 10 lengths of the field.
The fall-out here is 3-fold:
1) Your owner becomes disparaged. Trials are a great social experience, measuring the potential of your horse against your friends and competitors. Such a beaten margin is impossible to deny through bad luck. It embarrasses the owner to the point where, at the next sale, he either refrains from buying another staying-bred horse, or he refuses to buy altogether. Consequently, the sale price of such horses continue to diminish or, at least, remain capped at the low end.
2) The trainer is under pressure to assure that such a horse can still make an impression on the highly competitive Sydney racing scene. He must argue the trial is inconclusive. Friends and family of the owner will question the trainer’s incentives, and a relationship strain as a result is not uncommon from our observations.
3) In many stables, the horse then drops into the ‘bin’ in the eyes of a fraction of the staff and in the eyes of some trainers. Our stable promotes excellence for every horse, but you cannot deny the psychological relevance of brushing Grand Prince instead of Faint Perfume. Unfairly, those horses are thought, for the period in their lives involving rapid development, that they are ‘inferior’ to their peers, despite the fact that they have not been measure against their ‘true opposition’ (ie. Other staying horses). Furthermore, I interact with form experts and punters who advise me my horse is ‘no good’. My response is ‘wait and see’, but they dismiss it and refuse to admit they would ever put any money on such a slow animal.
Now race clubs have argued with us that “when 1200m trials are put on, we cannot fill them so we stopped doing it all the time”. This is true. But sprinters still trial over such distances, which undermines the relevance of the competition. Trainers will not put sprinters in mile trials, as it would be counter-intuitive to their horse’s ‘freshness’ and ‘natural speed’ before a first-up run. Consequently, those trials are filled with Group horses which great trainers such as Waterhouse and Waller fill with accomplished horses like Sookie and Red Tracer. Why would I butcher my young stayer against such class?
It pains us sometimes to risk buying an immature yearling by High Chaparral, Montjeu or Zabeel. We know that the ‘average’ one is going to take a long time before it begins to make an impression, and it will be in the ‘bin’ for its formative years in the minds of the people asscociated with it. My horse, Diamond Hunter, had to get well beaten in two 1050m trials before it produced a free-flowing 3rd 1st up at the provincials for my Apprentice Hannah Martin on Saturday at Newcastle. The horse’s SP was $20. That is not conducive to higher wagering turnover, which we know is vital to the economic health of our clubs and our whole administration. Had he won a 1600m barrier trial whilst under the tutelage of Bart Cummings, could anyone argue that he would not have promoted more interest in himself as a betting proposition, regardless of the result?
This concept may not be readily or immediately adopted by most trainers. But certainly, medium-range staying races in New South Wales could not be in a more unhealthy state right now. Perhaps it is time to refrain from lamenting that we cannot produce stayers, and act positively and authoritatively in order to develop and nurture these horses. Bart’s concept is only an idea for a new way of doing things. The philosophy, however, revolves around ensuring stayers born and bred in Australasia are saved from becoming irrelevant and ultimately obsolete. Hopefully you all believe it is a philosophy worth following.
By James A Cummings