As foreigners flock to the Melbourne Cup, Australia risks breeding itself out of the race
Stayers like Highland Reel bring in less for breeding “services” than less decorated sprinters. (ABC News: Ben Lisson)
When Vintage Crop became the first international horse to win the Melbourne Cup in 1993, it was a sign of things to come.
The race has been increasingly dominated by horses bred and trained overseas, to the point where some in the local industry are wondering how much longer Australian-bred horses can compete for the multi-million-dollar prize.
“Because we’re a nation which wants to get a quick return, sprinting ranks are really where people are breeding them,” said Adam Sangster, a long-time breeder who runs a stud in central Victoria.
The breeding market in Australia incentivises selling sprinting horses, Sangster said, whereas the “stayers”, who are more likely to win longer events like the Melbourne Cup, are increasingly being bred in Europe.
“In the commercial market, you may not get the return [for a stayer], and that’s where the difficulty is.”
Despite lengthening odds for Australian breeders, Adam Sangster is hopeful of producing a future Melbourne Cup winner. (ABC News: Ben Lisson)
Sprinters in hot demand
Sangster has had some seriously successful stallions, and one of the best is Highland Reel — a seven-time group one winner with millions in prize money to his name.
His “services” should fetch a fortune, but a stayer doesn’t attract the same fees as other horses.
Highland Reel’s asking price for a “service” is $16,000, just a third of the fee that similar-aged but less-decorated sprinters would attract.
That price difference is indicative of an industry that’s changed quickly, and potentially damaged the chances of the nation producing another Melbourne Cup winner.
And there may be no quick fixes.
“It’s about race programs, it’s about commitment by breeders and commitment by owners to buying staying types,” Thoroughbred Breeders Victoria’s (TBV) Patrick Clancy said.
“There is no silver bullet solution.”
Patience a lost virtue
One of the key challenges in breeding stayers is the patience required.
In Europe, horses that are geared for longer races are kept in the paddocks until they are closer to three years old.
They won’t race until they’re aerobically capable of taking on longer distances.
International horses like Media Puzzle have added to the drama of the Melbourne Cup in the last couple of decades. (AAP: Joe Castro)
That’s not the case in Australia where, according to TBV, one in 244 people own a share in a racehorse.
“Syndicators and the trainers want to win the [sprinting] races, because that’s where the big money is when you are syndicating a stallion,” Sangster said.
“[Training a stayer] is not a quick process, it’s a little bit of a patient process, as Bart Cummings always said.”
In Europe, owners tend to be richer and more willing to wait.
“It’s extremely difficult to beat the Northern Hemisphere at its own game,” said Clancy.
When owners do take on stayers in Australia, there aren’t many races in which to earn prize money and justify training expenses.
TBV believes a rethink of race programming could shift the market back in favour of stayers.
“There needs to be some more work done by authorities right around Australia to grow the amount of longer distance races — particularly for three-year-olds,” Clancy said.
‘We’ve all given up’
Mick Kent, a trainer based at Cranbourne, in Melbourne’s south-east, believes the dream of an Australian-bred horse winning the Melbourne Cup is fading.
“We’ve all given up, I think,” he said.
“The Europeans look too strong, so we’ve given up and I think people will give up breeding stayers soon because they pay a penalty at the sales.
“It’s Australia’s race, it was synonymous with the little battler who could have a chance with a lightweight handicap and get in that race and win it.
“It’s not that anymore, is it?”
Kent is concerned the internationalisation of the Cup has damaged its romantic appeal.
“I think it’s losing that real Australian feel to it,” he said.
“I can see there’s merit in [the international appeal] … but maybe it’s gone too far.
“I just worry about all the money going out of our country, prize money and spending money.”
The race that stops a nation isn’t losing any followers for the moment, but for some in the industry, the odds are increasingly stacked against them.
The British-bred, Australian-trained Makybe Diva won a hat trick of Melbourne Cups from 2003 to 2005. (AAP: Joe Castro)