Thank You Zoro.
This blog gives me the chance to elaborate a bit on what I learn
along the way of my historical journey. It's not just a nostalgia trip. I reckon
we can better understand and appreciate what we witness today if we understand
how it all came to pass.
I was writing up Briseis profile the other night. What a
yarn it is. A 2YO filly won breaks her maiden by winning the Doncaster who
returns later in the year as a 3YO to win the Derby, the Melbourne Cup and the
It is a truly incredible record, literally incredible. Many
moderns simply dismiss it as proof of how 'poor' racing must have been if a
filly could compile a record like that. That she broke the records in the
Doncaster, the All Aged Stakes, the Derby and the Melbourne Cup only convinces
them of how 'slow' racing must have been. But that is just prejudice. Literally
prejudice. Their minds are made up before they have considered the facts.
The breed improves over time. It certainly does and it has never
improved as rapidly or as demonstrably as it did in the colonial era. It wasn't
just the breed that improved. Racing improved too.
The 1870's was the era of Robert Bagot the celebrated
secretary of the VRC whose list of achievements is almost as incredible as the
career of Briseis. Bagot improved Flemington in manifold ways. He had the course
regraded, building up the outside of the track to camber it for speed. He had
the horrible cape weed surface removed and resowed it with finer grasses - and
while I dont know if a new fangled steam roller was deployed the lumpy surface
was flattened. he railed the track circumference and installed the electric
chronometer to time the racing. And when people began to doubt the times the
track was producing he had the course completely resurveyed to ascertain its
true measurement. He found that the previous survey was just 4 links short
(about 30 inches - oh alright, about 750ml).
The improvement of the breed + the improvement of the track =
rapidly diminishing race times.
And the breed ?
You only need to look at some of the portraits of these horses
to see the improvement.
Consider little Jorrocks the half bred champion of the
1840's to Briseis. He was 14.2 hh barely bigger than a pony. In fact, in the
days of pony racing, for a horse to run at the pony tracks he needed to get
'under the bar'. They literally used a bar set at the prescribed height of a
pony and if the horses couldn't pass under the bar they were disqualified from
running. Jorrocks would have got under the bar. Pony racing accomodated the half
bred horses who were displaced by the rapidly improving thoroughbreds of the
19th century. You can see from Briseis sketch that she is tall and leggy, a very
different cut of horse than Jorrocks. Her size is exaggerated somewhat by the
little bloke on her back. That is Peter St Albans, who was no more than
13 years old. One of the reasons why he is on her back is that he could make the
postage stamp weights she carried against the older horses.
When she won the Doncaster she carried 35kg. When she won the
All Aged Stakes she carried 37kg, and she won the Melbourne Cup with 40kg. The
doubters will laugh out loud. "The fools ! What sort of WFA scale is that !" But
actually there wasn't a whole lot wrong with the WFA scale - what was happening
is that the most noticeable improvement in the breed of the times was the
development of its young horses - they were getting bigger and faster and ahead
of the formerly appropriate weights allocated to young horses.
Briseis was the first juvenile to win the Doncaster, but she
wasn't the only one. Crossfire also won it as a juvenile in 1886 with 6.2
(39kg) in record time, 5 seconds faster than Briseis record. Briseis was also
the first juvenile to win the All Aged Stakes but she certainly wasn't the last.
8 of the 12 renewals of the All Aged following Briseis were won by juveniles and
they won a total of 14 editions of the race until Charles Stuart won in
1906. Then there were no more.
What is interesting is that while Briseis was asked to carry
5.11 (37kg) Lady Betty in 1888 had to carry 6.13 (44kg). The weight for
age scale was being desperately modified to keep up with the improvement of the
juveniles that made then so competitive over the flying mile with their elders.
This year we saw an eye popping juvenile filly called Guelph
win the Champagne Stakes with 54.5kg in 1.36.28. I wonder just how much faster
she could have run the mile with 37kg ? I wonder if any of her elders could give
her 20kg and a beating over a mile ? I wonder just how 'incredible' Briseis was
or whether she was just an eye popping filly who met her elders on very
advantageous terms ?
I wonder if horses have changed so much in the past 150 years as
their humans have ? I can count on one hand the number of juveniles I can
remember taking on all aged competition at WFA - Desirable, Flaunting, Clever
Zoe, all fillies, won or placed in the Lightning Stakes. Ritmar and
Misting won before my time. Now it is no longer fashionable - or probably
possible find 7 stone jockeys to do so.
These days it is fashionable to take a filly like Guelph and
restrict her racing to her own age and sex in order to protect her record. That
she is built like a stallion is of no mind. That she would be more competitive
in richer races against the colts or indeed all aged company doesn't matter
either. The owners have a variety of well staked easy options to chose from
against her own kind and they take them.
That's not how the game was played in the 1870's.