Beware the skull and crossbones flag when Gai Waterhouse goes into attack mode

Alert neighbours of Gai’s stables, in Sydney and Melbourne, would notice a pattern – on the Friday before a group 1 race, if Gai hoists the “skull and crossbones” flag outside her Randwick and Flemington yards, she is definitely going to win.

I don’t think she has failed yet. Of course, the pirate flag flew proudly last Friday. The use of the ‘Jolly Roger’ goes back to a navy tradition, when the “Senior Service” were actually buccaneers (a kind word for pirates). It was raised, often unofficially, when the navy went into attack mode. It was flown when the HMAS Sydney sunk the SMS Emden, and when Conqueror dispatched the Belgrano. For Gai, it means she intends to take no prisoners! I’ll have to watch for it myself in future! On Sunday, having done the job with the quinella in the Slipper and the win in the Galaxy, Gai quietly replaced the attack flag with the colours of Vancouver and Sweet Idea.

Time out
The talk in the Rosehill betting ring before Saturday’s Slipper was the egregious error of the official time in the Skyline. Exosphere had run actually half-a-second (i.e. three lengths) faster than the official time. The punters are quite right in declaring such mistakes unacceptable. Time guru, Vince Accardi (of the said: “That official time is too slow because of a technical fault. It happens in Sydney quite a bit.” Accardi is the official time verifier for both Racing Victoria and Racing Queensland. Two years ago, Accardi made a submission offering these services to Racing NSW, asking a nominal fee of $10 a meeting. I guess the powers that be are still considering it.

Japanese input
apanese racing is a bit of an unknown to us in Australia. It has largely curtained itself off from the rest of the world. I fear we underestimate Japan’s racing importance. I foolishly thought impressive Ryder winner, Real Impact, to be the weakest of the three Japanese imports and paid the penalty.

Good sort
Gai normally likes her horses to lead. The tactics are very successful, although unpopular with some owners. But Gai, mindful that Sweet Idea was “new”, looking for further distance and that the Galaxy is a high-pressure sprint, knew different tactics were required. The lady trainer regaled us, at our quiet local dinner on Saturday night, how she spoke softly to “earnest” Blake Shinn in the enclosure: “I want you to pretend you are quietly cuddling a really good sort and you don’t want to let her go – just keep cuddling ’till you are well into the straight!” Gai reports that Blake looked a little stunned but he obviously listened.

Lobster plate

Randwick newcomer trainer, Peter Snowden, has proposed that the Warwick Farm custom of a group 1-winning trainer “shouting” a platter of lobsters on the following Monday, be adopted at Randwick. Gai won the group 1 Canterbury Stakes and the Australian Guineas two weeks ago but went to Flemington trackwork on the Monday, perhaps inadvertently dodging the new requirement. We are all waiting to hear if Gai paid her “membership dues” this morning.

Weighty issue

Racing NSW has floated the idea that certain restricted races have a standard topweight of 63kg. A great move. Predictably, some trainers have railed against it. Leading trainer Chris Waller speaks for quite a few when he says: “Crazy in my opinion. All it will mean is more beaten favourites and more horses struggling to get through their runs. How the hell do you expect some of the smaller horses in our stables to carry 63kg? Or if you run a BM 82 horse in a BM 80 race it will carry 64.” It is true it will be marginally against leading trainers like Chris and Gai. But it is further true that currently the best horses have an unfair advantage. It is important to remember that these are handicaps where it is the handicapper’s job is to mark all horses so as to equalise them. The stats (thanks to keen punter Len Loveday) tell the story: in the metropolitan area over the last 10 years, horses on 54kg or less have only won about 5 per cent of races. However horses with more than 58kg (over the last 20 years) have won 15 per cent.

The problem is that, as jockeys have tended to be fatter and older, the normal “limit” (bottom) weight has drifted from 47kg (when I came into racing) to 54kg, but the topweight hasn’t changed. The result is the spread is compressed to only 5kg. Often much less. It is unfair. It is no longer a true handicap. In the UK, in their Heritage Handicaps, there is at least a 21lb (9.5kg) spread. In Hong Kong, handicaps also have a 20lb spread, even more if southern hemisphere 3yos are entered. Famously, when Carbine won his Melbourne Cup, he conceded 54lb (24.5kg) to the “limit” horses. Of course, horses are now bigger and stronger than they used to be. As for carrying heavy weights, last year, from the famous Warrnambool hill, I watched Palmero magnificently lump 69kg to be beaten only three-quarters of a length in the 5500m, 33-fence Grand Annual Steeple, beaten by Bob Charley’s Chaparro.

Part of the show

I think the apparent new ATC policy of not having connections’ speeches at big race presentations is a retrograde step. Winning owners love their day in the sun. The public want to hear what the trainer and jockey have to say and see the emotions. I imagine sponsors will also resent their being ignored. They help put on the show.

The Sydney Morning Herald: March 22nd 2015

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