IF it’s not the greatest day there is since days were invented, it’ll do us till Tuesday.
That most glorious of race meetings – VRC Derby Day – is upon us once again. A smorgasbord wrapped in an extravaganza of an afternoon, as steeped in history as in prestige, kicking off Australia’s grandest week of racing – Flemington’s four-day Melbourne Cup carnival.
While Cup Day is of course the big one, and the Cox Plate the country’s top quality race, the Saturday before the first Tuesday in November is where it’s at for racing purists.
There are three Group 1s, headlined of course by Australia’s oldest feature race, the Victoria Derby. First held in 1855, it’s a gruelling test for promising young stayers who only turned three on August 1, so its 2500-metre distance finds a lot of them out.
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But equally compelling is the “stallion-maker” for three-year-old sprinters up Flemington’s famous 1200m straight course, the Coolmore Stud Stakes. The Derby may be a classy laurel around the neck of a young stayer, but winning the high-pressure Coolmore can literally add tens of millions of dollars to a young horse’s value, provided he’s still got what he needs (between the hind legs) to go on to a stud career.
The third G1 is a 1600m affair, the Empire Rose Stakes for fillies and mares, which will add great value to the winner, and her progeny, when she goes on to a stud career. An exciting Kiwi 4YO mare named La Crique – winner of six from 10 including a last-start G1 by four lengths – has come over to prove herself. Unfortunately, this year’s running has met with controversy three days before it’s actually on, owing to an embarrassing stuff-up with the barrier draw. It was conducted, manually, with supposedly 20 numbers in a barrel, to be allocated to the 20 entrants. But afterwards, it was discovered they’d left out marble No 14. That was given to the last horse yet to be given a barrier – Yearning – and the field was announced. But then stewards had a re-think, and ordered a complete re-draw.
Remarkably, things came out fairly similarly the second time around, with a few exceptions. Favourite La Crique went from gate 8 to 10, Daisies from 2 to 3, while Belle Plaisir drew 4 the first time and 4 again the second. However, Chris Waller’s Hinged went from 3 to 16, whereas Icebath and Nimalee fared far better, going from 18 and 11 to 5 and 2 respectively. You’d feel like you’d won three days before the race.
Strange scenes indeed. In any case, a strong support card of two G2s and four G3s also features the last chance to win a ticket to the big one – Tuesday’s 3200-metre Melbourne Cup – in the 2500m race that used to be called the Hotham
Handicap, but which is now the Archer Stakes, named after the Cup’s first winner. Another source of intrigue is the Wakeful Stakes, a last trial for fillies aimed at Thursday’s G1 VRC Oaks.
And the highlights don’t end with the races. After the last, there’s the announcement of Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup field, and the barrier draw which can make or break many horses’ chances in Australia’s greatest cultural institution.
It’s a feast of racing at beautiful Flemington – Australia’s oldest sporting venue, where they began racing in 1840. Slightly unfortunately, the weather bureau is tipping rain, so consult wet form. (We say only “slightly” unfortunately, for they haven’t tipped a winner in years).
Let’s take a look.
WHAT IS IT?
Derby Day – nine races, all of them Group Something, at headquarters. It starts Flemington’s four-day Melbourne Cup carnival, which also features Cup Day on Tuesday, Oaks Day on Thursday, and Mackinnon Stakes Day (now known as Champion Stakes Day) on the second Saturday, which also features three G1s.
Anamoe wins the Cox Plate | 00:27
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
A juicy $7 million, topped by the $2 million for each of the Derby and the Coolmore. Sydney might have the Golden Eagle on Saturday, one race worth $10 million but, as hard as it might be to convince the odd administrator here in Sydney, money isn’t everything.
WHEN’S IT ON?
Saturday. First race 12.20pm (AEDT), last race 5.40pm. Derby at 4.20pm.
WHERE CAN YOU WATCH IT?
Channel 10 will show it, but it’s also on Racing.com and Sky Channel. Foxsports.com.au will also provide updates through the day.
