Long live the handicap, the future of racing.
Well, the future in many places, even if its importance is slowly being eroded in Australia – as seen by the disgrace that was the two-kilogram spread in the Epsom Handicap recently.
Nevertheless, this weekend sees the Caulfield Cup, one of Australia’s “big four” – along with the Melbourne Cup, Cox Plate and Golden Slipper – and a keystone of Hong Kong’s simulcast coverage. And, shock horror, it is a handicap – as is Australia’s biggest race, and the Caulfield Cup’s big brother, the Melbourne Cup.
It is something at which mother England sniggers – how can a “mere handicap” have such significance? – but it is the British approach that is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world, in particular the areas in which turnover is booming and racing is a growing product.
Saturday gives Hong Kong punters the chance to bet on three races from Caulfield, including the all-important Caulfield Cup, while five of the six races from Champions Day at Ascot are covered – only the Long Distance Cup is missing.
WATCH: Northerly and Fields Of Omagh, both eventual two-time Cox Plate winners, quinella the 2002 Caulfield Cup
But while Champions Day is meant to be the culmination of the British flat season and the focus of the racing world this weekend with its “championship” concept, there will be far more Hong Kong interest in the Caulfield Cup.
Forget the fact that Sha Tin-based jockeys Zac Purton and Chad Schofield are riding, or that there is ownership interest in this part of the world in Gust Of Wind, Grand Marshal and emergency, former Hongkonger Dibayani.
By its very nature, Hong Kong punters are more drawn to handicaps than they are to set weights races.
This will, of course, come as outrageous and an insult to British purists so assured of their own superiority and the superiority of set weights racing, but truthfully, their showcase meeting of the autumn has been upstaged by an antipodean handicap on the world stage.
For those of you that disagree, consider this – these are not handicaps in the traditional British sense, where the perception is that handicaps are second-class contests. Traditionally, that has been true, particularly in the UK where handicaps on the flat are contested by second-tier horses – you will never see top horses in races like the Ebor, the Cesarewitch, the Cambridgeshire, the Stewards’ Cup or the Ayr Gold Cup. It doesn’t happen.
But these handicaps – the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup primarily – feature genuine Group One horses, types that in the UK would never, ever contest a handicap.
Imagine a Hardwicke Stakes winner or a dual Derby winner in a handicap in the UK? Even a consistent horse like Royal Descent, an Oaks winner but placed in eight Group One races since, would never be seen in a handicap.
Handicaps are the lifeblood of racing in Hong Kong. Of the 777 races run at Sha Tin and Happy Valley last season, only 19 were not handicaps – and all were at Group One or Group Two level.
In what seems shocking to many elsewhere, every horse runs in handicaps at some point whether they are rated 34 or 134 – even those at the top of the ratings, the crème de la crème, find themselves in handicaps.
Of Hong Kong’s current top 10 horses by domestic ratings – Able Friend, Designs On Rome, Gold-Fun, Blazing Speed, Military Attack, Aerovelocity, Dan Excel, Lucky Nine and Rich Tapestry – only one has not run in a handicap in the past season, that being a horse who hasn’t run in Hong Kong for almost two years, globetrotter Rich Tapestry.
Yes, even Able Friend ran in a handicap last year, when he finished fourth to Aerovelocity first-up in the Premier Bowl, giving him 11 pounds. A similar scenario presents itself in the same race next weekend, when Able Friend meets Hong Kong’s best sprinters under handicap conditions.
WATCH: Aerovelocity wins the 2014 Premier Bowl, with Able Friend fourth
So for Hong Kong punters, the Caulfield Cup presents as a much more fascinating race than the features on Champions Day. The Balmoral Handicap will be of some interest, but still, it features second-tier milers, with the best going around in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
Imagine the best from the Queen Elizabeth II – Solow, Gleneagles, Territories – taking on the handicappers from the Balmoral, having to give them weight. It will never happen and will be seen as laughable by purists, but it is something that would be fascinating to watch and would make for a great betting race.
The questions about the Caulfield Cup are already well established. Will Snow Sky, a winner of the Yorkshire Cup and Hardwicke Stakes, be able to lump 58kg to victory? Will a horse like Magnapal, completely outclassed but carrying 50kg, be able to give a show? And what about the match-ups? For example, Mongolian Khan beat Hauraki in the Australian Derby in April by three quarters of a length at set weights. Can Hauraki turn the tables carrying 2kg less?
It is a race that creates far more discussion about the potential outcome and generates a far more lively betting race than any of the Champions Day features.
In fact, the most interesting question about Champions Day will be the most popular query of the year – will Gleneagles actually line up for once?
The hallmarks of fierce debate and spirited betting will be the same next weekend when Able Friend returns.
Can the Horse of the Year return after his disappointing Ascot campaign and score over a distance short of his best? Add in that he’s a fairly gross horse anyway, carrying plenty of condition naturally, and it’s a tough ask of him.
These are questions that would be asked in a set weights race regardless, but throw him into a handicap where he will carry 133 pounds against Gold-Fun (127 pounds), Aerovelocity (124 pounds), Lucky Nine (122 pounds), Peniaphobia (122 pounds), Dundonnell (120 pounds), Not Listenin'tome (118 pounds) and Super Jockey (114 pounds) – and it suddenly becomes far more fascinating and a terrific betting race.
Last year, Able Friend was sent out a 5.0 second favourite with Aerovelocity favourite at 4.0. Had it been under set weights conditions, the giant chestnut would have been even money, if not into the red.
In the 12 months since, both have gone to new heights, but Aerovelocity only has to carry two pounds extra over distance at which he is naturally more suited.
Who will be favourite? And who will win?
Let the debates begin.