Club must open up international trial races to lure foreign champs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 September, 2008, 12:00am

The visit by Takeover Target in 2006 may have ended up with drug-related headlines and some ill-feeling on the part of trainer Joe Janiak, but during his stay the iconic Australian horseman may have sowed the seeds of significant change for our international races.

At the time, Takeover Target was a runaway leader on the Global Sprint Challenge scorecard and he was being aimed at the final leg of the series, the HK$12 million Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint, a race ultimately won in his absence by Absolute Champion.

But before falling foul of the strict Hong Kong drug rules with his horse, Janiak raised a good point - why is the Group Two International Sprint Trial, or the Mile and Cup Trials for that matter, restricted to local horses only?

Janiak said that if the Sprint Trial had been open to foreign horses, Takeover Target would definitely have contested the November lead-up to our signature sprint race the following month - steroids and stewards notwithstanding.

Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges was, at the time, executive director of racing. He said Janiak's idea was a valid one, but the club would not be in a position to do anything about it until after the Olympics, when the new stabling - built for the Equestrian Games - would be taken over by its builder and financier, the Jockey Club.

Well, the Olympics and Paralympics have been run and won and the Jockey Club now gets its legacy value from the Games - badly needed new stabling that opens up a whole new set of possibilities.

To understand some of these, let's look at how overseas jurisdictions handle this sort of thing as they attempt to make international travel more attractive to connections of the world's best horses.

Steve Asmussen, trainer of Curlin - the number-one galloper on the planet - insisted his champion must have a lead-up race on the dirt in Dubai if he was going to accept an invitation to run in the world's equal-richest race, the US$6 million Dubai World Cup last March.

Curlin went to Dubai early, created enormous interest from around the world in doing so, won the lead-up as you might expect and then fulfilled the dream by landing the big one by a record 73/4 lengths.

In fact, for each of the feature Group Ones on Dubai World Cup night, there is a corresponding lead-up race on the 'super Thursday' fixture at Nad al Sheba racecourse three weeks earlier - all open to visitors. This has become a self-sustaining highlight meeting of the Dubai International Racing Carnival.

Similarly, the Japan Racing Association made the Group Two Centaur Stakes at Hanshin an international race and a tempting lead-up to their premier short-course event, the Group One Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama.

In Australia, two of the three successful international raiders on the Melbourne Cup have had a lead-up race beforehand - Media Puzzle (2002) in the Geelong Cup and Delta Blues (2006) in the Caulfield Cup.

What about the possibility of Curlin racing in Hong Kong this December? Sceptics might say that's a nice 1,000-1 pop, but he's a huge chance to be at least nominated and we know from the Dubai experience that Asmussen would insist on there being a suitable lead-up race before he took the idea seriously.

The first of the International Trials - the Group Two Cathay Pacific International Cup Trial (2,000m) - is scheduled for November 16, less than two months away. So if anything is going to happen by way of opening the Trial races up for 2008, it has to happen now.