Timeform Recap: 2022 Championships - Day One

Timeform look back at the opening day of the 2022 Championships at Randwick.

NATURE STRIP winning the Furphy T J Smith Stks
NATURE STRIP winning the Furphy T J Smith Stks Picture: Martin King / Sportpix

 

The Championships are a valiant attempt at tying a bow around the Australian racing season - no easy task given the continuous nature of the racing calendar.  

The Australian racing pattern looks like a Jackson Pollock design, but The Championships provides a couple of clear 'Blue Poles' – meaningful, season-defining, championship races.  

We saw one of them on Day One; the TJ Smith the crowning moment for Australia's Champion Sprinter Nature Strip for the third time.  

A Timeform rating of 130 – the best of his career to date – all but assures him of that. A rating of 130 is the best in the race since Lankan Rupee and follows ratings of 129 and 129 in his first two wins. 

Why 130 now and not then? Because, mathematically speaking, it is the optimal arrangement given the data; a rating of 130 best describes the result.   

No race in Australia has taken as much winning as the TJ Smith in the 14 years since Apache Cat ran to 126 to win in 2008. It has only been won with a lower rating on three occasions since. That was the first real 'Group One' performance in the race since Mahogany ran to 128 in the very first edition in 1997.  The race changed in 2008 and globally no sprint race has taken as much winning in the years that have followed, by Racing and Sports' measure at least. 

It is one of four true sprinting championships in Australia together with its spring cousin, the Everest, and Flemington's VRC Classic and Lightning. Nature Strip has won three of those four this season and was unlucky to lose the other.  

There will be no debate when it comes to crowning the season's Champion Sprinter and it wasn't the only championship race settled beyond dispute on day one. If confirmation were required, the Sires confirmed the Champion Two-Year-Old as Fireburn. 

The real championship race in the two-year-old division is the Golden Slipper. Champion of the division invariably hangs on the result of the world's richest two-year-old race. But horses should be judged on more than just a single peak performance. 

Fireburn backed up a division-dominating 118 rating from the Slipper with a repeat effort in the Sires and, with the crop woefully thin underneath, her grip on the Champion Two-Year-Old prize looks every bit as firm as Nature Strip's in the sprint division. 

Things are far cloudier among the milers and Mr Brightside winning the Doncaster did little to clear things up. 

Distinguishing a Champion Miler is rarely an easy task in Australia with many of the biggest races over the trip handicaps and recently we have seen the addition of KPI-pleasing pop-up races into an already crowded schedule. 

Of the big handicaps – the Epsom, Toorak, Cantala, Railway and Doncaster - Western Empire is the highest rated winner at 121 but that sits below the winners of some of the set-weight miles over the spring such as Anamoe, rated 123 following the Caulfield Guineas, and Zaaki who won the Underwood and the All Star Mile, a set-weights Doncaster, with ratings of 124 and 122. 

If we take the mile ratings of all the feature-race winners across the season and run a random simulation, it is Zaaki who comes out best, but if ever there was room for some subjective fudging... 

The other Group One on the opening day of the Championships was the ATC Derby, won by Hitotsu. 

The first to win the Derby in both Melbourne and Sydney since Mahogany, Hitotsu looks a lively candidate for top staying honours next season, but this was more about how it was achieved rather than what was achieved. 

It was outstanding in the scenario, but outmuscling Benaud and Alegron is a way short of top billing in a staying division having a strong year. 

As is the case in the sprinting division, identifying our championship staying contests is straightforward. 

An abundance of Derbys and Oaks act as qualifiers for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups and the Tancred, while needing and deserving a little TLC, can probably lay claim to being a championship in the autumn. 

This season we have seen three strong winners in those three staying tests, headlined by vintage winners of the spring Cups. Incentivise ran to 129 in the Caulfield Cup before Verry Elleegant put up a career best 127 at Flemington. 

Hitotsu is rated 120 but his Derby form was a bit below that. In ratings terms he is also just off the pace set by a strong first two in the race to be Champion Three-Year-Old. 

That first two are the 126-rated Home Affairs and Anamoe, rated 125+ following his Rosehill Guineas romp. 

And it is that rating that turns our attention from Day One towards Day Two of the Championships where another 'Blue Pole' stands out. 

Over middle distances there are again a plethora of feature races and valuable prizes but only two that stand up as true championship contests, the Cox Plate in the spring and, in the autumn, the Queen Elizabeth - the Blue Pole on Day Two of the Championships.  

Like the TJ Smith, Everest, Lightning and VRC Classic, the Cox Plate and the QEII can boast to have consistently taken genuine Group One performances to win them in modern times.  

On that front both have benefited from international representation as well as a nice bump that we can call the 'Winx effect' - the great mare having won them four and three times respectively.  

10-year averages hold up even removing Winx from the equation – for the sake of fuelling the fire on interstate rivalry; the QEII slightly edges out the Cox Plate for 10-year winning average, but it has been harder to run second at the Valley in that time. A draw? – but in the years post Winx it is notable that horses straight off the plane have won all three Cox Plates and both QEIIs.  

That trend will change in 2022 which is (depending on how you classify Zaaki) an all-domestic affair but what won't change is that this race will prove a true championship contest for our middle-distance elite.  

Castelvecchio ran a stormer behind Japanese megastar Lys Gracieux and deserves mention, but Verry Elleegant and Anamoe have put up the best fight for the locals in the post-Winx era. 

Now they head the ratings for the Queen Elizabeth, in the book at 127 and 125+ and both proven on heavy ground. 

In fact, both are proven on all ground, and over a wide range of trips. Both have shown themselves beatable but remarkably versatile, consistent and durable. 

Verry Elleegant is verry much in the running to be the champion stayer in a season that she has won both weight-for-age miles in Sydney. 

Anamoe is also in the running to be the champion miler courtesy of a Caulfield Guineas win in the fastest time since Jackson Pollock first started painting the pattern in 1977 and strengthened his claims to be champion of his generation in a slowly run 2000m in a slowly run 2000m on a bog track at Rosehill. 

No three-year-old since Pierro and All Too Hard has run a rating of 120 or better more often than Anamoe, and that Rosehill win, along with his Cox Plate second by the narrowest of margins, makes him the number one seed over middle distances. A win on Saturday would surely confirm him the nation's champion over middle-distances. A win for Verry Elleegant, Zaaki, Duais or Montefilia would just about do the job for them. 

These are horses that deserve our admiration in spades, and it is a treat to see them clash in a meaningful, season defining, championship race with a title on the line. 

The pattern may be a mess, but The Championships provide some much needed Blue Poles. 


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