3YOs chase place among Australian Cup elite

24 March 2023 Written by Racing & Sports

When the Victoria Racing Club reverted the Australian Cup to a weight-for-age event, those prone to knee-jerk reactions probably assumed it would spark a three-year-old domination.

That was 1979, when already established champion three-year-old in Manikato was sent out favourite but was run down by another of that generation, an 80/1 pop by the name of Dulcify.

His starting price was not a true reflection of his ability but Dulcify was an indication of the quality of horse required to win the race at three.

It took 17 years for another three-year-old to win and again it was a future Hall of Famer as Saintly upstaged a star-studded field in a year in which he would also win the Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup.

The only three-year-old to have won since was Super Cool, coincidentally another 17 years after Saintly’s success.

The Australian Cup has claimed some high-profile three-year-old victims, most notably Mahogany.

The Victoria Derby winner the year before, he started even money favourite in 1994 but could manage only third placing.

Stylish Century, Elvstroem and Shamus Award are other elite three-year-olds who tried but came up short.

This year’s historic Australian Cup has attracted two three-year-olds, Bank Maur and Virtuous Circle, and while neither horses’ connections would claim their colts are in that league, it also isn’t a year to be running scared.

“If there was a year you wanted to take on the older horses in an Australian Cup, this is probably it,” Virtuous Circle’s trainer Liam Howley said.

“I think he’s the right horse and it’s the right time to have a crack.”

Virtuous Circle and Bank Maur will become the first three-year-olds to contest the race in nine years when they step out in Saturday’s $3 million Group 1.

Shamus Award and Thunder Fantasy ran the year after Super Cool defeated another three-year-old, Fiveandahalfstar, finishing sixth and eighth respectively, but three-year-olds have steered clear since.

But the race has never been run in its current timeslot.

The Australian Cup is now run on the last Saturday in March, having for decades been run on the Labour Day weekend - on the holiday Monday - before taking up residence alongside the Newmarket Handicap on the Saturday in 2005.

Inaugurated in 1863, the first 80 editions were run over 2-1/4 miles (3621m) before a slight reduction to 2 miles 1-1/2 furlongs (3519m) from 1943 to 1962.

The race spent one year – 1963 – as a 1-3/4-mile (2816m) event.

Its first year at around its current distance was 1964, when run over 1-1/4 miles (2012m), before settling as a 2000-metre event with the introductions of metrics in 1973.

The race remained a handicap amid all the distance changes until 1978, before changing to WFA in 1979. After just three years the VRC reverted back to a handicap, but in 1987 revisited the WFA format and hasn’t felt the need to change.

Bonecrusher, Vo Rogue, Better Loosen Up, Let’s Elope, Saintly, Octagonal and Dane Ripper all winning between 1987 and 1998 justified that move, while Northerly, Lohnro and Makybe Diva all etched their name on the honour roll early this millennium.

The race was this year moved to fit better with the changing Victorian autumn program, which now includes the $5 million All-Star Mile (1600m), and Howley said had it remained in its former timeslot it wouldn’t have been an option for Virtuous Circle.

The son of Almanzor last ran in the Group 1 Australian Guineas (1600m), charging home to finish eighth behind Legarto, which was run the week before the Labour Day weekend.

“I like the three weeks between runs for him and I wanted a 2000-metre race at Flemington,” Howley said.

“I think he’s a real Flemington horse. I want a real, genuine crack at Flemington with him and I don’t think we got that in the Guineas.

“I think he’s a good colt and he is only going to get better and better.”

The three-year-olds form part of a capacity Australian Cup field headed by dual Group 1 winner and last week’s All-Star Mile runner-up Cascadian.

Melbourne Cup runner-up Emissary, Turnbull Stakes winner Smokin’ Romans, dominant Blamey Stakes winner Nonconformist and last-start Group 2 winner Steinem are among the others engaged in Race 7 on the Flemington card at 4.20pm.

Group Racing, a Golden Ticket, and Fareground fun makes the TAB Australian Cup Race Day a pivotal day on the racing calendar and a fitting finale to the Flemington Racing Spectacular. Don't miss out on your tickets.