The easiest way to classify The Championships, which begin tonight at Royal Randwick in Sydney, is to compare the crown jewel of Australia’s Autumn Carnival of racing to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
Just add more than 150 years of tradition to several of the races, while at the same time, considering that The Championships in its current format dates to 2014. The Breeders’ Cup began in 1984.
The Championships consist of 12 races run over two days, but a week apart from one another, on the first and second Saturdays of April. Like the Breeders’ Cup, the races determine champions over different age groups and distances. Also like the Breeders’ Cup, the event features a high level of racing – eight of the 12 races are Group (Grade) 1s. And, again like the Breeders’ Cup, the social atmosphere surrounding the races is festive, active and — well not this year.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Championships are being run this year without spectators. They are also running with more than AU $9 million slashed from the purses of the 12 races due to closures of onsite betting facilities in pubs, clubs, and retail agencies. Dwindling sponsorships further explain the cuts.
Four Group 1 Races Headline Day 1
Despite the setbacks, The Championships will go on, with four Group 1 races headlining tonight’s card. The first is the AU $500,000 Inglis Sires Stakes, which comes two weeks after the country’s top juveniles ran the Golden Slipper — the richest race in the world for 2-year-olds. One of those, Mamaragan, is back and established as the 5/2 favorite in the Inglis Sires. His favorite status directly ties into his third-place finish at the Golden Slipper, going off at 15/1 in only his second start.
Then comes the AU $1 million Australian Derby, one of the country’s most prestigious races. The 1 ½-mile Derby began in 1861, making it 14 years older than the Kentucky Derby and the same age as the Melbourne Cup. Four horses make this a competitive handicapping exercise, with Castelvecchio (2/1) and Shadow Hero (3/1) your favorites. Castelvecchio won the traditional prep race at Rosehill two weeks ago, but Warning (9/2) and Sherwood Forest (14/1) deserve attention. Warning won the Victoria Derby in November, and Sherwood Forest captured the New Zealand Derby.
The AU $1.25 million TJ Smith Stakes follow. Named after one of Australia’s greatest trainers, the TJ Smith doesn’t feature the tradition and history of other races on the card, but it does feature a 13-horse field of Australia’s best sprinters going six furlongs. Keep an eye on the talented, but enigmatic Nature Strip. The 5/2 favorite is your prototypical all-or-nothing horse. Nature Strip won 13 of his 22 starts, finished second twice, and failed to hit the board in the other seven.
Doncaster Mile Provides Exotic Possibilities
The fourth marquee race is the AU $1.5 million Doncaster Mile, which dates to 1866. Picture the 20-horse Kentucky Derby run under handicap conditions over a mile instead of a 1 ¼ miles and you’ve got this race. Your favorite in this free-for-all is 6/1 Brandenburg, a 3-year-old carrying light weight and jockey Glen Boss, who owns seven victories in this race. Because of the deep field and lofty odds – only two horses currently enjoy single-digit odds — exotics in this race offer tremendous value.
The Doncaster Mile offers something else for race fans – the last time in the foreseeable future 20 horses enter the starting gate for a race. The next coronavirus protocol going into effect mandates every second starting gate position remain empty.
That’s the latest coronavirus adaptation for Australian race officials. They understand the importance of keeping the starting gates occupied in a country with 360 racetracks – or a world-best ratio of one track for every 68,000 people.