Very few ideas for radical change in horseracing are either universally popular or accepted at the first time of asking. And that’s if a single authority is involved. When a group of nations, some of which have a history of antipathy, bordering on hostility, towards each other’s proposals, come together to examine a programme of alterations, the chances of a speedy and amicable resolution are even slimmer.
Something rare happened, therefore, over the last quarter of 2003, which led to January’s announcement by the European Pattern Committee of a greatly expanded programme of Group 1 and 2 races for fillies in 2004. The bare facts are that three separate layers of opportunity confined to higher-grade fillies of three years and upwards have been created and will be contested this year.
As far as the top two Pattern groups are concerned, they break down into three distance categories - a mile, ten furlongs and a mile and a half. Furthermore, the aim has been achieved to provide a steady flow of opportunities, approximately one a month, across Europe from the end of May to the beginning or end of October in the shorter-distance brackets, and from the beginning of July in the longest. In addition, the authorities in Britain and Ireland have sought to build on the framework by enhancing opportunities just below the very highest grade, so that Ireland will have two more Group 3 races, and Britain will have five, in keeping with the overall strength of its current horse population. Behind the creation of what amounts to a pattern within the Pattern, confined solely to fillies and mares, lies an unprecedented intent to do something about a growing European problem, and a remarkable determination to do it quickly.
No time to let the grass grow here, seemed to be the underlying thought, even though caution was raised in some quarters. The ultimate objective was simple: to produce a programme of races throughout the year that would act as encouragement to owners of higher-grade older fillies to keep them in training in Europe. The lure of the US dollar has grown ever more powerful, and with prize-money stacking up high, turf horses have exited Europe with damaging regularity. Cash led the call for colts; lack of suitable opportunities appeared to be a more dominant force for taking away fillies. It didn’t take a genius to fire the European Pattern Committee into thinking that something had to be done. But what? Give the fillies something to aim at, that’s what. And the 2004 programme is the resulting magnet.
Already the radical steps appear to have had an effect. Russian Rhythm, Soviet Song and Favourable Terms in Britain; Six Perfections and Nebraska Tornado in France; Echoes In Eternity from Godolphin: they have all stayed in training as four-year-olds, and the new programme has been cited as part of the persuasion. Each one is out of the top drawer, but in any other year, it is doubtful if all six would have been kept for another season.
But 2004 will not be ‘any other year.’ Jason Morris, racing director at Horse Racing Ireland, is understandably delighted at the response. “This was precisely the aim of the initiative,” he says, adding that the newly elevated Irish races should draw the horses, and bring in the crowds. The reasoning of Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford is impossible to fault. “It’s good news for owners of fillies that have sufficient quality to compete against each other in the top class,” he says. “It has certainly encouraged us to keep Echoes In Eternity in Europe rather than send her to the US, because it makes it easier to plan her programme. She can go to America later in the season.” Favourable Terms is perhaps the least well known of the six named here, but her career lends as much credibility to the new programme as any other. Owner-bred by Maktoum Al Maktoum, she did not race until May last year, and ended the season having won three out of five starts for Sir Michael Stoute, including the Group 2 Matron Stakes at Leopardstown. She would have been a prime candidate for the paddocks in any other year, but it bears repeating that this is not ‘any other year.’ For one thing, the Matron Stakes now has Group 1 status, and who would bet against Favourable Terms attempting a follow-up, now that the opportunities are there to test her rate of improvement? The decision that Six Perfections, for one, would stay in training as a four-year-old was made public within hours of her winning the Breeders Cup Mile.
The European Pattern Committee had set the late-October international meeting at Santa Anita as its first deadline to tell the bloodstock world the bare bones at least of its plan for fillies. They reasoned that owners of the fillies they were targeting, especially those with permanent racing and breeding careers in the US in mind, would be making their own plans by then. Their urgency apparently worked, for trainer Pascal Bary said at the time: “It’s wonderful news for me, my staff and the racing public that the Niarchos family has decided to keep Six Perfections in training, and no doubt the changes to the programme were taken into consideration.” That the framework for the changes was announced in October at all was a departure from normal practice. The European Pattern Committee usually gets its individual thoughts together in the autumn, to be crystallised at the annual meeting in December or early-January. Last year, the committee decided in July that it would set up a sub-group to look at the fillies’ programme, with a view to reporting to the annual meeting in January 2004. They thought there was room for improvement, especially among the older age bracket and particularly in the early part of the season. The sub-group met within two months, and suddenly the mood for change picked up a head of steam, with the French and Irish teams leading the charge, and Britain erring on the side of caution with a plea for a phased introduction of the radical alterations. By the middle of September it had been decided that tinkering with a few races was not enough; there should be a greatly enhanced programme, especially in Groups 1 and 2, and that it if it was to happen at all, it should happen immediately.
The European Pattern Committee met in London a month later, just ahead of the Breeders Cup meeting, and a raft of changes were agreed, taking in all three groups and the trio of distance categories. The Group 1 and 2 details were made public in the second week of December, and the die was cast. In less than six months the mood of the committee had gone from exploratory to explosion. The new races and upgrades have been given three years to prove their worth. If any race does not meet the required ratings parameters, it will be downgraded, without the warning that is given to other Pattern races under the ground rules. Ruth Quinn, the BHB’s director of racing, who played a full part in the process, believes the overall benefits could take that long to work through. “It’s fantastic that the new programme already seems to be having an effect,” she says, “but it has been created with the longer term in mind, and we need to build up a pool of better-class fillies in Europe.” Quinn also believes the outstanding fillies will still take on the colts in the traditional Group 1 races, particularly those over a mile, such as the Prix Jacques le Marois and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. “We didn’t want to create a complete mirror image of the colts’ programme, as they have in the US,” she says, “but we had to make a great deal of improvement in the fillies’ programme if we want to stem the constant flow to the States.”
Philip Freedman, owner of the Cliveden Stud and chairman of the BHB’s Flat Race Advisory Panel, which feeds its thoughts and expertise into the European Pattern Committee, has already seen evidence that the ploy is working. His US trainer Christophe Clement has received fewer European-trained older fillies this winter, and has jokingly suggested he is being put out of business. Freedman, who acknowledges the efforts of a Thoroughbred Breeders Association group chaired by Bill Paton-Smith in first bringing the fillies’ cause to attention, accepts there could be a downside to the enhancements, as owners face greater temptation to keep the best to the company of their own sex. However, he looks to the bigger picture. “We may have to face up to a slightly less competitive Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, for instance, but if the changes to the programme were going to work, it had to be done as a big project,” he reasons. “Adding one or two races wouldn’t have had the same impact. “While I would have been equally happy if, say, the Sun Chariot Stakes had not gone up to Group 1, if we accept that we are running the fillies’ programme as a separate entitity to the colts’, it makes sense for the Sun Chariot to be upgraded. There had to be a logical programme.” The next three years will determine how successful the original logic was. Howard Wright is a member of the BHB Flat Race Advisory Panel.
Howard Wright (European Trainer - issue 7 - Spring 2004)