2017 in Review: Australian Horse Racing

January 16th 2018, 4:19pm, By: tim_tips

We’re two weeks into the New Year, and already there’s been plenty happen in the world of Australian horse racing, but we thought we’d take the chance to reflect on the year that was in 2017. There were highlights, lowlights, controversies and everything in between, with some cracking wins, sickening losses, and rides that attracted the kudos and criticism of the nation’s punters. Here’s our take on #TheGreatGame in 2017.

THE GOOD

Winx
While this may seem a relatively obvious and boring topic, there’s no doubt that this superstar mare remained the shining light of the industry in a somewhat tumultuous year. Winx had nine starts in 2017 (six at Group 1 level), taking her undefeated streak to 22 with her third straight win in the Cox Plate. Despite all this, she begrudgingly remains second on the official World’s Best Horse rankings behind Arrogate, despite him performing particularly poorly in recent starts, but there is little doubt she is the best there is. Her mere presence draws people to the races in substantially greater number than what would typically be the case, but I for one hope she takes on the world at Royal Ascot in 2018 and puts paid to the naysayers that still find reasons to knock her. While the industry continues to shoot itself in the foot and create negative headlines in the mainstream media, it is Winx that continues to create headlines for all the right reasons.

The Everest
From a purely punting point of view, The Everest was fantastic. As punters (and spectators), we want to see the best horses in the land compete against each other. Not only does it make for fantastic viewing, but with exposed form and horses and jockeys of the highest quality, it’s an attractive race to invest in as there’s little unpredictability. Of course, there are arguments that the race promotes elitism and caters only for the richest owners in the land, but Redzel’s win proves that small-time owners can benefit just as much. Lack of international representation was an obvious disappointment for all concerned, but I suspect that will change in the coming years as overseas connections have more time to prepare and target horses for the event. The inaugural running of The Everest was a success, and with a substantial increase in prizemoney already announced for the next two years, there’s no reason the event shouldn’t continue to be efficacious.

Flemington
This one if a bit from left-field, but Mike Goodie and his track staff at Flemington rightfully deserve credit for the way Flemington has played all year, particularly during the Melbourne Cup Carnival late in the year. The track has attracted heavy criticism in recent years for the way it has played, especially at carnival time, but there was little to complain about in 2017. Straight races still remain a bit of a lottery, but it’s rarely due to the track.

THE BAD

Cobalt Saga
The cobalt saga involving Peter Moody, Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien has been going on for three years now, and although the first of those names stepped away from training altogether, the latter two are still embroiled in what has been the biggest scandal in recent history (until this week, of course!). 2017 saw the case taken to the Supreme Court, where Kavanagh and O’Brien were ultimately cleared of administering their horses with cobalt, a result that was especially embarrassing for Racing Victoria, who have seemingly wasted an exorbitant amount of money on the case. RV was ordered to pay a third of the legal costs for the two trainers, with the case now headed for VCAT in January to settle the issue of presenting horses to race with cobalt in their system.

Eagle Farm
The state of the Eagle Farm track was nothing short of a disgrace during the 2017 Winter Carnival, prompting Racing Queensland to shift three Group 1 meetings – the Oaks, Stradbroke and Tatts Tiara – to Doomben, before closing the track indefinitely. And this was after more than $10million was invested into the surface just a year or so beforehand. The track was so bad that it was declared a Heavy 8 for some race days, despite no rain for weeks in Brisbane, with fields separated by about a furlong at the end of a race. This tweet pretty much sums it up:

Racing Queensland launched an investigation into why the track performed so poorly after the amount of money poured into it, citing the use of the wrong sand, the wrong grass, and cutting corners with the budget for the project. The track is expected to be ready for the 2018 Winter Carnival. One can only hope they get it right this time around.

Whip Rule
The much-maligned whip rule continues to cause problems. The rule states jockeys are only able to use the whip on five occasions prior to the 100m mark, but can use it as many times as they want after that point. It literally makes no sense. In the final 100m of a race, jockeys could probably hit a horse 16 or 17 times, meaning a total of over 20 whip strikes. But if they use the whip 10 times prior to the 100m mark, and only five times in the final 100m, they are breaking the rule, despite using the whip less times overall. It’s extremely flawed, and week after week we see riders break the rule in the process of winning a race. Sure, they are penalised with a fine and/or suspension, but despite a whip protest being upheld in 2016 when two horse dead-heated at the Sunshine Coast, Racing Queensland stewards have admitted they will never uphold another whip protest because there is no way to measure the advantage of a single whip strike. So what is the point of the rule? Are we pandering to the minority groups and trying to protect the image of the sport? If so, this isn’t the answer. We are discouraging jockeys doing everything possible to win a race, which hurts the connections of the horse and the punters. It’s painful when punters back a horse that runs 2nd, only to find out the winner has been in breach of the whip rules, yet there is no possibility of the result being overturned. Sure, the jockey cops a penalty, but if it’s a fine, they’re likely to be covered by the winning horse’s connections. The rule needs to be seriously looked at, because it is currently causing more problems than it’s solving.

