Winter’s rising stars

8 May 2023 Written by VRC

Winter is often seen as Australian racing’s off-season, a time when the best horses are spelling or in the early stages of their preparations for the spring.

It is the winter which perhaps serves as important a function as any season in the country’s year-round racing program, providing an opportunity for horses to work through the grades in a fashion that allows them to thrive once they meet the biggest and the best come the spring.

While the Melbourne Cup Carnival may be the star attraction of the racing programme at headquarters with the Flemington Racing Spectacular its noted sidekick in the autumn, it has been the winter which has proven a reliable stepping-stone to success in some of Australia’s biggest contests.

In that regard, Flemington Finals Race Day – the culmination of a number of winter series for all ages and at a range of distances – is perhaps as critical as both major carnivals, for it provides the ideal grounding ahead of the spring. Finals Day – in fact, every series - is filled with competitive racing, emerging talents and impressive depth.

Past years have seen Group 1 winners like Nature Strip, Johnny Get Angry and Tuvalu emerge from Flemington Finals Race Day, with Nature Strip going on to be named Australian Horse of the Year in 2022.

Established by the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) in 2009 to bring together races like the Winter Championship Final (1600m), which had been run since 1979, with a number of new finals for horses young and established and both sprinters and stayers, Finals Day has seen the VRC continue its commitment to upholding the rich tradition of winter entertainment.

To qualify for Flemington Finals Race Day on July 1, which offers an enticing $1.53 million in prizemoney, there is the opportunity to earn ballot exemptions in a number of lead-up heats for each series at racecourses right across Victoria. Those that finish first and second in the heats gain an automatic spot in the final.

Across all series, there is total prizemoney of over $8 million on offer through 60 heats.

With links to some of the greats of the turf, both equine and human, each of the nine series kicks off in early May with the first heats.

Tuvalu ridden by Jarrod Fry wins the Penfolds VRC-CRV Winter Championship Series Final at Flemington in July 2022. (George Sal/Racing Photos)

The headline act is the $201,000 Listed VRC-CRV Winter Championship Final, with the VRC-CRV Winter Championship Series featuring five heats at Flemington at 1400m and 1600m, one at Sandown over 1400m and the Swan Hill Cup at 1600m.

2022 saw a dominant victory in the final from the Lindsey Smith-trained Tuvalu. The horse would subsequently return in the spring to claim the Group 1 Toorak Handicap (1600m) at Caulfield, handing jockey Jarrod Fry his first Group 1 success. Tuvalu also placed in the Group 1 Sir Rupert Clarke Stakes (1400m) and Group 1 Kennedy Champions Mile (1600m).

For the sprinters, the Santa Ana Lane Sprint Series, named after the Flemington icon, Group 1 winner in four different states and earner of more than $8 million, his best win being the 2018 Group 1 VRC Sprint Classic (1200m) at Flemington at the end of the Melbourne Cup Carnival. The series is open to emerging sprinters from all over the country.

Three of the heats will be contested at Flemington, including the Listed Hilton Nicholas Straight Six (1200m) open handicap, with three heats at Sandown including the Listed Bel Esprit Stakes (1000m). The Golden Topaz (1200m) at Swan Hill also provides a pathway for country sprinters, with the Listed Santa Ana Lane Sprint Series Final (1200m) one of the highlights of Finals Day. Last year’s winner, Sirius Suspect returned to Flemington the following month to claim the Group 3 Aurie’s Star Handicap.

The Banjo Paterson Series, named for Australia’s greatest poet and wordsmith, has become a proven pathway to ‘the race that stops a nation’™, the Lexus Melbourne Cup. A series of seven qualifying heats at Flemington, Sandown and Caulfield over 1800m, 2000m and 2500m lead to the Banjo Paterson Series Final over 2600m.

Last year’s final was a nail-biting finish, with the result decided in the steward’s room after it was deemed that first past the post Mimi’s Award hampered the efforts of the Matt Cumani trained Monbaher and therefore the result went the way of the Muhaarar gelding.

The Mahogany Challenge – named after three-year-old champion stayer turned older top sprinter Mahogany – offers a path to the biggest staying events for three-year-olds. Seven heats split between Flemington and Sandown between 1600m and 2400m all lead to the Mahogany Challenge Final over 2500m at Flemington on Finals Day.

Calmsir was victorius in the 2022 final in what was a surprise result, winning at odds of $41, appreciating the step to 2500m for the first time and open spances of Flemington to score well, from back in the field to win easily.

The three-year-old sprinter-milers can contest the Silver Bowl Series, with seven heats between 1300m to 1600m across Flemington, Sandown and Caulfield. Last year’s winner Arran Bay was impressive in the final for trainer Phillip Stokes, holding off the favourite, Cardinal Gem.

Roy Higgins atop Taj Rossi just pipped Leica Lover at the post in the 1973 Victoria Derby. (News Ltd/Newspix)

The fillies and mares can emerge in the Leilani Series, named after the great staying mare who won six Group 1 races and was trained by Bart Cummings and owned by Andrew Peacock. This year, the series has been combined with the former Rivette Series. Consisting of five heats at Flemington and one at Sandown over distances between 1200m to 1400m, leading into the final at 1400m.

Megamea provided her former trainer Udyta Clarke with a huge thrill winning the Leilani Series Final in 2022. She retained her ownership in the mare and has since won four races for Cranbourne trainer Luke Oliver. My Yankee Girl won the final of the Rivette Series in 2022 and in December famously dead-heated with Invincible Caviar at Flemington, only to lose the race on protest.

Bart Cummings described Taj Rossi as incredibly tough, and the best 3YO he raced. (Michael Jeffery/VRC Collection)

Late-maturing two-year-olds get their chance to shine in the Taj Rossi Series, recognising the Bart Cummings-trained champion who progressed from the Flemington winter as a two-year-old to take both the Cox Plate and the Victoria Derby that spring, as well as the races that are now the Cantala Stakes (Champions Mile) and the Coolmore Stud Stakes.

The series heats are spread across Victoria. Two Flemington heats at 1400m, with heats also run at Mornington, Swan Hill (VOBIS Gold Elvstroem Classic) and Bendigo. There is also a heat for fillies run at Sandown over 1300m.

Last year saw the Patrick Payne-trained galloper, Quang Tri, take the honours after winning her way into the final via the VOBIS Gold Elvstroem Classic at Swan Hill over 1300m.

Their sprinting juveniles can contest the Next Generation Sprinter Series for two-year-olds, with the 1200m final the culmination of heats at 1000m, 1100m and 1200m split between Flemington, Sandown, Caulfield and Mornington.

Thron Bone was game in victory in the Final, striking the front at the 400m and fighting off a host of challengers. The three-year-old son of Thronum has since been sold to race in Hong Kong and will race under the name Invincible Sage and be trained by Melbourne Cup winning trainer David Hall.

Make sure to be at Flemington on July 1, with Flemington Finals Race Day set to unveil some of the new rising stars of the Australian turf.

The road to the Lexus Melbourne Cup continues on Saturday 13 May when The Listed Lexus Andrew Ramsden provides another opportunity to win a Golden Ticket into Australia's most famous thoroughbred race. Tickets selling fast, don't miss out!