IT’S not quite all about Winx, but you could be forgiven for thinking it might be.
The Championships, Sydney racing’s flagship event, takes place over the next two Saturdays with a plethora of lavishly endowed Group races at the city’s showpiece venue Randwick.
Everything kicks off this weekend - live on Sky Sports Racing - with four Group 1s headed by the time-honoured Doncaster Mile and a stellar renewal of the TJ Smith Stakes, rapidly becoming established as Australia’s top sprint. Between them, they render the nation’s senior Classic, the Australian Derby, as almost a third-level attraction. That’s how good it is.
However, there is an even bigger attraction due up seven days later when the mighty WINX has what is widely expected to be the final start of her career as she bids to complete a hat-trick with a hometown farewell in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Randwick – granted official dispensation to call itself Royal Randwick since the 1970s, though almost nobody does apart from marketing people – will be turned into a Winxy Wonderland for the day.
They had Winx beer at Moonee Valley in Melbourne when she completed her Cox Plate four-timer in October; they’ve got Winx cocktails at Randwick, where a Winx ‘Welcome Wall’ will greet racegoers for bespoke photo keepsake moments.
Winx T-shirts and caps are on sale for A$30 (about £16) and A$15 respectively, with stubby holders (useful receptacles for holding bottles of beer) at A$5; commemorative pins go for the same price. Racegoers are also promised a ‘Winx hype reel’, whatever that might be.
Perish the thought of defeat for the nation’s darling but any such unwelcome scenario looks fairly unlikely given that her Chris Waller-trained stablemate, the star three-year-old The Autumn Sun, won’t be showing up, with thoughts of Royal Ascot hopefully on the horizon. Godolphin’s Avilius, who last weekend completed the Ranvet-Tancred Stakes double, has also been ruled out, which means opposition might be thin on the ground.
Still, nobody will be complaining if the Queen Elizabeth proves little more than a lap of honour for the seemingly invincible mare, sure to start long odds on as she seeks to extend her celebrated winning streak to 33 in the A$4 million (£2.17m) highlight, the most valuable contest across two racecards that both sit comfortably in the Top Ten of the world’s richest racedays.
There is a total of A£21m (£11.3m) Up for grabs altogether as The Championships, launched in 2014 as a cash-laden attempt to showcase Sydney’s racing to a wider audience. Or, more specifically, to catch up with Melbourne.
Ah yes, Melbourne: if several of the caricature stereotypes about Sydneysiders are blatantly inaccurate – they don’t all hate the English and they aren’t all boorish yahoos – then one particular cliche still rings resoundingly true.
When everything else is dead and gone, what will always remain is an intense rivalry with those snobbish, toffee-nosed Melburnians. Such antipathy clearly extends to the racing world, where they can’t even bear to race in the same direction: they go left to right in Melbourne, right to left in Sydney.
Domestically speaking, Sydney used to be able to claim something approaching parity; abroad, though, it has always been a different story, with the Melbourne Cup and attendant Spring Carnival registering in Richter-scale proportions on the international scene.
In contrast, Sydney’s Autumn Carnival barely rated a mention. Something, clearly, had to be done – and hey presto, Racing NSW (New South Wales) launched The Championships, backed by the full support of the state government as a significant part of its drive to rejuvenate the state’s thoroughbred industry and attract the Aussie betting dollar.
That rivalry has continued apace. Sydney created the Everest, the world’s richest sprint, and parked it on Melbourne’s lawn during the Spring Carnival; they’ve also added hugely valuable races such as the A$7.5m (£4.2m) Golden Eagle – on Victoria Derby day, the Saturday before the Melbourne Cup.
Then again, Melbourne folk haven’t exactly been sitting idly on their hands, mind you; witness the advent of the All-Star Mile last month at Flemington with a purse of A$5m (£2.7m). Significantly, this is a couple of million more than’s Sydney’s historic Doncaster Mile; frankly if this ain’t an Australian racing civil war, then I’d hate to see one.
In international terms, The Championships still lag well behind Melbourne’s major events, to the extent that Japan’s Doncaster Mile runner Kluger and Charlie Appleby’s Sydney Cup contender Dubhe figure among the few horses trained outside Australasia scheduled to make an appearance.
