Why racing is unlikely to benefit from this 'Golden Generation' of 3-year-olds

Australia Juddmonte International

Australia, Kingman, and Taghrooda are outstanding – but they represent a missed opportunity for the sport in Britain and Ireland.

The 2014 crop of 3-year-olds in Britain and Ireland constitutes a “Golden Generation.” In the early stages of the campaign, the top races for the classic generation stood out against the clock; subsequently, the results of all-aged races have given further weight to the evidence.

Yet, it seems like the sport won’t see the benefit of this good fortune in terms of competition; it won’t produce the era-defining clashes that have typified similar periods in other sports. Furthermore, it is doubtful as to whether any of the star 3-year-olds apparent at the moment will even earn the title “great” – at least in any reasonable application of the title as is normally applied in sports.

Australia, trained by Aidan O’Brien in Ireland, and the John Gosden pair, Kingman and Taghrooda, are all 3-year-olds who might be undisputed champions in another crop. And certainly the best 3-year-olds of 2014 will compare favourably with most other crops when end-of-year ratings are complete.

In May, Kingman and Australia dominated the betting for the first colts’ classic in Britain, the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. They finished second and third to the 40-to-1 shot Night of Thunder, both subject to different forms of misfortune. Racing in one of two groups over the straight mile, Kingman was forced to make his effort sooner than ideal into very fast fractions and was picked off close home, while Australia led home the group on the other side of the track while unable to benefit from competing with his rivals.

Since then, both horses have dominated in G1 company: Kingman won the Irish 2,000 Guineas at The Curragh in a canter, followed by the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, and the Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville.  In the last two contests, he floored the leading older horses Toronado and Olympic Glory with ridiculous ease – notable because the victims are both 2014 G1 winners themselves.

For his part, Australia has won the English and Irish Derbys and, last week, the Juddmonte International at York, in which he and contemporary The Grey Gatsby (10th in the 2,000 Guineas before winning the French Derby) swept aside leading older horses Telescope and Mukhadram. It was surely definitive: There isn’t just an age gap, but a talent gap too.

Meanwhile, Taghrooda, having established her dominance over 3-year-old fillies with a wide-margin win in the Oaks at Epsom, achieved something more notable still by beating older males (albeit with generous allowances) in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, becoming the first of her age and sex to win Britain’s midsummer showpiece in 38 years.

Surprisingly, Taghrooda was subsequently touched off by the O’Brien-trained Tapestry when 5-to-1 on for the Yorkshire Oaks at York last week, but the winner is a significant latent talent and the two raced well clear.

So, the exploits of these young champions should set the stage for an unforgettable era in Britain and Ireland, right? They will put people in seats and combine for memorable clashes until we find out who’s the greatest, right? Well, you can’t have watched much horse racing lately if you are expecting that.

As things stand, it seems unlikely that any of the big three will clash again. And, at the end of the season, it seems like dollars-to-donuts that they will all retire meekly to stud.

Though Kingman, Australia, and Taghrooda are almost certainly horses with the requisite talent to earn the label of “great,” it is my opinion that none of them will deserve it by exploit.

No sporting figure earns greatness with one or two performances, however stunning. Greatness is achieved by accumulation, and for good, objective reasons. All sporting results are influenced by randomness, either in the playing of the game or the variability in the state of the opposition. You don’t become great by getting hot at the right time.

If Australia, Kingman, or Taghrooda had at least dominated the competition as 2-year-olds, it may have bolstered their CV to the point that racing fans could be semi-satisfied with their longevity at the top. But they didn’t race enough then either.

While avoiding competition and managing reputation has long been a pervasive culture in horse racing, it seems as if racing is at an inflection point now in terms of its popularity and reach as a serious sport to the wider public. The media has a tendency to meekly accept the actions of owner-breeders such as John Magnier, Hamdan Al Maktoum, and Khaled Abdullah when they retire horses for commercial reasons. In my view, it is time to at least turn up the heat in the media and underline how absurd it is for a sport to retire its best young athletes even before their prime.

I have given a clear remedy for the 3-year-old exodus in a previous article – revise the weight-for-age allowances for 3-year-olds in accordance with data that suggests that this long-established method is tilting things unfairly against the older horses when a top-notch 3-year-old comes along.

But this isn’t the only part of the problem. It seems to me that the steady increase in the number of Pattern races has provided too many options for the connections of top horses. Top golfers and tennis players can’t avoid each other in the majors of their particular sport, but racehorses can.

So, who is the best, Australia, Kingman, or Taghrooda? At the end of the year, the sport will employ the pseudo-scientific measure of collateral form ratings – about as satisfying to the masses as the BCS rankings in U.S. college football  were – to make its own official pronouncement. But that’s not enough and too late.

It seems unlikely – though not impossible – that Australia and Taghrooda could meet in the Arc at Longchamp, or that Australia and Kingman could have a 2,000 Guineas rematch in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October. So, we will be left guessing and, far more importantly, be bereft of the excitement of watching it happen now or next year.

Those governing the sport should not be satisfied with this. They should not be supine. They should ask what they could do to make a difference. It is a major problem for the sport if star turns just don’t stick around and, as I have suggested, there are actions that could be taken, if the sport has the stomach to take its fate into its own hands.

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