VRC Champions Day Magic: Wizardry

10 November 2023 Written by Andrew Lemon

One out of the box, as an old neighbour of mine used to say: the Victoria Racing Club’s inaugural Champions Day last year proved magical.

There is a great word in French: prestidigitation. Think of Mandrake the Magician in cape and top hat: now you see it, now you don’t … and now you do! On Champions Day at Flemington last year, classics seemingly vanished. Something bigger and better took their place.

The VRC launched its new-look final day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival with not just one but three $3 million Group 1 champion races to strengthen the last of the traditional four race days as a grand finale, sustaining depth and quality right to the end of the week. There was also the Group 3 Queen’s Cup for stayers, icing on a magical cake. 

Those three Champions Races justified the label and the increased prizemoney. They stay fresh in the mind. The 2022 VRC Newmarket Handicap winner, New Zealand mare Roch ‘N’ Horse, edged international champion Nature Strip out of first place in the Darley Champions Sprint. Rising star Giga Kick finished fast but narrowly missed a place. Then, in the Kennedy Champions Mile, the popular Alligator Blood beat Group 1 winners Tuvalu and Mr Brightside. The flashy Zaaki defeated his stablemate Mo’unga in the TAB Champions Stakes.  

But here is the real magic: something can be new and historic at the same time. Each of those new Champions races has a pedigree that stretches far back into the past, bringing the lustre of history to the champions of 2022.

Take the newly enriched Darley Champions Sprint. This was the race previously known as the Darley Sprint Classic. It is the race that Nature Strip, son of Nicconi, won in 2019 and again in 2021 before triumphing in June last year in the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot.

You might recall the Sprint in earlier years as the Patinack Farm Classic when Black Caviar sizzled to victory in 2010 and again in 2011; or as the Age Classic when Miss Andretti won in 2007. Confusion can creep in because the race was moved in Miss Andretti’s year from its previous position on Victoria Derby Day. And Miss Andretti’s was the year when the classic became a weight-for-age contest. 

For the previous forty-seven years the race had been a Derby Day quality six-furlong handicap, adjusting to the metric 1200 metres from 1972. It was the Salinger Stakes in Takeover Target’s era, and the Southcorp when Brawny Spirit won. It was the Gadsden from 1985 to 1993: Final Card equalled the track record in 1991. The race had first been run in 1960 with tobacco branding, among the first commercially sponsored events at Flemington. Champion names on the early list of winners include Vain, Dual Choice, Century and Maybe Mahal.

Similarly, the Kennedy Champions Mile has its past as the ‘Cantala Stakes’. This connection is even more tortuous, winding its way back to an 1881 Flemington race called the Coburg Stakes. Hurtle Fisher’s horse Courtenay (sired by Yattendon), ridden by Tom Hales, won the inaugural race. There is much early Flemington history wrapped up with those names.

In 1919, to honour Septimus Miller, a notable former VRC Chairman, the race became the Cantala, named after his grand property at Caulfield. From 1960 the race was shifted from Derby Day to the final day as a sponsored race, first as the Tattersalls Memorial then as the George Adams Handicap. The former Perth champion Aquanita set the scene with successive wins in 1960 and 1961.

After 1985, the 1600 metre race changed name several times more with a succession of sponsors: Ampol, Honda, Nissen, Chrysler and, from 1998 to 2016, Emirates. Returning briefly to Derby Day in 2016 as the Cantala and then the Kennedy Mile, the race reverted to the final day as one of the three feature Champions Day races in 2022. 

Finally there is the TAB Champions Stakes, the 2000-metre championship. It links itself to the historic L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes, first run as such in 1936 to honour the memory of the late VRC Chairman. Previously it had been the Melbourne Stakes with a lineage stretching back to the era of the earliest Melbourne Cups. In 2016 the race was switched to the final day, won by Awesome Rock. By sleight-of-hand perhaps, the Mackinnon that year was called the Emirates Stakes – but became the Mackinnon again when Trap For Fools won in 2018.

Prestidigitation? Wizardry? Whatever, let the magic continue.