RACE 2: 1.00pm: LEXUS ARCHER STAKES (2500m). Group 3. $300,000
This staying test holds an esteemed place in Australian racing: 1. The winner earns the last ticket into the 24-horse Melbourne Cup, so it’s always compelling viewing. 2. The old Hotham Handicap, which it was called from 1869 till 1978, featured a famous triple dead heat in 1956 between Fighting Force, Ark Royal and Pandie Sun.
Eight winners of the race have gone on to take out the Melbourne Cup, including Shocking (2009), Brew (2000) and Think Big (1974). More recent results have been ordinary, until mighty English stayer Prince Of Arran won it in 2018 before a super third in the Big Cup. The quick back-up, over tough long distances, isn’t for everyone.
Top chances: SUREFIRE (Pointsbet approx odds: $4.20) is a British import from the all-powerful Chris Waller stable who went round as favourite in the Group 3 Geelong Cup (2400m) last week, which is often a good Melbourne Cup guide. He managed only second though, but will be fitter for this and needs to win to make it to Tuesday. ALEGRON ($5) is a strongly-built stayer from the all-conquering Godolphin/James Cummings stable who has won here at 2800m so the distance is no doubt. Won two starts back impressively over 2000m in Sydney, but then completed dudded in the Caulfield Cup. Is already in the Melbourne Cup field, so doesn’t need a gut-buster here. REALM OF FLOWERS ($5.50) is currently 25th in the Cup’s order of entry so will likely gain a run regardless of today, but connections will want to be sure. She’s after redemption, having looked a decent Cup chance last year before falling ill. Is a good staying mare building into form with thirds at her past two starts. MAKRAM ($6.50) is a former British stayer in the gun Hayes stable who’s in strong form in this, his second Australian preparation. Was second in a Caulfield G2 and third in the G3 Geelong Cup, both 2400m, in past two starts. His stablemate INTERPRETATION ($8) is also in the market after a sixth in the latter.
TIPS: 1. MAKRAM, 2. Surefire, 3. Realm Of Flowers, 4. Alegron.
RACE 4: 2.20pm: WAKEFUL STAKES (2000m). Group 2. $300,000.
Sixteen three-year-old fillies go around in the last, major lead-up to the G1 VRC Oaks over 2500m on Thursday.
JENNY JEROME ($4.40) could start favourite. Ran only sixth of nine last start, but that was on a heavy track over 1600m, so you can forget that – unless it’s heavy again on Saturday of course. Before that made good ground for a narrow second over 1400m. Still a doubt at the distance though. AS TIME GOES BY ($4.80) could vie for favouritism. She’s only had three runs but is beautifully-bred – by the same man who bred Winx, in fact. She’s by super sire Deep Impact who’s from Japan, where they can produce some outstanding stayers. And her mum was A Time For Julia, who won two G3s when racing. Made good ground last start fifth over 1600m here. SO DAZZLING ($8) is prepared in Sydney by John Sargent, who has a knack with 3yo staying fillies. She won here two starts back in a key Oaks trial over 1800m and handles wet going. PAVITRA ($8) is in the market after a 3rd over 2000m at Caulfield last start. She led and faded that day, but will be fitter for that run. WHAKAMANA ($13) could be good value. Powered home for second to So Dazzling over 1800m here, then made good ground when 5th over 2000m at Caulfield last start. Appears to be building up steadily towards the Oaks. Other chances include: QUEEN AIR ($10), LET’SBEFRANKBABY ($18) and THINKING RAIN ($34).
TIPS: 1. SO DAZZLING, 2. Whakamana, 3. As Time Goes by, 4. Jenny Jerome.
Emissary takes out Geelong Cup | 01:00
RACE 6: 3.40pm. COOLMORE STUD STAKES (1200m). Group 1. $2,000,000.
