The Victoria Derby run in spring over 2500m is an elusive race. It takes a precocious stayer to win and pushes trainers to the edges of their ability in our sprint-focused nation. One matter is consistent, every year some racing pundits call for the VRC Derby to be shortened in distance.
Yet year in, year out, this classic provides the racing industry with a good horse. In the past 20 years, only three of those winners have won no other stakes race. The 20 winners have won a further 21 Gr.1 races around the world, and that’s not counting the other stakes races they have won along the way.
The Victoria Derby has a quirky early history and provides some fun pieces of pub trivia from those days. First programmed by the Victoria Turf Club in 1854, the inaugural Victoria Derby was cancelled when only one horse was nominated. In 1855 the race was run for the first time and won by Rose of May.
In 1864, the Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club merged into the VRC. The VRC shuffled the timing of the race in the 1867-68 season when it was run in the spring and won by Fireworks (Kelpie-Gaslight by Sir Hercules), then moved by the club to New Years’ Day of 1868. Fireworks ran as favourite and won again to become the only dual winner of the race. Fireworks became a good stallion too, leaving 12 stakes winners including two VRC Derby winners, Lapidist in 1873 and Robin Hood in 1875. The New Years’ Day experiment occurred again in 1869 before the race was moved back to the spring, making 1869 the only calendar year when the race was held twice, with different winners because it was in different seasons.
After that, the VRC cemented the race as part of its spring carnival and it started to produce real champions, including several Australian Racing Hall of Fame inductees, such as Phar Lap, Tulloch, Briseis, Comic Court, Delta, Dulcify, Grand Flaneur, Poseidon, Sky High and Tobin Bronze. It is apparent this race is the testing ground for some of our greatest stayers and a major factor comes down to the facts outlined in the opening paragraph.
The Victoria Derby is early in our season, only three months after the season opens, and it takes a precocious stayer to win it. With many people believing stayers take time, many young horses are still languishing in paddocks when this classic is run. However, several scientific studies have found that, in fact, there is a huge benefit in opposing this attitude.
Horses who enter training early have better long-term soundness than those that wait. This apears logical, after all, you aren’t going to play cricket for Australia if you watch cricket on television. You need to practise, and to start practising at a young age.
A young horse, even a stayer, needs to be in light work to build muscle strength, build bone density and to develop the condition needed to sustain a long racing career. Of course, the amount and type of work they do will differ from a precocious sprinting two year-old. The principle remains, being in training, even light training, is better for a horse’s development than lounging around in a paddock. From here, trainers can identify those stayers who are also precocious enough to compete in this time-honoured event.
The other criticism of the Victoria Derby is that it is apparently not a stallion-making race. This idea persists thanks to the English Derby and its reputation as a stallion-making race.
“The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby. If you base your criteria on anything else, you will get something else, not the thoroughbred,” Federico Tesio.
Therefore, people assume every Derby should be a stallion-making race. A good stallion is created largely through genetics, and opportunity. To win a race with a stallion-making reputation helps build opportunity for a young horse. Although a horse can rise above a lack of opportunity, it is much more difficult.
Given the sprint-focused nature of our breeding market, Victoria Derby winners are always going to struggle to get solid opportunity when they retire to stud. This will have some impact on their long-term ability to become successful stallions.
In the past 20 years, 10 of the winners were colts. Leaving out Polanski, whose first foals have has just turned one, there are nine colts with runners. Five of them have left Gr.1 class horses. Led by Blackfriars (Danehill-Kensington Gardens by Grosvenor) who has 33 stakes winners from his base in Western Australia, including current Gr.1 star Black Heart Bart.
Arena (Danehill-Lee’s Bid by Tawfiq) and Helenus (Helissio-Worldwide Elsie by Java Gold) both left two Gr.1 winners, while globetrotting racehorse Elvstroem (Danehill-Circles of Gold by Marscay) has sired VRC Emirates S-Gr.1 winner Huckleback among his 10 stakes winners. Young stallion Monaco Consul (High Chaparral-Argante by Star Way) has only 68 named foals and has already sired Gr.1 placed Honesta (2d VRC Oaks-Gr.1, ATC Flight Stakes-Gr.1).
The desire for this race to produce top class stallions is probably over-blown, but there are enough signs that the possibility shouldn’t be discounted. Most races (outside the Golden Slipper) only produce one good stallion every 20 years, and the VRC Derby has certainly done that with Blackfriars. To produce several others who have sired Gr.1 winners is a bonus.
For the most part, the real value of the VRC Derby is that it highlights future staying champions. The argument in favour of tradition, to keep the VRC Derby at its current distance, is borne out in the high class form that emerges from the race every year.