Analysis: Does 2-year-old racing really dominate the Australian racing landscape?

12 min read
Australian racing has often been branded as ‘obsessed’ with 2-year-old racing and early speed. In the first instalment of a two-part series, The Thoroughbred Report seeks to establish where Australia sits in the global context of juvenile racing, with input from both Gai Waterhouse and John Messara.

Cover image courtesy of The Image Is Everything

With the curtain coming down on Spring, racing programming is gradually introducing more of a certain type of race. The tap for 2-year-old racing has been slowly loosened since September, with all five major racing jurisdictions now having run metropolitan races for the age group, with both black-type and lucrative prizemoney on offer.

Australia’s proliferation of 2-year-old racing has attracted plenty of conversation, both from those within the industry, and those beyond it. But is Australia ‘obsessed’ with racing juveniles? According to some highly regarded figures from within the industry, there's less focus on 2-year-old racing in this country now than there once was, and certainly our horses are raced far less frequently as juevniles than other countries.

The top end of town

Often sighted as an argument of a hyper-fixation on 2-year-old racing is the overall number of black-type carrying races restricted to the youngest crop of a racing year.

Strictly looking at volume, Australia does have the most 2-year-old races at stakes grade anywhere in the world, with 71 contested in the 2022/23 racing season.

However, when considered as a percentage of the overall number of stakes races run across a number of major jurisdictions, Australia slots in squarely in the middle.

Australia 7160612%
Great Britain6028521%
New Zealand1715011%
United States 6563410%

Table: Two-year-old stakes races per country

Comparatively, Australia is fairly tame with how much black type is offered for the 2-year-old crop, with just 12 per cent of stakes races restricted to the age group. The most direct comparison is the United States, who offer six less 2-year-old stakes races than we do, but 28 more stakes races in totality.

Meanwhile, to win a 2-year-old sire premiership, some staggering numbers are required in Europe and America.

Champion American Sire Into Mischief (USA) had over double the number of 2-year-old starters step out for him in 2022 than Spirit Of Boom saw to secure the highest number of juvenile winners in the 2022/23 season. Then to lift the bar even higher, Kodiac (GB) had 128 2-year-old starters - three times that of Spirit Of Boom and an incredible 76 per cent of his named foal crop for that year.

AmericaInto Mischief91315
AustralasiaSpirit of Boom38232

Table: Runners, winners and stakes winners of the top 2-year-old sires by winners of 2022 in Europe, America and Australasia

Is the Aussie focus on 2-year-old racing dropping?

The Chairman of Arrowfield Stud, John Messara, is a man that needs little introduction. Standing among the elite of the Australian racing industry, his powerful Arrowfield Group is closing in on 40 years of operation, Messara is well-positioned to speak on the topic of 2-year-old racing in this country.

Asked if Australia has the right approach to how juveniles are raced, Messara said, “We’ve been weaned on 2-year-old racing here (in Australia) for half a century, since Golden Slipper time, and it’s been a very successful formula.

Arrowfield Stud's John Messara | Image courtesy of The Image Is Everything

“I think it has its weaknesses, and is probably giving us less horses that are internationally competitive than would otherwise be the case. I also think 2-year-old racing is more exciting, nobody knows anything about them, and they’re coming onto the scene and it’s all about speed.

“It’s a balance, I think 2-year-old racing is exciting, I wouldn’t want to change it, but I wouldn’t want to put any more emphasis on it than we have at the moment, because the rest of the program is starting to catch up.”

“I think 2-year-old racing is exciting, I wouldn’t want to change it, but I wouldn’t want to put any more emphasis on it than we have at the moment.” - John Messara

Messara, a man often at the forefront of change within the racing industry, is sensing a turning tide, saying, “We’re going to have a very balanced situation here in a few years' time, the way things are shaping up. I will say, I think there’s a change in attitude now, with the importation of all those European horses, to race in Cup races, the mile-plus races.

“I feel there’s a gentle change taking place, and a more balanced approach to the sorts of horses' people want to own, it’s not just 2-year-olds now, it’s just a horse with talent, but also a bit of longevity and versatility. I’m feeling that’s happening.

“We’ve got two of those sorts of horses on our roster, mile-plus horses, and they’re popular. I think fundamentally, Australia is joining the rest of the world with the arrival of a lot of these international horses, who of course get here after the age of two and race up to 2000-plus metres. I think that’s having an impact on people’s thinking.”

