An Aussie Racing Experience

By Melissa Bauer-Herzog

When I moved to Australia in July, I expected some things in the racing industry to be different than the U.S., but I wasn’t prepared for exactly how different.

I knew that speed was a main focus for many breeders, but the intensity of that focus didn’t hit me until I moved to the Hunter Valley, where the big focus is getting early, fast 2-year-old runners. From the mating plans to the foals, everything I’ve seen while here has been about getting them ready to go right after their 2-year-old birthday Aug. 1. This was extremely evident to me during the first big 2-year-old barrier trials of the season at Canterbury in mid-September, when the office nearly came to a standstill every time a trial went off.

Trials obviously aren’t the end-all, but they can create hype for a first-crop sire, as it’s the first real look the industry gets of his runners in a race-like situation. With the first trials taking place only a few weeks after the breeding seasons open here, it seemed like the hype helped at least some stallions attract a few more mares to their books.

While there’s always buzz about certain stallions in the U.S. when their first juveniles are performing well at the 2-year-old sales and in workouts, trials take it to the next level in Australia because it’s easy to find trial replays. The replays give stallion farms an advantage with their younger stallions because they can quickly direct a potential breeder to videos of the stallion’s runners early in the season.

As a pedigree nerd, one thing that has caught my eye in the country is how different, yet similar our pedigrees are. Obviously, U.S. stallion Danzig has played a big part in the Australian industry through his son Danehill, but he’s not the only U.S. stallion here. Mr. Prospector pops up a fair amount through his sons and grandsons as well.

Elusive Quality is quite the useful sire in the U.S. and that tradition is carrying on down here. His son Sepoy sired his first Group 1 winner last weekend, but it’s through Elusive Quality’s daughters that he seems to show up the most. He’s the broodmare sire of Australian Group 1 winners Guelph and Shooting to Win among others, with most of his top runners born in just the last seven years.

An interesting Mr. Prospector son who looks like a sneaky good broodmare sire is Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. I seem to see Fusaichi Pegasus more in Australian pedigrees than I do in the U.S. Runners out of Fusaichi Pegasus’s daughters have won nearly $22 million in Australia and he is the broodmare sire of last year’s G1 Blue Diamond S. winner Catchy and 2016 G1 Golden Slipper S. winner Capitalist, just to name a few.

The Northern Dancer line has obviously proved popular through Danehill, but other branches are alive and well “down under” too. A fast sprinter himself, it’s no surprise to see Tale of the Cat in pedigrees here, with multiple Australian group stakes winners out of his daughters. I’ve been told the Storm Cat line is one people like as well, and that’s been backed up with seeing his sons and grandsons in the pedigrees whenever I look at a race program.

Last but certainly not least are Medaglia d’Oro and More Than Ready. Interestingly, the More Than Readys I have seen look much like those in the U.S. But the handful of Medaglia d’Oro foals and yearlings I’ve seen here definitely lean more toward the Aussie sprinter build than the longer distance build in North America. It’s been a learning experience to see the foals here by stallions I’m familiar with at home because I find it easier to really see the differences in the Australian Thoroughbred when I’ve seen what a stallion produces with North American mares.

Speaking of pedigrees, racing isn’t just in the blood of horses in this country. For years, I’ve heard that in Australia even a taxi driver can own part of a racehorse. I thought it was just a saying to show how popular racing is, but I found out about an hour after landing in Australia that it’s true.

Dragging myself into a cab after a 24-hour journey from the U.S., I ended up with a very chatty driver. It didn’t take long for racehorses to come up and he quickly told me he owns a piece of multiple racehorses and goes to Sydney racetracks whenever he gets a chance.

I just put it off to coincidence until going to the track in late August and seeing exactly how much people in Australia love racing. No matter who I talked to, they could tell me in-depth details about multiple horses on the card and why they liked or didn’t like the horse.

Even as someone who has seen the reception Zenyatta and American Pharoah got from fans, nothing prepared me for the Australian on-track experience. Part of the pre-race ritual is horses going into an area where they are in tie stalls as they wait for their race. The really cool thing is that fans can get pretty up close and personal to them, with horses walking by maybe 10 feet away and tied up where everyone can see them for an hour or so before their race.

Between the stall experience and horses running quite often over a few months in the same area (for example, Champagne Cuddles ran in Sydney five times over a 43-day period in July and August), fans seem to feel more attached to the horses than just seeing them in the paddock for 10 minutes before a race.

I was told that I had never experienced anything like Winx’s seasonal debut before and it was true. From the time she arrived at the stalls to the time she headed back on the van to her barn, there was a buzz at the track. Trying to get a spot at the stalls and then in the paddock was a bit like being in The Hunger Games, but the coolest thing was the applause she got every time the fans saw her.

Joining the racing industry in Australia has been a bit of a culture shock, but experiencing it is definitely something I recommend everyone try at least once in their life if they get the chance. They won’t be disappointed.

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