A most prestigious sprint up the Flemington straight course for the three-year-olds who back in the autumn contested two-year-old features like the Golden Slipper and Blue Diamond. So it’s a big 17-horse field with plenty of chances. It’s also a time-honoured race, starting out as the Ascot Vale Stakes in 1863. And with the Slipper and Caulfield Guineas sits among the nation’s top three stallion-makers; a great thing to win for a horse’s later stud value – like Merchant Navy, who won thrillingly in 2017, then won the same race at Royal Ascot that Black Caviar won in 2012, and is now busy meeting mares at stud farms. The outstanding Home Affairs strolled home by three lengths last year, then beat Royal Ascot winner Nature Strip in an unforgettable Lightning Stakes (1000m) in February, and now stands at stud for $110,000 per mating (and will likely have about 150 of those by the end of spring!)
Famous winners: Home Affairs (2021), Sunlight (2018), Merchant Navy (2017), Weekend Hussler (2007), Campaign King (1985), Rancher (1982), Manikato (1978), Surround (1976), Vain (1969).
IN SECRET ($3.50) has three wins and two placings from five starts, and is a deserved favourite as she seeks to emulate Sunlight in 2018 and September Run in 2020 as a female winner. From the Godolphin/James Cummings camp, who are winning everything at the moment, and has the world’s best jockey aboard in James McDonald. Started favourite last start in the 1400m Golden Rose in Sydney but was just nabbed on the line by … JACQUINOT ($5.50), who’s second favourite here. From the astute stable of Mick Price and Michael Kent, was a good 2YO but has gone bang as a 3YO this spring, winning his first two starts – impressively at Caulfield and the other way round in a Sydney’s Golden Rose. Then chased the big bucks in the Everest (1200m) and wasn’t disgraced against older horses, coming a close-up fifth. ’Tis written, you need to be able to run a good 1400m to get the straight 1200m at Flemington, which is tough because there’s no corners to slow down into and get a rest around. His stablemate GRAND IMPACT ($9.50) is unbeaten in three starts, all over 1200m including a Caulfield G3 last start, and handles the wet. BUENOS NOCHES ($8) comes from Sydney but has run twice up the Flemington straight – for a win and then a narrow second to Giga Kick, who came out and won The Everest afterwards. Both were over 1100m, but should handle the rise to 1200m here. COOLANGATTA ($7) is a very speedy filly who beat older horses in the G1 Moir Stakes at Moonee Valley last start. Has won twice at 1200m but only just held on in the Moir. Her first try at the tough, straight course here poses a couple of questions about seeing out the trip, but class will take her far. And SEJARDAN ($20) looks great value. Trained by a Sydney master of young horses, Gary Portelli, he was a gun 2YO winning three of five and then having no luck in the Golden Slipper. Looked a bit sub-par in his first three runs as a 3YO, but Portelli switched him to Melbourne last week and he relished going the other way, showing he’s still got it by storming home to win at Moonee Valley. Other chances include ECONOMICS ($11), BEST OF BORDEAUX ($16) and LOFTY STRIKE ($21).
TIPS: 1. SEJARDAN, 2. In Secret, 3. Jacquinot, 4. Lofty Strike.
Giga Kick KICKS HOME to claim Everest | 00:38
RACE 8: 5.00pm. EMPIRE ROSE STAKES (1600m). Group 1. $1,000,000
A relatively new race for fillies and mares, having started in 1988. Formerly known as the Myer Classic, in 2018 it was changed to honour that great, great big mare, Empire Rose, who won the Melbourne Cup in 1988. It’s weight-for-age, so the four-year-olds carry 56.5kg and the five-and-ups 57kg.
Famous winners: Colette (2021), Shoals (2017), Typhoon Tracy (2009), Forensics (2007), Divine Madonna (2007).
LA CRIQUE ($2.90) is a 4YO mare who’s a buzz horse of Australasia, having won six of 10 with four placings, winning one G1, and placing in two others. Tuned up for this with her first top-level win – by four lengths – over 1600m at Matamata, and Australia waits to see how good she is. Has James McDonald aboard. NIMALEE ($11) is down from Sydney and a very talented 6YO mare who ran fourth in this last year and won a Sydney 1600m mares’ G1 in the autumn.
