THE ASCENT OF EVEREST
The Stronach Racing group has often been a trail blazer on the international turf. A couple of years ago they came up with a proposal for the richest Thoroughbred horse race in the world. Named The Pegasus World Cup, the event has been contested at Gulfstream Park (a Stronach-owned track in Miami, Florida) in January 2017 and again this year. The race is on dirt at 9 furlongs.
Emulating them is the Australian Turf Club (formed by the merger of the Australian Jockey Club and the Sydney Turf Club in 2011). They framed a turf race over 1200 m., to run in which connections were required to purchase “slots” at the cost of A$600,000 (about Rs.3.12 crores) per year, for three years, to guarantee a spot for a runner in the starting gate each year. This spot can be traded freely, with the slot holder allowed to nominate any horse of its choosing. The race was named “The Everest”, after the tallest mountain in the world. The total pool, made up of the slot holders’ funds along with added money, has made this the richest turf contest in the world.
The inaugural running was won by the swift Redzel (by Snitzel), who is back for another crack in the second running, scheduled for Saturday, October 13th at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse. Pencilled in for a 4:15 p.m. start (10:45 a.m. in India), the race is worth Australian $13 million (about Rs.68 crores), with the winner’s share being A$6,000,000 (about Rs.31 crores). This makes it the world’s richest race on turf, with only the dirt-based Dubai World Cup and The Pegasus World Cup offering a greater prize.
In its inaugural year, slot holders – who were entitled to either race their own horses or contract with the connections of other horses to run on their behalf, with a share of the prize money and/or breeding rights on the line – tended to wait to declare their nominees. It was only in the last month or so prior to the race that the shape of the field began to become known. This year, most of the selected runners were nominated several months ago, with the actual field being in a state of flux, due to horses dropping out and others climbing the ranks. This has sharpened public interest and kept Everest fever on the boil.
An additional hot topic was the controversial decision to beam the draw numbers and colours of the participants onto the sails of the iconic Sydney Opera House as a promotional stunt. Opinion has been sharply divided as to whether this amounts to desecrating a national monument or is a non-issue since there is no damage to the structure. It’s a case similar to Yanni performing at the Taj Mahal in Agra back in 1997.
Sydney has had over 50 mm. of rain last week and more precipitation is forecast, which means the going will be heavy.
With just a couple of days to go, plans have been firmed up. The final slot was nailed down just last Tuesday when Godolphin’s Home Of The Brave spiked a fever and was replaced by the same owner’s Osborne Bulls (by Street Cry). A dozen runners have been declared and another five are reserves who will draw in should there be any defections. These twelve include the first international runner in the Everest, U S Navy Flag (by War Front), who hails from Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien‘s Co. Tipperary yard, better known as Ballydoyle.
And it is to this runner to whom we turn to start this preview. The first horse in 35 years to complete the Middle Park Stakes-Dewhurst Stakes double as a juvenile last year, U S Navy Flag did not make a propitious start to his 2018 campaign. In fact he failed to prevail on each of his first four starts this term, leading to concerns over whether he had trained on, before bouncing back with a stellar performance in the Gr.1 Darley July Cup at Newmarket. He has not been seen in public since (91 days), but has arrived “Down Under” apparently in good spirits. Ryan Moore is making the long trip and the colt is available with British bookmakers at 10 to 1. Soft or heavy ground would be against his prospects.
Runner-up to Redzel last year, beaten just three-parts of a length, is former Western Australia-based six-year-old Vega Magic (by Lope De Vega), who moved to the New South Wales training team of David Hayes, Ben Hayes and Tom Dabernig in 2017. Bookmakers have him as the 6 to 1 favourite despite concerns over his form. His draw position (#7) is marginally better than the #10 gate from which he was dispatched last year and he gets a new rider in Damien Oliver – Craig Williams steered him last year. Also, blinkers – which he has raced in, but which were removed – return as part of his equipment. Incidentally, he suffered a devastating injury requiring 200 stitches to repair some months ago but has bounced back with a fine victorious effort in the Gr.3 Bletchingly Stakes in July followed by a near miss in the Gr.1 Memsie Stakes last month.
Redzel has also been inconsistent of late and perhaps age is catching up, with his performances in 2018 being 5 to 10 rating points lower than last year. Leading rider Kerrin McEvoy will continue his association with the gelding, sent out by the father-and-son duo of Peter and Paul Snowden. Drawn 1 on the rail, he is quoted at 13 to 2, about the same price as last year. This time he races under the auspices of Yulong Investments, the slot holder. He has performed well on soft ground.
At the same price is Trapeze Artist (also by Snitzel), who has to his credit a dynamic victory over Redzel in the Gr.1 Darley T.J. Smith Stakes over course and distance in April this year. Gerald Ryan’s ward goes well for Tye Angland and the same rider will be at the controls here. Their slot was contracted six months ago by the Queensland-based Aquis Farm.
The Japanese-bred Brave Smash (by Tosen Phantom) defied the odds last year when checking in with a third-placed effort. He is back for another shot in an interesting partnership between rival trainers. Chris Waller, who has the astonishing privilege of housing the great Winx, has done a deal with Darren Weir, the schooler of Brave Smash. Waller, the slot holder, offered this perspective: “A top-ten trainer is a top trainer for a reason, so you know you’re going into the race with a well-prepared horse and it will be a lot easier watching Brave Smash running for $13 million than it was watching Winx”. Weir responded with the dry comment: “I didn’t organise the slot, I just train the horse”. Hugh Bowman, who will be remembered forever in turf history as the pilot of Winx, takes the ride on the 14 to 1 chance that prefers to come from behind.
Had Santa Ana Lane (by Lope De Vega) won at his penultimate start over 1100 m. in early September, instead of turning in a slightly below-part effort, he would have been coming in here as the winner of his last four starts. So if one can excuse that run, and pay more attention to his course and distance win last time out, one would find 7 to 1 an attractive price about the six-year-old gelding. Moreover he will enjoy the cut in the ground. Ben Melham will take the reins on the Anthony Freedman trainee. The last-named will have a second crack at the cherry through Shoals (by Fastnet Rock) on whom Timothy Clark will do duty.
The only Southern Hemisphere three-year-old to grace the occasion is Graff (by Star Witness), entrusted to the charge of Brenton Avdulla. Trainer Kris Lees has placed his ward carefully to win thrice from 5 starts, with a second and third to boot. However, he is relatively unseasoned and will be facing company far tougher than he has previously encountered. He will wear ear-muffs during the preliminaries which will be removed at the start. Lees also sends out Le Romain (by Hard Spun), who will be freshly equipped with winkers; the six-year-old likes Randwick and also appreciates the kind of going he will be encountering. Easy to back at 20 to 1, he was runner-up to Winx last time out – and she has won again since.
Tactics – to wait or to charge off in front – will play a role in determining the final result. Should they run to form, the names of Redzel, Santa Ana Lane, Trapeze Artist and Vega Magic should be to the fore. If conditions play into the hands of outsiders, Le Romain might just be the one.