Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guest Post: Why I Love Australian Racing

This Saturday, Australian two-year-old superstar Pierro will attempt to make history when he starts in the G1 Champagne Stakes at Royal Randwick in Sydney. The Champagne is the third leg of Australia’s two-year-old Triple Crown, and Pierro enters the 1600 metre contest off decisive wins in the first two races: the Golden Slipper on April 7, and the Sires Produce Stakes a week later.

Pierro represents everything I love about Australian racing. Trained by celebrity conditioner Gai Waterhouse, Pierro has danced every dance and dismantled all challengers this campaign. Declared “the 2012 Slipper winner” by Waterhouse after his debut victory last October, Pierro was put away for a few months to rest up for a bold autumn campaign in Sydney. The Darley-bred son of Australian champion sire and first-season American shuttler Lonhro opened 2012 with a win in the G2 Silver Slipper Stakes over 1100m at Rosehill. His next task was the G2 Todman Stakes over 1200m again at Rosehill, an important prep for the $4 million Golden Slipper, the world’s richest two-year-old race at the same venue and distance two weeks later. Pierro dug deep to take both contests, beating favoured Samaready, the leading Victoria-based two-year-old, in the Golden Slipper. Wheeling back off a week’s rest, Pierro toyed with the fresher All Too Hard, the previously unbeaten half-brother to Black Caviar, in the Sires Produce.

Pierro wins the Golden Slipper

In short, Pierro’s campaign has been defined by fierce contests off short periods of rest. While this may seem remarkable to foreign audiences, in Australia it is the norm in premier racing: the country’s leading group one performers will routinely race once every week or two weeks during the country’s top spring and autumn carnivals. In America, we yearn for the times when horses competed more than once a month, with the best going head-to-head race after race. In Australia, this is still happening, usually every Saturday in Sydney or Melbourne.

This realization would lead one to think that Australian horses are tougher than others. Maybe this is true. I personally believe it’s the way they’re managed that leads to their resilience. During a four-month stint in Australia last fall (their spring), I was very fortunate to spend a month working in the stables of one of the perennial leading trainers in Melbourne, Victoria. Aside from the lack of race day medication (which everyone already knows about) in Australia, there were a few things that stood out to me in this particular yard: first of all, no horses wore stable bandages unless they had a significant problem (and in my time there, none did).

In addition to their morning exercise, every horse was taken out in the afternoon to walk and swim 
(swimming is a big part of the Australian training climate in general). I believe this contributed greatly to mental soundness as well as physical soundness. There was not one horse of about 40 in the yard that I could not lead without a bit or nose chain, or leave standing quietly in cross ties during grooming. This included colts, geldings and fillies of all ages. In addition, there was not one horse in the yard that would lay back its ears or bite when a human passed the stall.

The final major contributing factor to the constitution of the Australian race horse is, I believe, their spelling regime. “Spelling” refers to the routine of putting the horses out to paddock for up to a few weeks as a break from training. So while the horses are raced hard, they are also spelled frequently. Depending on the mindset of the horse, it may be every few starts, or every few months. Generally, when a horse seems to be falling off form or developing a sour attitude, the trainer will send it out for a spell. This means up to a few weeks in a paddock on a farm, just “being a horse”.

It is important to note that, unlike in Europe where horses train on vast countryside gallops on a program that values stamina over speed, the Australian training program is more similar to America than anywhere else. Like in America, Australian’s train at racetracks in big cities, and they value fast times and precocity in their racehorses. Although Australia seems a world away, their training and racing environment are actually quite similar to those in America.

In addition to this time at the racetrack, I also spent a few weeks working on Darley's Woodlands Farm, where Pierro was born. In Australia, mares are foaled outside (their tepid climate gives them that luxury), and if both are healthy, it is possible that the foal will never see a stable until it is a weanling or yearling. While this can have both positive and negative implications, the upside is that all that time spent outside in its natural environment must be healthy for the foal.

When he lines up for the Champagne on Saturday, Pierro will attempt to become the sixth horse to win the Triple Crown. He has history on his side. It was last won by the Waterhouse-trained Dance Hero in 2004, and that conditioner nearly won it again in 2008 with Sebring before a narrow loss in the Champagne. The other winners are Baguette (1970), Luskin Star (1977), Tierce (1991), and Burst (1992).

For me, the best thing about Pierro is that there may be no limit to how good he is. It is important to note that the dark bay has already outrun his pedigree. As previously stated he is by Lonhro, a multiple G1 winner at up to 2000 metres at 3,4,5, and 6, whose progeny usually don’t get going until their later years. Pierro is out of a mare by Daylami, a stallion who performed well as a two-year-old but excelled later in life at longer distances, and typically sires horses in that mould. It would seem that Pierro was never meant to win, let alone become a champion, over sprint distances at two. If he follows his pedigree pattern and become better with age and distance, who knows how good he could be.

Lonhro's late run earns him a legendary renewal of
the Australia Cup in 2004.

Pierro’s Champagne Stakes is one of four G1 races scheduled for Saturday at the Royal Randwick meeting. The feature race is the 3200m Sydney Cup. Trainer Chris Waller saddles three, including the favoured Permit and last year’s winner, Stand to Gain. Waterhouse will saddle the mare Older Than Time, a stalwart route horse on the Sydney and Melbourne circuits.

The most intriguing race on the card to me is the 2000m Queen Elizabeth Stakes, where top mares More Joyous and Secret Admirer take on Melbourne Cup winner Americain and other top older horses Manighar, Jimmy Choux, and Rangirangdoo. More Joyous has won all three starts this year since March 24, and Manighar is four for five this year, including two wins over Americain. In the G1 All Aged Stakes, star three-year-old filly Atlantic Jewel will take on older males over 1400m.

Add Black Caviar going for her 20th consecutive win across the country in Adelaide in the G1 Sportingbet Classic at Morphetteville, and you have quite the day’s racing in the land down under. But Australian racing breathes excitement, so what more could you expect?


This weekend will be an exciting one for international racing, with additional group ones taking place in Hong Kong, South Africa, and France. In Hong Kong on Sunday, local favourites including California Memory, Irian, Pure Champion, Fay Fay, and Sweet Orange will line up against international contenders like Ireland’s Treasure Beach, France’s Chinchon, and the Mike de Kock trained Viscount Nelson. Across the globe in South Africa, superstar sprinters will take centre stage on a card of four G1 races at Turffontein, highlighted by What a Winter, Val de Ra, and JJ the Jet Plane in the Computerform Sprint. In France, last out Dubai Sheema Classic winner Cirrus des Aigles highlights the G1 Prix Ganay at Longchamp. Those looking to take down his colours could include So You Think, Wigmore Hall, and Reliable Man.

-- Kelsey Riley is a second year trainee on the Darley Flying Start program. She will join the TDN staff in July.       

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