KIKU ($29) hails from the Chris Waller yard and impressively won a 1300m G2 in Sydney first-up from a spell before a last start seventh against all comers in a Sydney G1 which you can forget due to the heavy track (unless Flemington’s heavy on Saturday too!). Brad Widdup-trained 6YO mare ICEBATH ($18) is always a chance in races like this, though she turned in a rare poor run in Sydney last Saturday. Queenslander PALAISIPAN ($14) is thought good enough to bring south for some big races and hasn’t disappointed, including a last-start second to Golden Eagle fancy Chain Of Lightning in a 1400m Caulfield G2. And DAISIES ($26) is a talented mare on her day who won impressively two stars back in a Moonee Valley G2 over this trip, before flopped in the heave At Caulfield. SHE’S LICKETYSPLIT ($8) is in with a light weight as a 3YO filly, who followed a 1600m G2 win here with a fine 1600m G1 third over the same trip at Caulfield. Other each-way chances include. MY WHISPER ($23) and YEARNING ($20) .
TIPS: 1. LA CRIQUE 2. Daisies 3. Kiku.
RACE 7: VICTORIA DERBY (2500m). Group 1. $2,000,000
Not just one of the oldest races in Australia but the world. It’s for three-year-olds at set weights and is a boys-only affair again this year. Though derbies the world over are usually 2400m, or a mile-and-a-half, Flemington’s is 100m further, because 2400m would mean starting pretty too close to the first bend for the sake of safety and common sense.
As it is, those who’ve drawn wide barriers – and it’s a capacity 16-horse field this year – can struggle to move across and avoid racing wide, or will have to settle a long way back to be closer to the rail. At least the field usually thins out in the long home straight, presenting gaps for those finishing on, as these young horses tire over their longest trip to date. Noone’s been beyond 2200m, so there is a bit of hit-and-hope involved, as well as consideration of how they hit the line last start.
Bear in mind the favourite has only won this race twice since 2006, suggesting early assessments of staying ability can be wonky.
It’s often said the Derby may knacker a young horse, as many recent winners have failed to kick on. Either that or it favours early bloomers, and the others catch up as they mature. Point is, often it’s class that wins this race, rather than outright staying ability. This year it looks a race with only a small number of stand-out chances.
First winner: Rose Of May (1855). Last winner: Hitotsu (2021).
Famous winners: Hitotsu (2021), Efficient (2006), Elvstroem (2003), Mahogany (1993), Stylish Century (1989), Red Anchor (1984), Dulcify (1978), Tobin Bronze (1965), Tulloch (1957), Hydrogen (1951), Comic Court (1948), Phar Lap (1929).
SHARP ’N’ SMART ($3.80) is an outstanding Kiwi conveyance who’s won four from seven, including his past three, and was bred by Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman fame, and trained by the astute Graeme Rogerson. Won his first G1 by taking last Saturday’s Spring Champion Stakes (2000m) at Randwick. Attempting the quick back-up here and stepping up 500m, and that’ll be tough to do, but does have James McDonald to help him around. BERKELEY SQUARE ($3.30) is another classy type who’s won four from six. Was equal favourite in the Caulfield Guineas (1600m), coming home well, then won over 2040m at Moonee Valley last Saturday, so is also attempting the quick back-up and rise in trip. Still, two of the past six Derby winners have managed it. Win would be a victory for battling small guy trainer Dan O’Sullivan. MR MAESTRO ($5.50) is another originating from NZ (they know how to breed a stayer), and has won his past three, including twice here. Has been given an extra week to prepare for this after winning a 2000m G3 at Caulfield on Oct 15, if only narrowly from MURAMASA ($15) who has some great staying bloodlines: by the aforementioned super sire, Deep Impact, out of a former top Sydney racemare in Omei Sword, who’s by a strong staying sire in High Chaparral. Muramasa had a tough run that day too, so shapes like he’ll get the 2500m here. PERICLES ($7.50) comes from the Godolphin/James Cummings axis and has leading English big-race jockey William Buick aboard, but could’ve hit the line harder when 3rd in Berkely Square’s Moonee Valley race last week.
TIPS: 1. MURAMASA, 2. Berkeley Square, 3. Sharp ’N’ Smart, 4. Mr Maestro.