When the topic of 2-year-old racing in Australia comes up, it’s a near-inevitability that Gai Waterhouse’s name will be mentioned at some stage. Elevated to legend status in the Australian Racing Hall of Fame last week, Waterhouse has become synonymous with 2-year-olds, claiming victory an incredible seven times in the G1 Golden Slipper.

Gai Waterhouse | Image courtesy of The Image Is Everything

Waterhouse had this to say when asked by The Thoroughbred Report if Australia’s 2-year-old racing is the gold standard globally, “We had a very strong 2-year-old landscape, we had 2-year-old races every Wednesday and Saturday.

“Now that doesn’t happen as much now, we get them on a Saturday, (but) we need more 2-year-old racing, because 2-year-olds are the lifeblood, people like to gamble on them, if they’re a precocious type of horse they should be up and racing.

“So, I think that we do have quite a lot of 2-year-old racing, but not as much as we used to have.”

“... we need more 2-year-old racing, because 2-year-olds are the lifeblood, people like to gamble on them, if they’re a precocious type of horse they should be up and racing.” - Gai Waterhouse

Progressing through the distances

Different jurisdictions also have varying approaches to what distances their top juveniles are tested over. Australian racing is renowned for its consistency in producing elite-level sprinters, so it’s no shock that the vast majority of Listed and Group-rated 2-year-old races in this country are run over sprint trips.

Of the 71 black-type carrying races run for 2-year-olds in Australia last racing year, 66 were run at a distance of 1400 metres or below, with the remaining five being run between 1401 and 1800 metres.

Great Britain5091
New Zealand1610
United States17430

Table: Count of 2-year-old stakes races by distance, categorised by country

While there are two different approaches to the distance ranges that jurisdictions program their 2-year-old patterns in, there isn’t a clear geographical pattern. Australia and New Zealand share the same gravitation towards sub-1400 metre events, but so do Great Britain and Ireland.

France, Japan and the United States take the alternate approach, programming with a focus at races run on or around the 1600 metre range. All three have major events towards the end of their respective seasons that afford their crop to compete over extra ground. Japan have the G1 Hopeful S. in the final week of December over 2000 metres, a race that has featured the likes of Titleholder (Jpn) (Duramente {Jpn}), Justin Palace (Jpn) (Deep Impact {Jpn}) and Contrail (Jpn). All three have been integral parts of the Japanese racing landscape throughout the 2020s.

Over in France, the G1 Critérium de St Cloud is contested over 2000 metres as well, which has been won by two horses currently trained in Australia, Gear Up (Ire) (Teofilo {Ire}) was victorious in 2020, while El Bodegon (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}) took out the 2021 running of the race.

Should Australia be looking to add a race like this into the national program? Not according to Messara, who said on the topic of longer-distance races for 2-year-olds, “I wouldn't dare suggest that (introducing a 2000-metre Group 1), I think we've got a system that's worked reasonably well, albeit that there's been an enormous amount of concentration on 2-year-old racing.

“To some extent, that affects the longevity of a horse's career if they do a lot at two, because he may not be fully developed by then. So I think it’s horses for courses, I can’t see a sharp change coming about, but I do see a gentle change, and as that gentle change comes about, the program will probably adapt to that.”

“I wouldn't dare suggest that (introducing a 2000-metre Group 1)... To some extent, that affects the longevity of a horse's career if they do a lot at two, because he may not be fully developed by then.” - John Messara

Waterhouse also believes the current setup for 2-year-old stakes races in Australia is working, explaining, “I think they should be having in the early part, in the spring, they should be having 1000 and 1100 metre races, and as the months past, they can go from 12 to 14 to 1600-metre races.

“In the racing season, which starts in August, the 2-year-olds don't start until October, that’s when we should start to see them over 1000 and 1100 (metres) and then after that they can get going longer as we go on towards the autumn, when they’re mid 2-year-olds, going onto three.”

The ethos around a gradual rise in work, in line with their physical growth, has worked wonders for Waterhouse, who explained that her approach is, “No different to older horses. They always come first, you just have to look after them.

“Two-year-olds come to hand quickly, you don’t have to do a lot of work with them, and the ones that are going to be 2-year-olds, will be 2-year-olds and the ones that aren’t (going to be), won’t be.