Josh Cartwright
Josh Cartwright made headlines for all the wrong reasons with his ride on Senior Council at Morphettville on January 14. Cartwright came out sideways in the straight, cannoning into other horses in an extremely dangerous piece of riding. The incident made world-wide headlines, and Cartwright was handed an 18-month suspension from riding and had his training licence suspended for six months. Despite suggestions of the move being financially motivated (Cartwright’s partner Anna Jordsjo won the race), it was ultimately revealed that Cartwright’s fragile mental state was the reason behind the move, with the jockey saying he was planning to do something that would have him suspended, but never intended on executing something so dangerous. He’s since retired from race-riding and has turned his focus full-time to training.

BEST WINS

Chautauqua – TJ Smith
What the Grey Flash produced in this year’s TJ Smith Stakes was freakish. It was Chautauqua’s third straight win in the race, and undoubtedly the best of the lot. He settled at the tail of the field throughout, had it all ahead of him rounding the turn at the 400m mark, and was still a conspicuous last at the 300m mark. He was still about five lengths off them at the 150m mark, but just when you thought English and Fell Swoop would fight out the finish, the big grey exploded out of the pack and descended down the outside with a devastating turn of acceleration. Every time I watch the replay it gives me tingles, and the call from Darren Flindell did justice to what was, in my opinion, the best win from any horse in Australia in 2017.

Winx – Warwick Stakes
It’s hard to pick just one of this mare’s victories, but her victory first up from a spell in the Group 2 Warwick Stakes had to be seen to be believed. The mare missed the jump in sensational fashion and gave the field a four-length head start, before reeling off a 31.98sec last 600m to claim stablemate (and Group 1 winner) Foxplay on the line.

Redzel – The Everest
Perennially underrated this horse, but if there were any questions whether he was the real deal or not, he answered it in emphatic style with victory in the inaugural running of The Everest. The Peter and Paul Snowden-trained gelding beat a field containing six other Group 1 winners in convincing fashion, sitting outside the leader before kicking away to score by a length. Redzel would then go on to win the Group 1 Darley Classic at Flemington, beating what was arguably a stronger field than he faced in The Everest, and proving once and for all that he is the country’s – and maybe even the world’s – premier sprinter.

BIGGEST TRAGEDIES BEAT

Vega Magic – The Everest
Punters who backed the Lindsay Park-trained Vega Magic in The Everest had every right to be up in arms about Craig Williams’ ride on the favourite. In the day’s races leading up to The Everest at Randwick, it was evident that horses were struggling to make ground out wide in the straight, but despite being the first horses to begin out of the gates, Williams snagged Vega Magic back to find cover three-wide worse than midfield. It was a move which saw the horse have to come widest of all in the straight, and despite giving the leaders a significant head start, he flashed home to run 2nd, beaten less than a length on the line. #willowed

Up ‘N’ Rolling
Glyn Schofield’s ride aboard the Chris Waller-trained Up ‘N’ Rolling at Canterbury on April 17 was so sickening that stewards opened an inquiry into what was surely the best thing beat all year. Schofield settled three pairs back on the rail to be 6th in the field of 8, but from the 800m mark things quickly went downhill. Schofield seemingly had his chance to come across heels and get to the outside, but chose instead to stick to the inside in hope of finding a gap. No split came though, with the horse being disappointed for a run on more than one occasion. He finally saw daylight at the 150m mark and absolutely flew home, but the bird in front had already flown. Kiseki Dane was six lengths clear at the 100m mark; the final margin? A long neck. To the amazement of punters, Schofied was cleared of any wrongdoing and escaped penalty, with Racing NSW Stewards taking the unprecedented action of releasing a detailed video explanation of their decision. #BadGlyn

