Why aren’t European horses as versatile as Australian horses?
With the Melbourne Cup only a couple of weeks away, this is the time of year when interest levels in Australian racing tends to be at its highest amongst British and Irish-based racing supporters that otherwise do not watch much racing from Down Under.
As sure as night follows day, this increased level of interest always results in plenty of comparing and contrasting of the differences between the racing in both continents and one of the most common subjects of this chat relates to how adventurously and frequently high-class horses are campaigned in Australia compared to their British and Irish counterparts.
In Australia, it is relatively common for high-class stayers to run in races over as short as six or seven furlongs as they build up to the Melbourne Cup over two miles, as well as running with much greater regularity than their British and Irish colleagues.
One very high-profile horse that illustrated these tendencies on the highest profile of stages was So You Think in 2010. Having started off his spring campaign by winning a Group 2 over seven furlongs, in the space of just 11 days he won the Cox Plate and Mackinnon Stakes over 10 furlongs and finished third in the Melbourne Cup over two miles.
Inevitably, such campaigning by Australian-trained horses leads to British and Irish racing supporters wondering why horses in their countries are not campaigned as aggressively and with such adventure by their trainers. If the Australian-trained horses can do it, why not in Britain and Ireland?
However, it isn’t as simple as that, as comparing high-class racing over middle distances and staying trips in Britain and Ireland to the equivalent races in Australia is akin to comparing chalk with cheese. In Britain and Ireland, such races are generally run at an even pace throughout, with the emphasis being primarily on stamina and fitness. In Australia, the majority of races in excess of seven furlongs are generally run at a steady pace and are decided by a sprint finish over the final three/four furlongs.
While there is a general perception that middle-distance and staying horses are notably slower than sprinters, this isn’t necessarily the case over short distances of ground. When talented middle-distance horses are trained for speed and given the opportunity to show it at the finish of a steadily-run race, as they regularly are in Australia, they can record some remarkable sectional times over the final three furlongs of their races.
The aforementioned So You Think is the perfect example to use in illustrating this, as he is one of the very few and certainly the most high-profile middle-distance performer to have been trained and raced with success at the highest level in both Europe and Australia in the modern age.
Consider that when So You Think finished a close second in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2011, a race run over 10 furlongs on a steadily increasing incline on good ground, hand-taken sectionals suggest that he ran the final three furlongs in approximately 38.2 seconds.
Contrast this to what was arguably So You Think’s most notable performance in Australia, his second win in the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley, a race that was run over a flat 10.2 furlongs on good-to-soft ground. On that occasion he clocked 34.92 seconds for the final three furlongs despite the ground being on the softer side of good.
That performance is given further context by the fact that the great Black Caviar could only clock 35.26 seconds for the last three furlongs when winning a Group 2 over six furlongs on the same card earlier that afternoon.
These numbers quite clearly show that So You Think was very much capable of showing remarkable finishing speed. So, why did he show it on the racecourse in Australia and not in Europe? Some of the answer may lie with the differences in how Aidan O’Brien trained him compared to how Bart Cummings did in Australia, but a much bigger factor is the contrasting racing styles in the different jurisdictions and respective conditioning that they require.
In Australia, as most races in excess of seven furlongs are so steadily run, Australian trainers can get away with much lighter conditioning regimes, training for a turn of foot rather than stamina, as in practical terms, the horses are only truly racing for three or four furlongs no matter what the distance.
Given that British and Irish middle-distance races are generally run at least at an even pace from the outset, the emphasis is much more on stamina and thus, the trainers have to give their horses a much harder preparation, with stamina and fitness having more importance than speed. Thus, O’Brien would have had to significantly change So You Think’s regime to condition him to be fit enough to compete in the more strongly-run races of Britain and Ireland.
It is a basic rule of physics and physiology that the faster a horse runs in the early stages of a race, the slower he will finish it off, so even if O’Brien trained So You Think in an Australian speed-focused style, it would be next to impossible for the horse to replicate the closing sectionals that he did in steadily-run races in Australia in more strongly-run races in Europe.
On a related note, the above factors are also the answer to the commonly-asked question of why Australian horses can race so much more regularly and over a greater variety of trips than British and Irish horses.
Australian racing, over trips of seven furlongs and upwards, requires much less conditioning and exertion than the European equivalent, thus the intensity of preparation and the required recovery periods are significantly less, which allows horses in Australia to withstand more racing.
Given that the sprint-finish test is so similar over so many trips, it is also much easier for Australian-trained horses to compete over a variety of distances. In contrast, there is no place to hide in the more evenly-run equivalent races in Europe and stamina limitations are quickly exposed, thus trip preferences are a much bigger factor.
All that being said, while there are very clear reasons why British and Irish-trained horses are not as adventurously campaigned as their Australian equivalents, that isn’t to say that British and Irish trainers are not regularly guilty of being too quick to pigeonhole their horses with regard to trip and being reluctant to experiment in that regard.
Pedigree and racing style are as good a guide as one can get to a horse’s trip preference, but perhaps if more trainers were willing to take a shot at the unknown with their horses, they might occasionally be pleasantly surprised and find that they have more options than they thought they did.