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Talking Points with Chris Scholtz

Flemington Farce; Whipping Up A Storm; Country Championships Conundrum.

Talking Points with Chris Scholtz

Flemington Farce; Whipping Up A Storm; Country Championships Conundrum.

FLEMINGTON FARCE

"Down on the fence was like lightning!" With those words Australian Cup winning jockey Michael Walker summed up the farce that racing became on Super Saturday at Flemington.


As the day evolved anybody with an interest in racing at Flemington – owners, trainers, jockeys, race club executives and, above all, the punters – felt universal dismay that such a great program of racing could be ruined by such an extreme bias that gave horses racing away from the fence over the last 600 metres next to no chance of winning.

The Newmarket Handicap did throw up the exception when Redkirk Warrior Horseform sailed down the outside fence – but that was not totally unexpected given that sprinter’s rare talent for straight racing and the many inexplicable vagaries of the straight course at Flemington.

In the end the races conducted on the circle were a bad look for racing on a premier race day and no doubt will lead to more recriminations within the VRC inner sanctum as those in charge search for more answers and solutions.

The sad thing is it’s a path they have been down numerous times, as recently as last month when they shuffled the track management deck chairs.

The wash-up for form analysts will be to circle the meeting in red as a reminder that what the results show on paper are far removed from the realities of the day and should not be taken on face value.

WHIPPING UP A STORM

Racing Victoria stewards will take the view that they have done their job but the whip penalties handed out to Redkirk Warrior’s rider Regan Bayliss – as severe as some may think – after the Newmarket Handicap result must leave the connections of Brave Smash and the punters who supported the imported sprinter with a sour taste.

The Newmarket was yet another example of just how reluctant stewards, as a national collective, are to invoke the written edict (one they formulated) that calls for whip protests to be entered – either by rival connections or stewards themselves - when there are severe breaches of the whip rules, especially when the margins are as a close as they were on Saturday.

Stewards suspended Bayliss for eight meetings and fined him $5000 for using the whip eight times, three more than allowed, before the 100 metres on Redkirk Warrior Horseform in the Newmarket.

They made the point that the penalties reflected the gravity of his breaches in a $1.25 million Group One event.

On paper that says there was more than enough grounds for the result to go to a protest hearing, given that there was only centimetres between Redkirk Warrior and Brave Smash on the line.

There was no mention, as the rules also imply, if the stewards advised the connections of Brave Smash before correct weight that they may have grounds to lodge a whip protest or, in fact, considered lodging a protest of their own.

The issue here is not whether the result is confirmed or overturned – what does matter is that justice is seen to be done for the owners of Brave Smash in the forum of the protest room by questioning whether Bayliss’ whip breaches were enough to affect the result.

As I’ve said many times before, the whip rules as written – introduced to appease the vocal animal welfare movement – are a burden the stewards can do without.

I concur completely with their stated national view that judging how much impact whip strikes effect the result of a race is an immeasurable grey area that cannot be defined by the rule book.

For that reason we have the situation of a virtual ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between stewards and riders not to go down the whip protest path, even though it is a denial of the rules as stated and robs rival connections of a just hearing.

Unfortunately there is no simple answer. Setting a higher standard of penalties where breaches as severe as the Bayliss example draw automatic relegation is completely impractical.

Yet there can be no easing of the whip rules for fear of horse racing – which is living a lot closer to the brink than those in the know will admit - coming under another massive attack from the influential animal protectionists that have long had the racing industry in their sights.

Aerial view of the Newmarket Handicap

COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIPS CONUNDRUM

The Country Championships have provided a great boost for NSW racing but there remains a flaw in the series that culminates with the $500,000 final at Randwick on April 7.

The final will be run seven weeks after the running of the first qualifying heat at Port Macquarie on February 18, yet just a week after the last wild card qualifier at Muswellbrook and 14 days after the last regional heat at Dubbo.

Clearly the qualifying time frame is too extreme, presenting the trainers of the horses that qualified in the early heats at Port Macquarie, Goulburn on February 24 and Mudgee on February 25 with the problem of finding extra races or barrier trials to fit their horses during the extended waiting time to the Randwick final.

This is the fourth year of the Country Championships and the results from the three previous finals at Randwick clearly spell out the preparations horses require to be at their peak to run over 1400m at Randwick.

In each of the three previous finals the first six horses each year - with just one exception - either raced or contested a barrier trial within 14 days of the final, a significant statistic that should tell Racing NSW that horses having to qualify some six or seven weeks beforehand face difficult preparations compared to those racing closer to the big day.

In each year the horses that contested the early qualifiers all had to have another start or at least a barrier trial but a program that would make life easier for all concerned if all the heats were scheduled closer to the final.

Unfortunately it will be the same this year as the trainers of the horses that qualified at Port Macquarie, Goulburn and Mudgee have said they are looking for extra races or trials to fit their horses for Randwick.

And this is not as simple as it sounds. Using the Port Macquarie winner Victorem Horseform and runner-up Awesome Pluck Horseform as examples, their heat results pushed their Benchmark ratings to 75 and 73 respectively.

Yet there is not a suitable event in their benchmark band programmed to be run between Newcastle and Grafton in March.

With their trainer Jenny Graham reluctant to travel both horses back to Sydney or elsewhere to race before the final, nor should be forced to, she has been in a dilemma working out programs that will have both horses ready to perform at their best over the testing Randwick 1400m on April 7.

The trainers of other early qualifiers are placed in similar positions by the scheduling of their regional heats, the general feeling being that their horses will be at a disadvantage against the horses that will come from heats and the wild card scheduled much closer to final day.

The results of the previous finals certainly support their cause.

In 2015 the final was run at Randwick on April 6. The winner Artlee Horseform raced on March 12 (Tamworth Qualifier) and March 29 (won Muswellbrook Wildcard) while the placegetters Tarangower Horseform and Voodoo Lad Horseform raced in the Tamworth heat and then won trials at Scone on March 24 and Warwick Farm on March 27.

In 2016 the final was run on April 2. The winner Clearly Innocent Horseform won the Scone heat on February 21 and won again at Scone on March 22 before the final. The second placed Pera Pera Horseform won the Wellington qualifier on March 13 and third placegetter Ever So Natural Horseform was second in the Taree qualifier on February 28 but had to race again on March 15 when second at Taree on 15.

In 2017 the final was run on April 1. The winner Free Standing Horseform is the exception to the rule as he went from the Grafton qualifier on February 13 direct to the final, but that was a program in keeping with his form history of well-spaced runs.

The placegetters Not For Export Horseform and Careless Choice qualified at Dubbo on February 19 and Scone on March 5. Not For Export had to race twice more at Scone in March before reaching the final and Careless Choice won a Scone trial on March 21.

Another significant statistic from the three previous finals shows that all winners and placegetters contested 1400m heats, yet the Port Macquarie qualifier is the only one of the six regional lead-ups in 2018 run over 1200m.

The solutions to making the Country Championships a more exciting and fairer series that is easier for competitors to manage is not a difficult exercise for Racing NSW.

Might I suggest containing the regional qualifiers to a tight timeframe with the six heats run over the same distance of 1400m on two consecutive weekends (three each weekend on Friday/Saturday/Sunday) within 21-28 days of the final. They can then be followed as they are now by a wild card heat seven to 10 days out from the big day.

The programming argument doesn’t hold water when it comes to a series of such importance.

The onus is on Racing NSW to rearrange the dates, venues and distances to fit the needs of all the horses and trainers that the Country Championships are designed for as the current schedule clearly favours some regions and disadvantages others.

Racing And Sports



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