Tamasa – Hilton Stakes
There may be a large degree of self interest involved here, but the sight of Tamasa climbing all over their backs in November’s Hilton Stakes at Flemington still gives me nightmares. The Darren Weir-trained colt was undefeated leading into the race and drew perfectly for jockey Dean Yendall, or so we thought. From barrier 1, Yendall settled Tamasa four pairs back on the rail, and from that point on, he didn’t see an inch of daylight. The horse finished 6th, beaten two lengths, and went to the line under a complete stranglehold having run into backsides for a good 400m. Watch below (red and yellow silks, white cap):

Washington Heights & Tom Melbourne – Spring Preview
It’s rare that you see the two favourites in a race beaten in such circumstances as we saw at Rosehill back in August. Tom Melbourne ($3.40) settled in the box seat, third on the rail, while Washington heights ($2.60) was two pairs further back, sitting third last on the rail. Funnily enough, it was the horse that settled between them in the run that won the race – Kinsguard – who was originally three pairs back on the rail but got the gap in the straight. While Kingsguard was piercing through, Blake Shinn sat motionless on Tom Melbourne on the rail, while Tim Clark could only get busy for a matter of strides on the favourite Washington Heights before running into traffic once more. Tom would eventually get room on the inside to flash home late into his favourite position – 2nd.

BEST RIDES

Mark Zahra – Merchant Navy
For much of 2017, Mark Zahra was one of Melbourne’s hottest jockeys, and his ride on Merchant Navy to win the Group 1 Coolmoore Stud Stakes was nothing short of phenomenal. Zahra jumped from barrier 15 in the 1200m straight race, before navigating his way through the field to eventually win hard up against the inside rail. The overhead helicopter shot makes for some incredible viewing.

Blake Shinn – Humidor
Arguably the best losing ride of 2017, which saw Blake Shinn and Humidor nearly pull off the impossible in the Cox Plate. While Hugh Bowman pulled out three-wide at the 1000m mark so to avoid any traffic problems aboard champion mare Winx, Blake Shinn saved as much ground as he could between runners on Humidor. He weaved a passage through tiring horses before coming across heels at the turn to get Humidor into the clear. The Darren Weir-trained gelding served it right up to Winx, looming up at the 50m mark, but the mare was too strong in the end, pulling out plenty to win by half-a-length on the line. It was an enormous run by Humidor and a terrific training effort from Weir to get him to peak just a week after failing in the Caulfield Cup, and Shinn gave his mount absolutely every chance of pulling off the impossible.

Josh Parr – Red Excitement
Another sensational ride that nearly resulted in Winx’s streak being broken, but this time it was through daring frontrunning tactics from Josh Parr aboard Red Excitement in the Chelmsford Stakes. Parr sent the 7YO straight to the lead in the 1600m event and tried to pinch a winning break, going eight lengths clear at the 600m mark and holding that margin heading into the home straight. Even at the 200m mark it looked as if Parr may have pulled it off, but Winx knuckled down strongly in the final furlong to reel in the long-time leader and score by a length on the line. It was refreshing to see a jockey try and do something different to beat her, and in doing so he gave punters nation-wide an almighty scare. Parr employed similar tactics aboard Cabeza De Vaca in the Group 2 Villiers Stakes in December, but got his sectionals horribly wrong and left the horse a sitting duck a long way from home. The horse was beaten half-a-length in the end, but really should have bolted in had he not been asked to run at a crazy tempo mid-race.

Kerrin McEvoy & John Allen – Schweppes Oaks
We o back to May for this one, where Kerrin McEvoy (Egg Tart) and John Allen (Kenedna) produced two masterful rides aboard their respective mounts when fighting out the finish of the Group 1 Schweppes Oaks at Morphettville. Both fillies settled well back in the field, with Kenedna fourth last approaching the turn, and Egg Tart behind her. Allen decided to duck back to the inside and hug the rail with Kenedna, saving all the ground and getting a trouble-free run in the straight, and at the 100m mark when she hit the lead, it looked all over. But Egg Tart and Kerrin McEvoy, who rode for luck in the straight, threaded the needle and flew late to get her nose in front right on the line. Two Group 1 calibre rides.

STAR PERFORMERS

Lindsay Park 2YO’s
The Hayes, Hayes and Dabernig team had their stable flying for the majority of 2017, but it was their two-year-old season that impressed most. Up until mid-June 2017, the stable had won 38 two-year-old races with 26 individual winners. The stable’s most notable achievement was the 2017 Blue Diamon. Not only did they win the race with Catchy, but they filled five of the first seven placings. A remarkable effort.

