Once the focal point of the Sydney Autumn Carnival, one wonders just what the future might hold for the G1 Golden Slipper Stakes after it is run this Saturday at Rosehill in Sydney’s west. Don’t be mistaken, the Slipper is neither dead nor on life support, indeed far from it. But like a lot of 63-year-olds, bits and pieces just aren’t working as well as they did in their prime and the race needs some alternative therapy.
One suspects the outside world won’t have noticed any difference over the past few decades and has probably always viewed the total prize money of A$3.5 million for 2-year-olds as an obscene amount of money. But the race that once rivalled the Melbourne Cup both in prize money and for column inches is a much different beast today than at its zenith.
Most of those changes were brought on by today’s ultra-competitive environment for the entertainment dollar while others were self-inflicted by racing administrators. No matter which was the greater evil, their combined efforts have seen the Slipper lose both its gloss and public appeal. And this year Covid-19 has delivered the ignominy of a race where even the owners won’t be permitted to attend.
For those who may not understand the significance of the annual scamper to the once racing-mad harbour city, the Golden Slipper was the brainchild of the former Sydney Turf Club (STC) Chairman, the late George Ryder.
In Ryder’s day the STC was one of two race clubs in Sydney and definitely seen as the young upstart challenger to the establishment, the Australian Jockey Club (AJC) which, despite its grandiose national title, only ran two tracks in Sydney, but did administer racing across the state of New South Wales.
Ryder was looking for something to bring glamour to the STC and saw an opportunity with a 2-year-old race in the autumn at the club’s primary track, Rosehill in Western Sydney, a geographical point of significance we will touch on later.
Dame Fortune bestowed her smile on Ryder and his committee as the first running of the Slipper in 1957 was taken out by the flying Todman, a champion in every respect. Todman put eight lengths on his rivals and the Golden Slipper was up and running.
In subsequent years, the race churned out gallopers of the calibre of the brothers Sky High and Skyline, the top filly Reisling and Vain, a horse so fast and so adaptable he would be feted as a superstar today. Then in the 70s we had champions like Luskin Star, still regarded by many as the most freakish 2-year-old to grace the Aussie turf, and just 12 months later the hulking Manikato, whose deeds would become the stuff of legends.
Through the 1970s and 80s, the Slipper was the only weapon Sydney had when it came to the parochial battle with Melbourne for bragging rites as to who was the premier racing city in Australia. For firepower, Melbourne had the trifecta of the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and W S Cox Plate, which, when combined, dwarfed the Slipper, but they all fell in the spring so Sydney and the Slipper owned the autumn stage.
During those halcyon days, the race commanded the back page of the Sydney papers, led the sports coverage on television and radio and dragged in the once-a-year punters like those who only ever bet on the Grand National or the Kentucky Derby.
And it had something, in fact almost the only thing, the breeding industry craved - the stallion prospect that displayed precocity. At least since the import of Star Kingdom in 1950, and probably some time before that, speed had ruled down under and there was no greater advertisement of that trait than a Golden Slipper-winning colt. In the days of 40 covers a season, Slipper winners attracted multi-million dollar offers for the winner’s breeding rites from the established local farms, like the Kelly family’s Newhaven Park Stud at Boorowa, the Thompson’s of Widden Stud from the valley of the same name or the Ingham brothers’ Woodlands empire. In that era Luskin Star, Marscay, Rory’s Jester and then Canny Lad all won the Slipper before leaving their mark on the local breed.
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Throughout its heyday, and before racing became a ‘product’, the STC continued to promote the event, developing a whole carnival of four Saturdays, culminating in Slipper day, which then dovetailed neatly into the AJC’s main event after they moved the AJC Derby from its traditional spring date to Easter.
A point probably not recognised at the time was the committees of the two clubs rarely forgot their roots with what can politely be described as a healthy rivalry always the order of the day. Said rivalry forced both clubs to innovate continually, from which racing in Sydney no doubt benefitted. The STC also enjoyed some brinkmanship with Melbourne’s Victoria Racing Club, for several years continually trumping the VRC’s prize money increases for the Melbourne Cup purse until the two clubs had to call a truce before they were both bankrupted.
But, come the 1990s, the winds of change were about to blow the Slipper down a different course.
Firstly, the local breeding industry’s dependence on a Slipper-winning colt waned with the introduction of a new fad, the shuttle stallion. And, as if to emphasise the colonial-bred stallion could wait on the substitutes’ bench, Danehill came along and sired three winners of the race from his first three crops and five winners in all before his sons Danzero, Flying Spur and Redoute’s Choice took up the baton.
In time, the scramble for studs to snap up a potential Golden Slipper winner would also become a thing of the past with the major players now buying in at the yearling sale stage. By way of example, of the seven colts in this Saturday’s field, four were either part or fully owned by studs when they had their first start, and Victoria’s Yulong Stud bought into one other, Tagaloa, after he won the G1 Blue Diamond Stakes.
And, while racing couldn’t do anything about changes to the breeding landscape, the other wound was self-inflicted, wholly avoidable and to this day is yet to properly heal.
Events first took a turn in 2011 with the state government-prompted merger (or shotgun wedding, depending on which side you were on) of the STC and AJC into the Australian Turf Club (ATC) with their headquarters at Randwick in the east of the city. In the years that followed, the ATC worked in conjunction with Racing New South Wales to develop The Championships, Sydney’s version of a Breeders’ Cup- or Champions Day-type event, but in doing so threw the Golden Slipper baby out with the bath water.
Wonderfully successful, The Championships did come with the twin drawbacks of sucking the marketing dollar away from the Golden Slipper and disenfranchising those former STC members in the west who saw the Slipper as “their” race.
Try as they might, the ATC just haven’t been able to get those diehards or the atmosphere back to this day. Or maybe they haven’t really tried, for, wandering into the general admission area, it becomes apparent they may not see the need to as the bottom line surely hasn’t taken a hit, the new generation of racegoers - who wouldn’t know a fetlock from a forearm but recognise a good party when they see it - having taken over.
So, the Slipper isn’t what it used to be. Some more TLC from the ATC would help, but nothing brings atmosphere to a racecourse like a good horse. The Slipper desperately needs to feel that adrenaline jolt that comes when a Luskin Star accelerates away from an outstanding field and wins by seven lengths. Or we need the emergence of a perennial champion for, in the last 20 years, only the filly Miss Finland, the colt and outstanding young sire Pierro and, to a lesser extent, the gelded Dance Hero have given the punters a horse to follow and the scribes fodder to work with later in their career.
Early indications for 2020 are that drought might last a little longer and, while it does, the Slipper slips a little further from the sporting public’s consciousness.