Author: Nicholas Godfrey
The championships, Sydney racing’s flagship event, takes place over the first two Saturdays in April with a plethora of lavishly endowed Group races at the city’s showpiece venue Randwick. Everything kicked off last weekend with four Group Ones headed by the time honoured Doncaster Mile and a stellar renewal of the TJ Smith Stakes, rapidly becoming established as Australia’s top sprint. Between them, they rendered the nation’s senior Classic, the Australian Derby, as almost a third level attraction. That’s how good it was. However, there is an even bigger attraction due up on Saturday when the mighty Winx has the final start of her career as she bids to complete a hat-trick with a hometown farewell in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
And guess what? Winx may not be running until this coming weekend, but she even managed to overshadow last weekend’s top class fare when she showed up at Randwick for an exhibition gallop. Hugh Bowman partnered her over 1000m (5f) for a workout described as ‘perfect’ by trainer Chris Waller, who needs just two further Group One successes to hit the century at the top level. Her final 600m were clocked at an amazing 34.67s, faster than anything on the card at Randwick. Including the sprinters! She was due to have her final piece of work on Tuesday before Saturday’s race, when Randwick, granted official dispensation to call itself Royal Randwick since the 1970s, though almost nobody does apart from marketing people, will be turned into a ‘Winxy Wonderland’ for the day.
They had Winx beer at Moonee Valley in Melbourne when she completed her Cox Plate four timer in October; they have Winx cocktails at Randwick, where a Winx ‘Welcome Wall’ will greet racegoers for bespoke photo keepsake moments. Winx T-shirts and caps are on sale for A$30 and A$15 respectively, with stubby holders (useful receptacles for holding bottles of beer) at A$5; commemorative pins go for the same price. Racegoers are also promised a ‘Winx hype reel’, whatever that might be. Perish the thought of defeat for the nation’s darling but any such unwelcome scenario looks fairly unlikely given that her Waller-trained stablemate, the star 3yo The Autumn Sun, won’t be showing up, with thoughts of Royal Ascot hopefully on the horizon.
Godolphin’s Avilius, who last weekend completed the Ranvet and Tancred Stakes double, has also been ruled out, which means opposition might be thin on the ground. The Sir Mark Todd-trained He’s Eminent, just ‘Eminent’ when trained in Britain by Martyn Meade, looks the most serious threat but frankly, Winx’s partowner Debbie Kepitis sounds as if she can’t wait for it to be over. “The Queen Elizabeth is the last race in her campaign, I try not to say the term ‘farewell race’,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “When she passes that winning post I will feel total relief. That’s what it has become lately. There’s huge tension and you get worried things won’t go the way everyone else wants them to go. “Win lose or draw, this horse has been amazing,” she went on. “The record stands on its own. We’ve had such an amazing run.”
Nobody will be complaining if the Queen Elizabeth proves little more than a lap of honour for the seemingly invincible mare, sure to start long odds on as she seeks to extend her celebrated winning streak to 33 in the A$4 million highlight, the most valuable contest across two racecards that both sit comfortably in the Top Ten of the world’s richest racedays, comfortably headed by Dubai World Cup night, of course. There is a total of A$21m up for grabs altogether as The Championships were launched in 2014 as a cash laden attempt to showcase Sydney’s racing to a wider audience. Or, more specifically, to catch up with Melbourne. Ah yes, Melbourne: if several of the caricature stereotypes about ‘Sydneysiders’ are blatantly inaccurate; they don’t all hate the English and they aren’t all boorish yahoos, then one particular cliché still rings resoundingly true.
When everything else is dead and gone, what will always remain is an intense rivalry with those snobbish, ‘toffee nosed Melburnians’. Such antipathy clearly extends to the racing world, where they can’t even bear to race in the same direction: they go anti-clockwise in Melbourne, clockwise in Sydney. Domestically speaking, Sydney used to be able to claim something approaching parity; abroad, though, it has always been a different story, with the Melbourne Cup and attendant Spring Carnival registering in Richter-scale proportions on the international scene. In contrast, Sydney’s Autumn Carnival barely rated a mention. Something, clearly, had to be done – and hey presto, Racing NSW (New South Wales) launched The Championships, backed by the full support of the state government as a significant part of its drive to rejuvenate the state’s Thoroughbred industry and attract the Aussie betting dollar.
That rivalry has continued apace. Sydney created the Everest, the world’s richest sprint, and parked it on Melbourne’s lawn during the Spring Carnival; they’ve also added hugely valuable races such as the A$7.5m (£4.2m) Golden Eagle – on Victoria Derby day, the Saturday before the Melbourne Cup. Then again, Melbourne folk haven’t exactly been sitting idly on their hands, mind you; witness the advent of the All-Star Mile last month at Flemington with a purse of A$5m (£2.7m). Significantly, this is a couple of million more than Sydney’s historic Doncaster Mile; frankly if this ain’t an Australian racing civil war, then I’d hate to see one. In international terms, The Championships still lag well behind Melbourne’s major events, to the extent that Japan’s Doncaster Mile runner Kluger and Charlie Appleby’s Sydney Cup contender Dubhe figure among the few horses trained outside Australasia scheduled to make an appearance.
Global they may not be, but otherwise The Championships have done their job admirably. “This will be the Grand Finals of racing in Sydney and the jewel in the crown of autumn racing in Australia,” claimed George Souris, NSW’s then-minister for racing, when the event was inaugurated. Five years later, it would be hard to quibble with his forecast. Just look at the equine riches – as well as the financial riches – on offer. Just last Saturday, there were no fewer than eight Group races, four of them at the top level. A notable highlight was Santa Ana Lane’s easy victory over rising sprint stars Osborne Bulls and Sunlight in the TJ Smith to put himself in line for an international campaign taking in the Chairman’s Sprint in Hong Kong en route to England, where Royal Ascot’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes and the July Cup are on the agenda.
By the way, four-time Group One victor Trapeze Artist was retired after sustaining a shoulder injury in the race. Godolphin’s Australian arm under the tutelage of Bart Cummings’ grandson James may have had to settle for the runner-up spot with Osborne Bulls but they struck with the 2yo Microphone – ridden by Winx’s rider Hugh Bowman – in the Inglis Sires’ Produce Stakes, the second leg in the Sydney juvenile Triple Crown. Veteran pilot Glen Boss, known as ‘Group One Glen’ owing to his fondness for winning at the top level, landed his seventh Doncaster Mile on Brutal. Boss, 49, is now based in Singapore. Angel Of Truth led throughout to repel a potent New Zealand challenge in the Australian Derby – formerly better known as the AJC Derby – for Kembla Grange trainer Gwenda Markwell, who was landing her first Group One victory in the nation’s senior Classic. It was a special day’s racing but nothing compared to what’s coming up. Sure, they had soft ground and the weather might not play ball, and what about the lack of overseas runners? No worries, mate. We’ve got Winx. Fingers, and everything else, are firmly crossed.