Will Australian-bred horses ever win the Melbourne Cup again?

5 November 2012

The emphasis on breeding for speed not stamina is the reason international dominance of the Melbourne Cup is set to continue, and also has implications for the soundness of Australia's thoroughbred breeding stock.

This is the view of the University of Sydney's Associate Professor Phil McManus, co-author of the recently published The Global Horseracing Industry, Social, economic, environmental and ethical perspectives.

"In cricket terms, we have prepared a pitch for slow bowlers and all the Australian contingent has is a pace attack," said McManus, who is from the University's School of Geosciences.

"Australia is definitely falling behind in the breeding of horses that can win Australia's richest horse race. An Australian-bred horse winning the Melbourne Cup is possible, but the odds of it happening appear to be getting longer each breeding season."

This year's Melbourne Cup, with one of the strongest fields in the history of the race, has only seven Australian and New Zealand bred thoroughbreds likely to start out of a field of 24.

The key to overseas dominance of the race is the much greater dedication to breeding stayers, horses bred to be capable of running long distances such as the 3.2 kilometres of the Melbourne Cup race.

"This year's Melbourne Cup field is unusual, with higher levels of major 'stayer' breeding potential because of the international entrants. Eleven of the international horses are 'entires', male horses that have not been gelded and will become future stallions that can be used for breeding." This breeding potential is concentrated in the northern hemisphere entrants in the 2012 Melbourne Cup.

By contrast, Australia's thoroughbred horseracing industry has become specialised in breeding sprinters that excel at speed over short distances. These horses can win races at two years of age or three years of age and retire by age four. This means that owners get prize money more quickly and can get a faster return on breeding, which is where the real money is.

"This is important not just to the future of the Melbourne Cup, an iconic Australian sporting event in which Australian-bred competitors may be non-existent, but to the future of thoroughbred breeding," said McManus.

"The continued emphasis on speed over stamina could be damaging to the soundness and health of horses. The racing of immature horses at high speed is likely to increase the incidence of stress fractures and lameness."

One way of addressing these issues, Associate Professor McManus suggests, is to offer more Australian races for stayers, with high levels of prize money encouraging Australian thoroughbred breeders and racehorse owners to incur the costs of owning a horse for a longer period of time. Horses can begin racing when they are more physically mature and the higher levels of prize money will encourage the breeding of stayers. Perhaps then an Australian-bred horse will win the Melbourne Cup.

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