Backing up: the difference between Australia and Europe

5 min read
Many north of the equator have for years marvelled at the versatility and durability of racehorses in Australia and New Zealand – and indeed the sheer ambition of their owners and trainers.

The exploits of 2019 G1 Golden Slipper winner Kiamichi (Sidestep) is the latest example of a racehorse winning major races on consecutive weekends in Australasia.

Nothing particularly novel there when viewed from a local perspective. But racing twice in a week is virtually unheard of in Europe, particularly in the top races.

From memory, I recall that the great mare Dahlia (USA) (Vaguely Noble {Ire}) achieved the feat in 1973, when she backed up her victory in the G1 Irish Oaks at the Curragh with a tremendous win in open competition a week later in Ascot’s G1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S.

More recently, Choisir (Danehill Dancer {Ire}) lifted the two G1 sprints at Royal Ascot in 2003 – the King’s Stand S. over five furlongs on the Tuesday and the six-furlong Golden Jubilee the following Saturday. Of course, he was an Aussie horse through and through – trained not just for one race but a series of races over a shortened period.

"Racing twice in a week is virtually unheard of in Europe, particularly in the top races." - John Boyce

One would be forgiven for believing that Australian horses and their European counterparts are different beasts. But the truth is that they are very similar. They’re just trained in a manner to suit their local conditions.

And from two distinct training cultures have emerged fixture calendars that are quite different.


Similar horses trained differently

Nowhere in Europe will you see G1 races with the same conditions scheduled on consecutive weekends or even within three weekends, which is remarkable given that the five major European racing nations have to work together when planning their races.

The programs for top-class horses are spread out through the season with plenty of time in between to aid complete recovery from previous exertions.

"Australians are used to two major preparations in a single season. But has the fixture list dictated training cultures or is it the other way around? " - John Boyce

In recent years, European trainers have begun to recognise that it’s very difficult to keep top horses on the go all year round and the idea of a midsummer break has taken hold, often to the detriment of some of the big summer races, the aforementioned King George being one of them.

Of course, Australians are used to two major preparations in a single season – in the spring and autumn and Sydney and Melbourne don’t schedule major races over high summer and for good reason.

But has the fixture list dictated training cultures or is it the other way around? There is no question that the topography and prevailing ground conditions in Europe differ greatly from those in Australia and they play a big part in how quickly a racehorse can return to competition.

The nature of Australian racing – primarily run on comparatively fast flat tracks with short straights – means that horses are not bottomed out in the way they can be in Europe, where long straights and a strong gallop on softer ground often necessitates a lengthier period of recovery.

Emphasis on fast finishes

This is underlined by the fact that Australia places a lot of emphasis on the final 600m times. How fast a horse finishes up its races dictates its future engagements.

Of course, the two different styles have also played their part in the specialisation in each region – Australia being renowned for its sprinters and Europe for its stayers. It’s also part of the reason that horses like Winx (Street Cry {Ire}) – top-class at eight and ten furlongs in Australia – find it hard to earn high World Thoroughbred Rankings.

Never mind the natural lack of strong competition in longer races, given the tempo of racing, It’s simply harder to pull clear of even inferior rivals in slowly run races.

Contrastingly in Europe, outstanding horses like Frankel (GB) (Galileo {Ire}) tend to force their rivals to play their cards earlier in their races and therefore winning margins are often maximised, making it easier for the handicapper to give full value to performances.

Watch: Frankel winning the Juddmonte International S.

This is evident by looking at the margins between the first five home in Group races in both regions. In Australia the margin between first and fifth is 3.45 lengths, whilst in Europe it is 5.88. Moreover, only 12.7% of Group races in Australia are won by a margin of two lengths or more, whilst in Europe it is a whopping 28.6%.

Both regions offer local idiosyncrasies to the racing fan, but for the casual racegoer, it’s arguable that having a big field involved in an exciting finish does more to hold the attention and perpetuate a sense of excitement. And what’s not to like about seeing your favourite horse two or three times in a month?

"In Australia the margin between first and fifth is 3.45 lengths, whilst in Europe it is 5.88." - John Boyce

Australian horses that have completed G1 doubles on consecutive weekends are too numerous to mention individually – nearing 80 if my maths is correct.

The G3 Magic Night - G1 Slipper double by Kiamichi this year is put in context by some other Australian luminaries. Pierro (Lonhro), for instance, won the Slipper and Sires’ Produce on consecutive Saturdays. And the outstanding Dance Hero (Danzero) won the juvenile G1 Triple Crown – Golden Slipper, Sires’ Produce and Champagne – in a period of just 16 days.

And when it comes to older racehorses, we have the likes of Octagonal (NZ) (Zabeel {NZ}) winning the Rosehill Guineas, Mercedes Classic and AJC Derby also in 16 days, while the mighty Kingston Town (Bletchingly) won the Rosehill Guineas, AJC Derby, H E Tancred S. and Sydney Cup in the space of three weeks as a 3-year-old in 1980.