THE SYDNEYSIDERS HAVE GONE MAD
by Gai Waterhouse TDN – 28.01.2015
Up until the advent of 'The Championships' in 2014 and the revamping of the 10-furlong [2000-meter] G1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the richest race in Sydney was the G1 Golden Slipper Stakes for 2-year-olds. I know that many in the Northern Hemisphere can't believe that in a racing-mad country like Australia, one of our biggest races would be a scamper over six furlongs for 2-year-olds. Unorthodox, yes, but the truth is that the Golden Slipper has played a vital role in Australian racing and breeding since its inauguration in 1957.
Yes, 'the Slipper,' as we know it, has given us a huge amount of thrills over the last 50-plus years, but the race is perhaps more important for its contribution to the Australian breeding industry. It is a true stallion-making race. Four of the last nine winners of the Slipper currently stand at stud in Australia, namely Pierro (Coolmore Stud for A$77,000); Sepoy (Darley Stud for A$66,000); Sebring (Widden Stud for A$60,500) and Stratum (Widden Stud for A$38,500).
In Australia, most of our 2-year-olds are purchased between January and April. Then we have 12 months with them before the Golden Slipper. Getting horses ready for this race, with so little time with them is one of the truly challenging tasks any trainer could face. Winning the race is another story. Currently for the 2015 Golden Slipper, there are 1,248 first acceptors. Of these, I have 109 nominated. Of course not all 109 will make it. In fact, the most I have ever had in the race was five out of a field of 16. These numbers do demonstrate that the race is indeed getting harder and harder to win every year. After five Golden Slipper winners and numerous place-getters, I am perhaps not a bad source to ask for a little inside info on this matter.
My winning years to date have been 2001 with the filly Ha Ha (I also managed to get home the trifecta this year); 2004 with a gelding named Dance Hero (the super sire Fastnet Rock finished fourth); 2008 with the colt Sebring, 2012 with another colt, the great Pierro, and in 2013 with a very speedy filly named Overreach. The serious stuff with the 2-year-olds starts in August, which is about eight months before the race.
When the youngsters start to come in, I have to make a very important decision about each one. Summarizing for just a moment, I have to decide if an individual is precocious or not. All five of my Golden Slipper winners have been early runners and managed to compete in the earliest sets of trials in their respective years. These trials generally take place in mid-September. One winner was hindered by the equine influenza that swept through Sydney some years ago, but he still competed as soon as racing in Sydney was back on. So the first secret is precocity.
The second crucial ingredient is balance. We all know that a horse requires a certain amount of balance for us to select it at the sales, then for it to succeed at the races. The best horses seem to, like the best athletes, be born with near-perfect balance. Have a look at Roger Federer hit a tennis ball. He hits the ball, and his head is where the ball used to be. He has swatted it back, and his balance is maintained so he is ready for the next shot.
Over the years, I have managed to be able to adjust a training schedule in order to maximize a 2-year-olds chances of developing better balance. I work my 2-year-olds over short, sharp distances sometimes solo, sometimes with a mate or even in a threesome. This way they learn to be competitive, eye-balling each other as the air exhales out of their nostrils and they get the feeling of being truly competitive. I am also always very mindful of making sure my 2-year-olds jump well. It gives them the edge, essential for winning any Group 1 event.
After I have determined a 2-year-old has the balance and the precocity required to start their careers, it has come October, and the traditional starting point for 2-year-olds in Australia: the Gimcrack Stakes for fillies and the Breeders' Plate for the colts and geldings, both of which are contested over five furlongs. After these races, there are some great five-furlong [1000-meter] races in Melbourne over the spring [October and November], and before we know it, it's Magic Millions time on the Gold Coast, a race for 2-year-olds that is worth A$2 million.
After the Magic Millions is done and dusted, we really turn our minds to the Slipper. It's now when the 2-year-olds that ran in the spring start to come back in from their summer spells, and it is now where the final piece of the puzzle is deciphered - are they good enough? All five of my Slipper winners showed themselves to be very good by the end of summer [February]. So with regards to my winners, there was no problem with their precocity, their balance or their talent, it was just a matter of final tuning before the big day.
This is where the fun starts. Even if a horse has ticked all the boxes, you can't cotton wool it in preparation for the Slipper. The horse has to stay in work and it needs to race leading up to the Slipper. It simply does not work to leave a youngster in its box as to protect it for its grand finale. Not only is the Slipper a Classic race for us in New South Wales, but it's worth a lot of money, and a colt that runs well in the Slipper instantly becomes a stallion prospect, so I must leave no stone unturned in their preparation.
All five of my winners won good races in the weeks before the Slipper and were then given a short freshen-up into the race itself [between two and three weeks]. These 2-year-olds came back from their summer spells in winning form, but you certainly don't want them to peak too early, especially when they have been purposely trained to produce their best on Slipper day. Then in the two weeks before the Slipper, I have found that one really good gallop or even a quiet trial is the only really serious piece of work required. I concentrate on constantly keeping the 2-year-olds fresh. So there we have it. These are the 'non-negotiables' that are required in my mind to win the Slipper.
As I am putting pen to paper for my first article for TDN, it is late summer and I am working feverishly with my Slipper horses as we speak. I have a good idea which of my 2-year-olds will be in the line-up on Slipper day 2015.
Gai Waterhouse is arguably Australia’s most recognized trainer internationally. Gai has trained 126 Group 1 winners since earning her trainer’s license in 1992, including five Golden Slipper winners. Gai was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2007. She will be penning a monthly column for the TDN.
Extracts from Thoroughbred Daily News / ABC (p)