Things We Learned » Weight matters

Weight matters

It is impossible to know how Ursa Major would have fared had he run in the Ebor at York instead of in the Irish St Leger Trial at The Curragh on Saturday but, given the manner in which the son of Galileo battled on to beat the exciting Hartani in the latter contest, the pair of them clear, it is reasonable to expect that he would have at least gone close in the Ebor.

This is an annual event now, the presentation of the glaring anomaly that exists with the Ebor, purportedly one of the most competitive all-aged staying handicaps on the European racing calendar. Ursa Major’s rating of 106 meant that he was officially the joint-sixth best horse in the race at entry stage, but the 12lb weight-for-age allowance that three-year-olds receive over a mile and six furlongs at this stage of the season meant that he was never in with a realistic chance of getting to run in the race. As things turned out, a three-year-old would have needed a rating of 109 – the same as top weight Steps To Freedom – to be guaranteed a run in Saturday’s race.

The numbers of three-year-olds who have run in the Ebor in each of he last 10 renewals, from 2003 to 2012 respectively, have been as follows: 1 (finished third), 2 (third and 16th), 0, 0, 2 (second and 16th), 0, 1 (second), 0, 0, 0. So a grant total of six three-year-olds have run in the race in the last 10 years – and just one in the last five – with the race being run without a representative of the Classic generation in six of those 10 renewals, including in the last three.

(Deleted) It has been obvious for about a decade that the race has changed – five of the eight renewals before 2003 were won by a three-year-old. More high-weighted older horses are running in the race, with the result that the three-year-olds are simply not getting a chance to compete, and there has been a noted reluctance to alter the ballotting system from a weight-based system to a ratings-based system, as the Irish authorities did after last year’s Galway Hurdle.

Perhaps the thinking is that a weight-based system, in effectively excluding all but the very highest-rated three-year-olds from the Ebor, makes the race more competitive, that there is less of a chance of a potentially well-handicapped older horse blowing the market and the race apart than there is of a potentially well-handicapped three-year-old doing the same thing. If that is the thinking, then why not make the race what it effectively is, a handicap for older horses, not for three-year-olds, and explicitly exclude three-year-olds in the race conditions, like they do with Group 1 contests like the Queen Anne Stakes and the Prince of Wales’s Stakes?

Of course, the other logical conclusion, if that is the thinking, is that the weight-for-age scale is wrong, that 12lb is too much for three-year-olds to receive from their elders over a mile and six furlongs at this time of year. But Admiral Rous’s scale has remained intact through the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Klondike Gold Rush, the foundation of the GAA, the Second Industrial Revolution and two world wars, so it is unlikely to undergo too radical a change any time soon.

Melrose magic

One of the repercussions of the changing face of the Ebor is that the Melrose Handicap – the Ebor for three-year-olds – is becoming a progressively better race, simply because the three-year-olds are being forced to into the race as an alternative to the feature.

This year’s renewal of the Melrose was chock full of nicely progressive staying types, and at least the first four home – Guarantee, Biographer, Cardinal Walter and Mysterious Man – should be worth following in the future. Of those four, Mysterious Man and Guarantee are the most interesting. Mysterious Man was the only one of the first four home to chase what turned out the be a really fast pace, while Guarantee was the best horse in the race on the day, and may have been the best horse in the race regardless of how it had been run.

Remarkably, the winning time was over three seconds faster than the time that Willing Foe recorded in winning the Ebor itself 70 minutes later over the same course and distance, admittedly off a sedate early pace. Guarantee showed an impressive turn of foot two furlongs out and stayed on nicely once he hit the front to win well. This was just his fourth ever race, he should progress again and, although a 10lb hike still leaves him with 19lb to find with Camelot, he would be well worth his place in the St Leger line up.

No certainties

We learned this week, once again, that there are no certainties in racing (not even taxes any more), and if you had gone in search of a price about the Johnny Murtagh/HH The Aga Khan alliance not lasting until the end of the 2012 flat season, after the rider had partnered the owner’s sadly ill-fated Valyra to victory in the Prix de Diane in June, you would have been quoted very long odds indeed.

There are no winners in this scenario: the rider has lost one of the best jobs in the country, the owner has lost one of the best riders in Europe. Perhaps Murtagh’s replacement, if there is one, will be the main winner – Shane Foley and Ben Curtis head the bookmakers’ lists at present – but there has to be a chance that the Aga Khan will not appoint a replacement. After all, he didn’t have a retained rider in Ireland before Murtagh’s appointment.

In that instance, John Oxx would probably be looking for a stable jockey. What weight can Michael Kinane do these days?

Oliver’s army

Andy Oliver’s star-spangled season continued last weekend when Punch Your Weight – a once-raced maiden winner, a three-year-old – won the Irish Cambridgeshire on Saturday, and First Cornerstone won the Group 2 Futurity Stakes on Sunday. A Breeders’ Cup tilt for the latter may seem a little adventurous at the moment, but why not? Wasn’t it adventurism that got him here? And why not target the Cheveley Park Stakes with Sendmylovetorose? The County Tyrone-based trainer is one of the stories of the 2012 flat season.

Grade 1 fillies

The introduction of two Grade 1 races for National Hunt fillies and mares is obviously very good news for Irish breeders, but the change in grades is only half the battle. Prize money pots, profiles and communications strategies are needed now, aimed at attracting the very best National Hunt fillies and mares from Britain and France as well as from all four corners of Ireland. It is imperative that the races now live up to their billings. It is important that the Grade 1 designation does not have a hollow ring to it.

© The Irish Field, 1st September 2012