Almost better than Xmas

ONE more sleep until what a friend describes as "Christmas Day for Adults". He's referring to Derby Day, unquestionably the finest day's racing on the Australian calendar.

While outsiders view the Melbourne Cup as racing's biggest day, for purists nothing beats Derby Day. As evident from tomorrow's nine races, it has it all. The Victoria Racing Club deserves kudos for taking this great day to a new level in recent years. We have seen the addition of the Myer Classic, a Group 1 race for fillies and mares. And, for the first time, the Ascot Vale Stakes, in a different time slot, takes on Group 1 status.

It is a fabulous day, but it can become ever better with some minor tinkering.

Swapping the Mackinnon and Emirates Stakes would only make the carnival stronger and attract greater interest. More of that later.

With the elevation of the Ascot Vale to the first day of the VRC carnival and Group 1 level, it presents Derby Day in a new light.

I now view the Ascot Vale Stakes as the most prestigious three-year-old race on the card. A bold call? Perhaps, but the winner, assuming it is a colt, is assured a stud career.

Sadly, the AAMI Victoria Derby, run at its present 2500m, is not. As has been documented during the week, Victoria Derby winners rarely progress to Caulfield and Melbourne Cup wins and are having minimal impact on our breeding scene.

Administrators face three alternatives in dealing with this issue: they can show some foresight and decrease the Derby distance to a more feasible 2000m, move the race to the autumn or sit on their hands and hope the debate will fade away.

A Derby run over 2000m is more relevant at this time of a three-year-old's career. It is not a singular view. Most horsemen believe the 2500m Derby is largely meaningless.

It is not a true test of a horse's ability to stretch out and stay over a distance because more often than not the race is run at a farcical tempo, which reduces the race to a contest of which horse can sprint home the quickest.

We often have major races run at farcically slow or stop-start speeds.

Three that spring to mind in the past fortnight are the Toorak Handicap, the Norman Robinson Stakes and the Skyy Blue Plate, all at Caulfield.

Lack of speed in all three led to a host of unlucky runners and even more infuriating is that most runners had little or no hope of winning by the halfway mark. An unsatisfactory result for all concerned.

Punters want to see genuine contests. Makybe Diva's enthralling duel with Vinnie Roe in the 2004 Melbourne Cup epitomises what racing is about.

During the year, when I campaigned Glamour Puss in the Global Sprint Challenge in England, I witnessed a different culture of racing, particularly with pacemakers.

Pacemakers offer a genuine tempo, ensure the race is run truly and provide every horse with a chance to perform at their best.

While pacemakers would help develop races into true tests of a horse's ability to stay, I can understand why they would not work in Australia.

Most pacemakers in Europe come from the powerful stables -- Godolphin, Coolmore, Sir Michael Stoute -- where the pacemaker is owned in the same interests as the other stable runner. Such a situation does not exist here. You couldn't expect an owner to sacrifice his horse for the sake of another owner's horse in the same stable.

The need for genuine speed in races is on the mind of the international trainers. They want the Melbourne Cup run at a tempo where the race becomes a true staying test.

It should be something that local trainers also embrace.

Back to making this great carnival even better. With the Salinger and the Ascot Vale on the opening day and the Group 2 Classic on the final day, the VRC has the sprint races perfectly situated.

What needs to be adjusted are the middle-distance races. The role of the Mackinnon on Derby Day demands investigation. No longer does it serve as a lead-up to the Cup.

Why not swap it with the Emirates Stakes, move the Mackinnon to bolster the final day of the carnival, bump it up to $1 million or more and it would appeal on many fronts.

The Emirates Stakes, a race I won last year with Valedictum, is a great race, but it would be equally as good on the carnival's first day. It would give a two-week break from the Toorak Handicap. A perfect fit.

The last day of the carnival could be livened up with the Mackinnon. It would allow those horses that contested the Cox Plate a two-week back-up. What a mouth-watering end to the carnival.

It could have international appeal, provide a timely lead-up to horses heading to the Japan Cup and/or international day in Hong Kong.

It is food for thought, but first let's dine on the feast of racing at Derby Day.

by Danny O'Brien - Herald Sun

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