“The ones that are going to be 2-year-olds, will be 2-year-olds and the ones that aren’t (going to be), won’t be.” - Gai Waterhouse

“You can’t make them 2-year-olds, they either are or they’re not, and the ones that are usually come from fast sires, the speed(y) mares. It’s not a matter of pounding them into the ground, they just do it naturally. They’re exciting, and people love them, they absolutely love them.”

One benefactor of the high number of juvenile features in the United States is Wesley Ward, who shares a close friendship with Gai Waterhouse. Speaking on her friend's success in juveniles, and asked whether there are shared learnings to be had, Gai Waterhouse said, “He’s got his own spin on it but he’s very good, very natural, he’s got a very good idea.

“He’s a natural trainer, he’s very good at what he does, he has taken great learning from me, as I took from my father (icon of Australian racing, TJ Smith), and it’s paid huge dividends.”

The importance to first season sires

Every year, the first 2-year-olds to appear under starter’s orders for first-season sires are eagerly eyeballed by those in the breeding space, hoping to catch a glimpse of which stallion might just be the next big thing.

So far in the 2023 racing season, both Alabama Express and Tassort have turned heads with their ability to produce early 2-year-old runners. Alabama Express, a son of Redoute’s Choice, was a winner at two, breaking his maiden at Sale before being kept aside for a spring campaign, while Tassort showed electric speed to win by 5.3l in the Golden Gift on debut.

Gallery: First-season sires producing early 2-year-old runners in 2023/24

Last season’s most prolific first-season sire by winners, Brave Smash (Jpn), won twice as a 2-year-old in his native Japan, while Harry Angel (Ire), who was second, won a Group 2 at two.

Third-placed Trapeze Artist won the G3 Black Opal S. in his 2-year-old year, meaning Justify (USA) is the highest-placed first-season by winners in the last season without any 2-year-old form.

Globally, where does Brave Smash, our top first-season sire by individual winners, rank? Not as high as you may think.

AustraliaBrave Smash1117
FranceSaxon Warrior811
Great BritainHavana Grey3432
JapanMind Your Biscuits2834
New ZealandU S Navy Flag75
IrelandSioux Nation99
United StatesSharp Azteca2928

Table: Champion First Season Sires in 2022, winners, and average winners since 2018/19 categorised by the country they stand in

EuropeSioux Nation94453
AmericaSharp Azteca83353
AustralasiaBrave Smash30111

Table: Champion First Season Sires in 2022 by winners and region

While Brave Smash’s first-season was undoubtedly a successful one, his numbers of winners don’t hold a candle to the likes of Sioux Nation (Ire) or Sharp Azteca (USA), who sired 45 and 35 individual first crop winners respectively, numbers in the realm of triple Brave Smash's winners.

Interestingly, the number of wins required to win the first-season sire premiership last season in Australia was down six, the largest variance of the five-year average for any of the seven jurisdictions considered.

In fact, only around six percent of winners of Australian racing are 2-year-olds, almost half of the figure in Great Britain and Ireland. With less wins to go around, strike rate becomes valuable, highlighted by a number of stallions in the below table.

I Am Invincible2234638%
So You Think38319%
Written Tycoon1151530%
Pride Of Dubai40818%
Deep Field67230%
Street Boss2312834%

Table: Top 10 performing sires of 2022/23 and their historical 2-year-old produce statistics

Champion sire I Am Invincible and renowned early-type producer Snitzel fall just shy of 40 per cent, a key part in their continued residence in the upper echelon of Australian stallions.

Of the top 10 stallions for the 2022/23 Australian racing season, all ten won at least one race themseleves in their 2-year-old season, indicating precocity is an important heritabile trait to sire success; an obvious one, at that.

The level at which they won varies from maiden to Group 1 level, but every single stallion recorded at least one victory.

When asked of the importance of a 2-year-old win to a stallion career, Messara told The Thoroughbred Report, “They are valuable, but not absolutely necessary in my opinion.

“They (2-year-old wins) are valuable (to a stallion career), but not absolutely necessary in my opinion.” - John Messara

“They are valuable because people, particularly in Australia, look for quicker returns than in some other jurisdictions, and of course the quick returns come with 2-year-old racing, it's just a matter of time.”

Golden Slipper
John Messara
Gai Waterhouse
Equine welfare
Two-year-old racing