Global they may not be, but otherwise The Championships have done their job admirably. “This will be the Grand Finals of racing in Sydney and the jewel in the crown of autumn racing in Australia,” claimed George Souris, NSW’s then-minister for racing, when the event was inaugurated.
Five years later, it would be hard to quibble with his forecast. Just look at the equine riches – as well as the financial riches – on offer over the next couple of weekends.
Sure, they’ve had heavy ground lately and the weather might not play ball, and what about the lack of overseas runners?
No worries, mate. We’ve got Winx.
THE CHAMPIONSHIPS’ GROUP 1 EVENTS
Day 1 – Saturday April 6
The Star Doncaster Mile A$3m (£1.62m) 1,600 metres (1m) 3yo+ hcap
Don’t be misled by this being a handicap, for they are different beasts in Australia; not only is this the richest mile handicap in the world, it is also a massively prestigious Group 1 contest, won by none other than Winx in 2016. Her trainer Chris Waller, chasing a record-equalling seventh win, is set to saddle at least four runners headed by last year’s Australian Oaks winner Unforgotten. Godolphin’s Alizee and Hartnell are among other high-profile contenders, the former vying for favouritism with David Hayes’s Fifty Stars.
TJ Smith Stakes A$2.5m (£1.35m) 1,200 metres (6f) 2yo+
Named in honour of the legendary trainer who won 279 Group 1 races and landed the Sydney premiership 34 times. This is not far off a de facto Australian sprint championship, won by such as Takeover Target and Black Caviar, whose had her final race here in 2013; she had also won two years earlier. Trapeze Artist is out for a repeat success against a stellar field headed by new sprint star Sunlight, the three-year-old filly who held fast-finishing Osborne Bulls in the Newmarket Handicap at Flemington. Dual Everest winner Redzel and Royal Ascot possible Santa Ana Lane also feature.
Harrolds Australian Derby A$2m (£1.08m) 2,400 metres (1m4f) 3yo
Although three-year-old racing doesn’t quite carry the same kudos in Australia, the former AJC Derby is their senior Classic, won by true greats like Phar Lap (1929), Tulloch (1957) and Kingston Town (1980), who went on to win three Cox Plates. The Mike Moroney pair Arrogant and Chapada, second and third behind The Autumn Sun in the Rosehill Guineas, are sure to be among leading contenders with Chapada expected to start favourite.
Inglis Sires’ Produce Stakes A$1m (£540,000) 1,400 metres (7f) 2yo
The second leg of Sydney’s 2YO Triple Crown will feature Godolphin’s James Cummings-trained stablemates Kiamichi and Microphone, who finished one-two in the Golden Slipper, the world’s most valuable juvenile contest at Rosehill last month.
Day 2 – Saturday April 13
Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes A$4m (£2.17m) 2,000 metres (1m2f) 3yo+
Sydney’s answer to the Cox Plate, renamed in honour of Queen Elizabeth II following her state visit in 1954. This year’s edition revolves around another regal female as Winx bids to (probably) end her illustrious career with 33rd consecutive win. Anything other than glorious victory in front of an adoring hometown audience is little short of unthinkable.
Schweppes Sydney Cup A$2m (£1.08m) 3,200 metres (2m) 3yo+ hcap
Maybe not quite the Melbourne Cup but still a hugely valuable, historic two-mile handicap. Carbine won it in 1889-90; Makybe Diva in 2004. What is more, it hasn’t escaped Charlie Appleby’s notice as Meydan winner Dubhe is high in ante-post betting.
Heineken 3 Premium Australian Oaks A$1m (£540,000) 2,400 metres (1m4f) 3yo fillies Chris Waller-trained Verry Elleegant, easy winner in Group 1 company on heavy ground last weekend at Rosehill, is set to start strong favourite for this Epsom fillies’ equivalent.
Coolmore Legacy Stakes A$1m (£540,000) 1,600 metres (1m) 3yo+ fillies and mares The race formerly known as the ‘Queen of the Turf usually brings together the best older fillies and mares of the autumn; it was moved from Rosehill in 2014 to become part of the inaugural Championships. Expect to see a couple of horses who ran on Day One, possibly headed by Alizee.