Distance Racing

We all love staying races – especially Gai, with her Melbourne Cup under her belt – but there is a seemingly unstoppable demise of these races Brisbane Cup, the Perth Cup and the Canberra Cup are examples of races whose distances have been reduced.

In spite of Group distance racing receiving a much bigger proportion of prizemoney than distance racing should expect, the quality of staying races has become seemingly unsatisfactory and the number of races is declining.
This situation must be maddening to the allocators of prizemoney.
The Melbourne Cup itself is evidence of this weakening in that the Cup winners and fields in general have totally dominated by imported runners.
Inglis are to be praised for trying with the recent innovation, the Blue Riband promotion at their Melbourne Sales. They chose 50 yearlings with distance-type pedigrees and promoted them as stayers of the future.
Laudable ambitions but sadly, dare I say, unlikely to be successful.
Many reasons are given but I say the reasons generally put forward are not the true driving forces against the staying races, and miss-explain the dynamics of the situation.
I believe there are two reasons for the decline, interestingly these are both unrecognized as such:
• Three-year-olds are, in effect, shut out of distance racing because of the near
abandonment of the handicapper’s most important tool – the weight-for-age  (WFA) scale for non-group races.
• The lesser factor is the pernicious bonus prizemoney system each State uses
that diverts prospective horse buyers from the “best” horses to the local product. This pollution of the free market system is, in reality, a strong bias against stayers.
The major reason:
The weight-for-age factor
In essence, there has been a large change in non-Group One handicapping regarding the use of the WFA scale in recent years.
The time-proven WFA scale has been supplanted by an inferior, dare I say, puerile scale. In simple terms, the new scale is very muted and inexplicably, ignores distance as a factor. And grossly disadvantages three year-olds.
This important change has never been ventilated or publicly debated.
To illustrate the change, under the old WFA scale a three-year-old in early
November over 3200m would receive, till about 30 years ago, about 13 kilos from a four-year-old of equal standing. Under the modern official WFA, it is now about 10 kilos. But, under the current non-Group One scale, only 1.5 kilos is allowed – a huge difference.
This shift has been allowed to occur for probably three reasons:
• First, connections complain only about too much weight at the top of the
weights – complaints are never made about runners on the limit being over weighted or too close to the top weights. Second, it is said three-year-olds are well catered for with plenty of races for their own age.
• The handicappers would also say that soon-to-be-top-class three-year-olds
would dominate. Of course, that is the problem when handicapping is done by
formula, as they are presently constrained to do, rather than to equalise runners.
• Additionally, the handicappers and form students would argue that the WFA
“only works with Group One (i.e. top class) racing”. I believe the old scale is accurate with all open class races and works, in a diluted form with restricted races (the weaker the races, the less effect) to the extent it has no relevance in maiden class.
It would also be said that many three year-olds would find themselves on the
limit but ‘out of the handicap’ (should be well less than the limit) in handicaps.
The biggest effect of this shift is that three-year-olds don’t compete in open-age distance races. Consequently, they are not bought or trained to be stayers.
Moreover, those three-year-olds who compete in three-year-old distance races are usually “second division” i.e. failed over shorter courses.
Good racing is built appropriately on the fortunes of two and three-year-old
horses. For instance, my wife, Gai, has only a handful of four-plus aged horses in her stable. Punters are mostly interested in young, exciting horses. And staying events need the young competitors to make them interesting.
If the full WFA scale allowance were given, three-year-olds would, quite rightly,
win more all-aged staying races than any other age group. Three-year-olds were the most successful Melbourne Cup group till the Second World War.
The minor (but still important) reason
The bonus systems
Protectionism has infected horse racing for a long time. The notorious Jersey Act, effectively barred US and Australian race horses from racing in the UK from about 1913 till about 1935. English racing was poorer for it. The French wouldn’t allow foreign (UK) horses to race in France for many years – they now regard that policy as a foolish mistake. The American “statebred” races are a blight. Today, it’s hard to race our horses in Japan and Hong Kong because of protectionism.
For about 20 years Australian racing has had different schemes, off and on. Today, they are VOBIS, BOBS, SABIS, QTIS, Magic Millions etc. They are, in effect, devices set up to aid the local breeding industry at the expense of yearling purchasers’ choice – a conspiracy against the laity and not in the general interest of racing.
It’s ironic that at a time when “liberals” have convinced most of the world of “free trade” advantages, racing has copied Argentina (once the richest country in the world) and gone down the seedy, protectionist path, and is a shame.
These schemes point purchasers to buy “home breds”. For example, the late trainer, Queensland trainer Bruce McLaughlin attributed his demise as a top Australian trainer to restricting himself to Queensland breds, to take advantage of the QBIS and QRIS.
However, the big loser, with no Australian-type bonus scheme to support itself,
is New Zealand. The reduction of New Zealand imports to Australia is a matter of record. The numbers have dropped more than 25 per cent and the median value is well down. This has had a big impact on “staying-bred” horses. New Zealand is our fountain-head of the staying pool.
This has been an unintended effect of the bonus scheme but a serious and pernicious one.
I have no doubt that if:
• The WFA scale was made to be used by the handicapper (as well handicapping to equalise runners’ chances) in all open class races and in a diluted way in restricted races, three-year-olds be aimed as  stayers
• The bonus schemes were abandoned the quality of distance races would respond dramatically and a great contribution would be made to Australian racing.

Gai’s Gazette 8th edition: April 2014

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