So many things revolve around the outcome to Australia's Golden Slipper, renewed this coming Saturday at Rosehill just outside Sydney. Firstly, it is the world's richest two-year-old event at A$3.5million (a whopping R32 million;) that's not all though: besides its confinement to two-year-olds, it's run extraordinarily early in their careers unlike any other race of its significance in the world; it's absurdly biased for the fact that it's contested around a bend which places a '20' barrier draw at a massive disadvantage, yet it's never short of at least 20 contestants and the fillies have just about as good a record in the event as the colts do; for all its quirkiness, it's of life-changing impact in Australian racing.
The instant a horse crosses the line, its connections enter the Hall of Fame, never to be forgotten; before he makes his way to the Winner's Circle, if the victor is a colt, his worth is immediately somewhere between $10 and $30million, depending on his pedigree and his appearances. Whatever other riches the Aussie racing programme harbours, no race, not the Cox Plate, the Caulfield Cup or the Melbourne Cup for that matter, has ever had the breed-shaping influence on the Australian thoroughbred the Golden Slipper has had. And this year the tactical stakes are even higher, as two of the nation's most powerful stables range up in mortal combat as Saturday beckons.
In style, they couldn't be further apart. In the one corner, the flamboyant Gai Waterhouse, whose pedigree in the sport is as deep as the game itself, represents the interests of a spectrum of rich individuals in it not only for the thrill of beating another rich one, but as much for the prestige and the fabulous rewards it confers on the anointed. In the other corner, we have Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, whose private breeding and racing escapades in Australia outstrip even those set by the fabled Ingham Brothers, Bob and Jack, whose stud farm, Woodlands, the Arabian potentate acquired for something in excess of half a billion dollars (close on R5billion). Anyone looking for a stud farm?!
Speak to the fellows connected with the Sheikh's Darley operation, and they'll tell you that the game-changer was their boss' decision, after they'd sold a former Slipper hero and juvenile Triple Crown ace, Pierro, to breed solely for the races; that, and the installation of a unique system of pre-training the youngsters, and a revolution in the facilities that went with it. Trainer John O'Shea was recently installed as the official trainer for what is styled as 'Godolphin,' and yesterday he confirmed riding plans for his quartet of entries, among them the Lonhro colt, Exosphere, the second ranking favourite in the betting after his impressive victory in the Sky Line Stakes (Gr.2) at the end of last month. James Doyle and William Buick jet in from abroad to throw their legs over Haptic (Exceed And Excel) and Ottoman (also by Exceed And Excel) while Hugh Bowman gets the mount on Furnaces, who provides his sire Exceed And Excel with a triplet in the twenty-strong line-up.
Back in the Waterhouse corner, their contingent is headed by the undefeated hot favourite, Vancouver, whose rangy, classic appearances make him something of a physical misfit in an event designed specifically for the precocious. Yet all the evidence points to something of a freak in this son of Medaglia d'Oro, who, if he is not 'spent' by his exertions here, is tipped as a Triple Crown winner, as well as holding expectations that 2000 metres should be well within his reach as he matures.
The Hall Of Famer will also be tacking up the Encosta Da Lago filly English, as well as Flamboyant Lass (whose sire, Stratrum, was a former winner of the event and has already sired one himself). The quartet is completed by Speak Fondly, whose presence at the barrier reminds us of the enormous loss suffered through the premature passing of his sire, Northern Meteor, by Australia's most fabled racehorse nursery, Widden, which rests at the toe end of one of that continent's most beautiful valleys.
Appropriately, for a race whose influence in the affairs of Australian bloodstock has been so profound, this year's renewal is a shoot-out between the best stallions in the land, as well as shaping up as one of the most potent renewals in recent memory.
Rosehill Gardens (p)