• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 8:21pm
On The Rails
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 3:58am

Selection for Derby should be delayed to the 11th hour

Current form is so much more important - and the panel should take that into account

BIO

Alan Aitken has worked in all facets of the media and was the master of the famous AJC Punters Podium at Sydney racecourses for many years. He was one of Australia's most respected racing journalists over almost two decades with The Sydney Morning Herald before joining SCMP in 2001. Alan also has extensive magazine and radio experience and is a respected racing form analyst.
 

If the mishmash which has been the BMW Derby field selection this year has suggested anything, it is that the Jockey Club might save a lot of pain and an equal amount of face with a later announcement of the runners.

Of course, this year has been made more difficult by the low threshold required for consideration, which means so many more fringe candidates, but timing the announcement of the Derby field has looked a problem for at least the past two years.

In 2012, it was almost Real Specialist, rated 83 on selection day, who would have missed the cut but for an out-of-character appeal by trainer John Size, who generally rolls with the punches in such situations.

It wasn't just some wild cry for special treatment, either. Size was correct in his assessment that leaving Real Specialist out would look foolish down the track as the horse continued to lift his profile - Real Specialist currently holds a rating of 120.

And it would have looked foolish even a few days later when the gelding won on the weekend before the Derby to lift his figure to 89 before the classic.

Which brings us to this year and last Sunday.

Albiceleste failed - albeit with incidents in running against him - and Sunny Ying won and took his rating to 85.

Background politicking went in to overdrive and rival trainers questioned why Albiceleste should be allowed to run in the Derby, but it was too late. Unless he was injured, he was in the race.

Before Sunny Ying ran at Happy Valley, his trainer John Moore had received indications from officials that a worthwhile run would get him a Derby start. Alas, he was caught wide and there was no way to judge his performance as either good or bad, merely as without luck.

He missed out for the Derby, while another Moore horse, Albiceleste, massively flattered by a walking tempo in finishing fourth at Happy Valley on his local debut, gained inclusion.

After Sunday, Moore probably wouldn't have minded swapping them around but that isn't possible and the way the reserves were structured left the whole thing as quite unsatisfactory. You had an in-form Jolly Victor, elevated for reasons of recent form but still only first reserve.

And then you had Crackerjack. If you were trainer Derek Cruz you would be quite justified in considering the whole thing a lottery.

Last year, Cruz had Wrath Of Fire looking for a Derby start off an 80 rating but charging up the charts with wins at three of his previous five starts. He was made second reserve on the basis of not having enough rating.

This year, Crackerjack was the Cruz horse chasing a start and, after three just fair runs, his rating had dropped from 90 to 86 but was still high enough to justify inclusion. Cruz found himself on the wrong side of the pendulum and with the second reserve again as Crackerjack lacked recent form.

So what's the right answer? Well, the right answer is current form, but that conflicts with the club having actively encouraged owners to spend considerable money on horses with overseas form and higher ratings, however inflated, from the UK and Europe in particular.

Most of those horses will wave farewell to those falsely generated high ratings upon arrival and never see them again. With increased competition now from Australia to buy these middle-distance types in the western hemisphere, the right horse is getting harder to find and the prices never get cheaper.

The disappointment quotient when they can't fire here grows larger and getting a start in the Derby, for the sake of that leftover rating, at least offers a "face" consolation.

In any race, current form is so much more important than any rating earned a year ago, that it doesn't bear discussion.

So then you've got to ask why the Derby selection panel makes this worse by not making the final decision at the latest reasonable moment.

We suspect it is due to media lead times - not racing media but the general media - the club announces the field at the annual faux press conference 11 days before the Derby. Some star of stage or screen turns up driving a flashy car or dancing Gangnam style and that is used to get the Derby awareness with the non-racing audience. We understand that, we're just not sure why it has to be 11 days before.

If Derby hopefuls can still run the week prior to enhance their status, shouldn't the announcement wait until the Monday? Or if it really does need to be early, maybe the big announcement could entail the bulk of the field - the headline horses anyway - with fringe spots hinging on what happens at the 11th hour.

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