GOLD COAST -- First of two articles
Ever since thoroughbreds have existed, the aim of breeders has been to produce horses who possess both speed and stamina, horses who can win classic races at long distances. Just as Americans want to win the Kentucky Derby and the English want to win the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby, Australians used to be preoccupied by the 2-mile Melbourne Cup. But now this nation has a different priority.
What virtually every horse owner in Australia wants to acquire, and what ever breeder therefore tries to produce, is an animal who can run six furlongs very fast by the middle of his 2-year-old season.
This may seem a peculiar and modest objective, but a filly named Bold Promise has recently demonstrated the reason for the national obsession. Bold Promise turned 2 (along with the other members of her generation in the Southern Hemisphere) on Aug. 1 and went into serious training almost immediately. She won her first start in December. She captured a $400,000 race in early January. Then on Saturday she won the $1.2 million Magic Millions Classic at the Gold Coast Turf Club. Her performance made her the early favorite for the world's richest 2-year-old race, the $1.6 million Golden Slipper Stakes in March. If she wins it, she will have earned more in six-furlong races in the first eight months of her career than most distance-running European champions will accumulate in their lives.
And for youngsters who aren't quite as brilliant as Bold Promise, there are plenty of other big-money opportunities. Two $800,000 sprints for 2-year-olds have been run in Sydney in the past month, and there are many similarly lucrative races ahead on the calendar.
These huge purses, generated from the billions of dollars wagered through the country's off-track betting system, demonstrate the robust health of the game here. John Messara, one of the country's leading breeders, declared, "The economics of racing a horse in Australia is the best in the world." But the economics of racing is a bit perverse too because the greatest prizes go mainly to 2-year-old prodigies, not to mature, accomplished distance runners. Even if Bold Promise develops into a Derby winner and a 3-year-old champion next season, she couldn't earn the big money that she is earning now.
It is strange to find such racing in a country whose traditions have their roots in England, and until about 30 years ago the sport here did share the British emphasis on ultralong races and its deemphasis on speed. Australia imported most of its stallions from Europe, and they sired long-winded horses. But two influences radically changed Australian racing: a stallion named Star Kingdom and a racetrack executive named George Ryder.
Star Kingdom had no special credentials when he was sent from Europe to stand at stud here, but he proved to be one of those extraordinarily prepotent stallions capable of altering his species. He would leave his stamp on the Australian thoroughbred as indelibly as Northern Dancer has done in the United States and Europe. His offspring were brilliant runners and his sons became influential stallions. And the qualities with which Star Kingdom imbued his offspring were precocity and speed.
Of course, these qualities wouldn't have done much good in a country where two-mile races were considered the ultimate thoroughbred test. But at about the same time that Star Kingdom was starting to make his impact, Ryder was trying to establish a new race to be the showpiece of Rosehill Race Course. He called it the Golden Slipper, promoted it with a degree of hoopla never seen here before, and offered purse money that seemed outrageous for 2-year-olds. The Slipper caught on immediately, and when offspring of Star Kingdom won its first five runnings, buyers were scrambling to acquire the pedigrees designed for success in the Slipper. A trend was established.
Disproportionately large prize money for 2-year-old races suited the majority of people who buy horses in Australia. This is not a nation where the game is dominated by Phippses and Sangsters and Maktoums who can afford to wait as long as necessary to let a horse become productive. "Here," said Tony Fleiter, general manager of Dalgety Bloodstock, "you've got people from all walks of life and income brackets racing horses. They want to try to get their money back in 12 or 18 months. It's a matter of economics."
Many of the fast 2-year-olds who are in such demand here go on to be formidable distance runners. The leading stallions, many of them descendants of Star Kingdom, beget sprinters and classic winners alike. But Australian breeders don't try to produce horses whose pedigrees accentuate stamina, or who figure to be late-maturing distance runners, because almost nobody wants them. (By default, New Zealand has taken over the production of horses bred for stamina.) At an important yearling sale here this week, some of the best-bred horses in the country were led through the ring, but the auctioneer emphasized only their speed and precocity, not their basic quality: "There's no waiting around when you buy a son of Rory's Jester! You get your money back quick!"
As the prize money here has increased and Australia has been able to import better and better European and American bloodstock, the quality of the horses has increased dramatically -- up to a point. Colin Hayes, the country's all-time leading trainer, said, "Up to a mile, Australian speed is as good as anywhere in the world." But many people in the industry believe that Australia has to grow away from its preoccupation with 2-year-olds if it is going to be a full-fledged member of the world racing community.
"Last year," Messara pointed out, "the average yearling at Keeneland sold for eight times the average at our premier sale -- in spite of the huge prize money available here. The reason is that we're producing a local product. An international horse is worth what the English or the Americans or the Japanese will pay for it. But what's an Australian horse worth when he's done racing? He's worth just what a local yokel will pay for it."
So the Australian racing industry has been tugged in two directions -- by the domestic horse buyers who want a quick return on their money from a fast 2-year-old, and by the internationalists such as Messara who would like to see the country produce more diverse types of horses -- such as good 3-year-old distance runners. The most powerful tug in this contest came from a man named Carl Waugh, who conceived an idea, and a resultant horse race that had reverberations throughout Australia and the whole racing world. If there had been an overemphasis on 2-year-old racing before him, Waugh would turn the quest for fast 2-year-olds into a frenzy. Next: The Magic Millions