Deremot Weld with Vintage Crop
Deremot Weld with Vintage Crop

Irish trainer Dermot Weld with 1993 Melbourne Cup winner, Vintage Crop

(Photo : Irish National Stud)

“One aspect of Japanese racing which I admire

is the way it still encompasses top-class races for stayers.”

Andrew Caulfield

If there’s one horror breeders around the world seem to have, it’s breeding to stallions which have displayed large reserves of stamina. On Tuesday, we penned a piece on the mind-shift adopted by British breeders following the conquests of the likes of Sir Ivor and Nijinsky in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and their abandonment of the use of stallions which had proven themselves over the longer trips. The emphasis turned to speed, preferably horses that had proven themselves at a mile or less. We speak of a universal horror, but at least the Japanese have overcome any concerns in this respect, and they have benefitted substantially by it.

In the immediate aftermath of our article, the pedigree guru, Andrew Caulfied, produced a commentary on Sunday’s winner of the Japan Cup (Gr.1) (Gentildonna), and in the course of it, he commented on this very topic.

“One aspect of Japanese racing which I admire is the way it still encompasses top-class races for stayers. The JRA stage the G2 Sports Nippon Sho Stayers Stakes over 2 1/4 miles, the G3 Diamond Stakes over 2 1/8 miles and the G2 Hanshin Daishoten over 1 7/8 miles, but more importantly it also still runs the spring edition of the G1 Tenno Sho over two miles and the last leg of the Triple Crown, the G1 Kikuka Sho, over 1 7/8 miles. Unlike in Europe, distinguished participation in these races doesn’t confer an automatic ticket to obscurity after retirement. Deep Impact won the Kikuka Sho to become only the sixth horse to win the Japanese Triple Crown. Then, as a 4-year-old, he began his campaign with clear-cut victories in the Hanshin Daishoten and the Tenno Sho (2 miles), so he clearly stayed very well. To be flippant, it appears that Deep Impact’s stamina hasn’t had a negative effect on his value. He was syndicated for Yen 5.1 billion, which at the time equated to around $42.7 million! He went on to run two more races after his syndication, ending his career with decisive wins in the Japan Cup and Arima Kinen, both at around a mile and a half. He has rewarded investors with 22 graded/group winners in his first two crops, which equates to more than 7% graded winners to foals in those two crops. These 22 have 19 different broodmare sires, with the doubly represented Caerleon and Bertolini each owing his double success to a single broodmare.”

Caulfield’s comments on stamina remind us of a story on The Melbourne Cup, which appeared in these columns a few seasons back: “The Melbourne Cup is an Australian institution dating to 1860 (more than thirty years before Durban staged its first Durban July), and for the first 150 years almost, Australians counted the Cup as their own, at least to the degree that they could ever count New Zealanders as family. The Aussies can be quite parochial about these things, so anything they’d have to share with their trans-Tasman neighbours could only occur in harmony if the Kiwis could take it home with a measure of grace. The stature of this race, in the end a handicap contest between a bunch of old stayers in a speed-crazy country, has grown to such a degree that the first Tuesday in November is celebrated as a public holiday in the state of Victoria, and the race has been known not only to “stop the nation”, but also to suspend the Federal parliament. The coziness which had the Cup in the clutches of Australasian horsemen for almost a century and a half, was rocked in recent years by the outreach programme embraced by the Victoria Racing Club (VRC), which subsidised flights, entry fees and accommodation for foreign raiders. In the broader scenario though, nobody foresaw a change in the status quo, so nobody worried.

Along came the Irish-trained Vintage Crop, and along came the end of innocence. Australia’s oldest sporting tradition had finally been opened up to the outside world, and the outside world had won. Some believed this could only enrich the race and the folklore that goes with it. But others were uneasy. Foreigners had plundered their best race: they might grab the money again next year. Outsiders had made their racing heroes look ordinary. If they had not come along, Australians could’ve gone on telling themselves they had the best horses and best jockeys in the world.

The controversy still simmers: it gives a fresh dimension to Geoffrey Blainey’s theory about the tyranny of distance. There is a charm in distance. It allows you to hang onto your myths. When the VRC first invited Irish and English horses to run in the Cup, most locals thought it a fine idea. It was assumed these beasts would have the good grace to lose, and that their connections would fall about saying what super horses the Australians had, and what an honour it was to spend sixty grand on airfares and to be allowed to listen to the Governor General, reading from his prepared notes with all the spontaneity of a dissident at one of Stalin’s show trials.

The trouble was, the Irish trainer Dermot Weld, did a wondrous thing. He brought Vintage Crop 17,000 kms on a 38-hour plane trip. He turned him out beautifully. He had him as fit as a horse could be, and he didn’t just win the Cup: he romped away with it, and set a weight-carrying record for a seven-year-old. Locals said it couldn’t be done, and this infiltrator had done it. The Melbourne Cup, like no other race in the world, is part of a National culture. In less than three-and-a-half minutes, everything had changed, perhaps forever. Now the other hemisphere owned a piece of the race. The Cup would become The Staying Championship of the World. This year Irish accents, next year American accents. Australians’ might have trouble winning their own race. What had they started?”