Gai Waterhouse & Adrian Bott – Melbourne Spring
GaiBott’s Melbourne stable was red-hot during the Spring and was an ATM for punters that followed their metro runners. Despite only bringing a small but select number of horses down from their Sydney base, the pair were the most successful trainers of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, producing at least one winner on every major race day. That included victories on Caulfield Guineas Day, Caulfield Cup Day, Cox Plate Day, Derby Day, Melbourne Cup Day, Oaks Day, Emirates Stakes Day and Sandown Cup Day. Quite a phenomenal effort.

Redzel
Winx is obviously the clubhouse leader when it comes to picket fences, but this bloke has built a fairly decent one himself. Redzel had eight starts in 2017, which begun with two 2nd placings, but then went on to win his next six straight, culminating with victories in The Everest and the Darley Classic. There’s something special about horses who jump and run and break the hearts of their opposition.

Matthew Hill
Not an easy gig replacing Greg Miles after 38 years at the helm, but Matt Hill has had a seemless transition as Victoria’s leading race caller. He’s the real deal.

UNSUNG HERO

Chris Nation
This is another left-field nomination but resonates closely with me given I’m from WA. Perth Racing appointed former Toowoomba track manager Chris Nation to take care of the Ascot and Belmont tracks, and he’s done an incredible job to get them playing fairly and consistently week after week. Let me put this in perspective for you – in 2016 the opening day of the Ascot Carnival was abandoned mid-meeting due to the state of the track, after not racing on it for six months. This was a track that had to be spray-painted green because the track staff burnt the grass in the week leading up to raceday. Belmont is the Winter track, and Ascot is the Summer track, meaning we race twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday) on the same track while the other recuperates. Add into that the fact we often race with a cutaway rail for midweek meetings, and it creates an extremely difficult set of circumstances for the staff to keep the track in one piece and playing fairly. Essentially, when the rail is moved out 15m, it is done so to protect the grass on the inside section of the track, but with the cutaway rail in play, it opens up a section of that grass in the straight which is meant to be resting. Track staff don’t have an easy job, but Nation has so far done a superb job in his time in the role, making Ascot one of the best punting tracks in the country.

BEST MOMENTS

Udyta Clarke – Rich Charm
Udyta Clarke, referred to as Mrs Clarke by jockey Patrick Maloney (and subsequently the rest of Australia) is one of the great racing personalities, and the win of her ‘pony’ Rich Charm brought out everything we love about the game. ‘Our Udyta’ considered scratching him on race day after seeing the size of some of his opposition, but her decision to leave him in the race was justified when her rising star overcame trouble to salute in Group 2 company on the first day of the Flemington Carnival. The pure emotion captured during the race, and immediately following his victory, tugged on the heart strings of plenty, and was undoubtedly one of the best racing moments all year.

Extra Zero
One of the fairytale stories of the year had to be 10YO Extra Zero saluting on his 100th career start at Flemington back in May. It wasn’t just a win for the Lindsay park stabnle-favourite, but it was a big kick in the teeth to minority groups that continue to be a thorn in the side of the industry. He’s probably the only 20/1 winner I haven’t backed but have cheered for anyway. Since retired as an 11YO with a record of 109 starts for seven wins and 33 minor placings, totalling $1.75million in prizemoney.

WTF MOMENTS

Craig Williams – Vega Magic
As if punters weren’t hurt enough by Williams’ ride on Vega Magic in The Everest, Craig produced one of the all-time great excuses for the short-priced favourite’s failure in the Manikato Stakes just two weeks later, suggesting that the horse may not have handled running under lights.

Pakistan Star
While this isn’t related to Australian horse racing, Pakistan Star – a rising star of Hong Kong racing – produced one of the most shocking moments of the year back in June. The four-year-old was sent around the $1.20 favourite in a five-horse Group 3 race over 1800m, but just 400m into the race, he flat out refused to continue racing, pulling himself up despite the urgings of jockey Joao Moreira. He was then sent back to the trials, where he did the exact same thing, earning himself an indefinite ban from the HKJC. Just a year earlier, Pakistan Star had made global headlines after winning his first two races in extraordinary fashion, coming from a clear last on the turn before unleashing a devastating turn of foot on both occasions.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on Twitter: @Tim_Tips and stay tuned for more blog pieces in the coming weeks as we head towards the Autumn feature races.

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