Maiden winner puts a blight on revered race

Q: Why should maidens be banned from contesting the Cox Plate?

A: Because one might win it.

There is only one worse outcome for a race club than its marquee race being exposed as below par and lacking in class. That is for the club to put the wheels in motion itself.

By permitting the maiden galloper Shamus Award to contest Saturday's Cox Plate, the Moonee Valley Racing Club opened up the possibility that the race - spruiked loudly as the weight-for-age championship of Australasia - could be cheapened and ridiculed.

It is supposed to be the race where superstars line up for the biggest weight-for-age prize on offer, not where sprinting-bred maiden three-year-olds break through for their first win.

No matter that Shamus Award had been luckless in many of his first nine starts, he had never won a race before Saturday and had never raced out of his age group. That he could take on older, more accomplished horses over an unknown distance and manage to prevail, says much about his rivals and even more about where the Cox Plate sits today.

Certainly the club was luckless this week. If the long-time race favourite Atlantic Jewel had taken her place and won as expected, there would be no talk of embarrassing upsets or of races being diminished. But the club then permitted Shamus Award to come in as substitute to ensure there was a full field of 14. Good business sense as the club pays no great financial penalty through a reduced betting pool, but risky for the race that is supposed to be the best of its kind.

The race was no richer for the inclusion of Shamus Award and has surely come out poorer for the fact he ran and won. He might go on and become a champion of his era, but the flat memory of the Cox Plate's first maiden winner will haunt the race for many years. The Cox Plate has long carried the legend ''where legends are made'', but soon could become ''where maidens can win''.

There are a number of reasons as to how this came about. The influx of former European gallopers over the past five or six years to contest the Melbourne Cup has changed the face of the Cox Plate.

Stayers from the northern hemisphere prefer to have their runs spaced and so few, if any, race at Saturday's Victoria Derby meeting - in either the Mackinnon Stakes or Lexus Stakes - three days before the Melbourne Cup as has been the norm in Australia for many decades.

Many European horses are having their final prep race for the Cup in the Cox Plate, run 10 days before the Melbourne Cup. They are using the Cox Plate as a hitout on their way to the big one. If they manage to win or find a place, well and good, if not, then the grand final is still to come.

On Saturday, eight of the 14 horses to contest the Cox Plate are also fully qualified for a Melbourne Cup run and most, if not all, will run for the $6 million prize.

In 2004, when three-year-old Savabeel caused a similar Cox Plate upset at odds of $15, only two horses from that 13-horse field went on to run in the Melbourne Cup - and both were bred locally. Delzao ran sixth in the Cox Plate but beat just one of the 24 runners home in the Melbourne Cup while Elvstroem ran eighth at Moonee Valley before a stirring effort for fourth in the big one.

Although Savabeel's win was viewed as a boilover of sorts, he had at least shown himself to be a winner before the race. He won a two-year-old event earlier in 2004 before claiming the group 1 Spring Champion Stakes in Sydney three weeks before the Cox Plate.

There is little doubt the four-year-old numbers have been diminished this season and that has left a gaping hole in the talent pool. Champion colts Pierro and All Too Hard were retired to stud, while It's A Dundeel suffered an interrupted campaign and then a torrid run during Saturday's race to finish unplaced.

Some pointed to the fact that the Cox Plate was actually race 18 over the 24-hour period that included the eight-race program on Friday night as being a reason why such a bolter could win the race.

The track may not have had anything to do with the result, but the fact the Friday night meeting exists means the perception that the Cox Plate may be conducted on an inferior track will continue to undermine the race.

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