In February, Racing NSW announced a new $2 million race, called ‘The Big Dance’.
The 1600m race is essentially a final and will be conducted at Royal Randwick on Melbourne Cup Day each year and to be eligible to contest The Big Dance, horses must either win or finish second in one of 25 selected NSW Country Cups throughout the year.
Since Racing NSW introduced the concept, seven eligible country cup races have been run and won, with seven city or provincial trainers winning.
In contrast, prior to Racing NSW’s announcement in February, eight eligible country cups had been run, and only one of those races was won by city or provincial trainers.
There is a growing sentiment throughout the state that country cups have quickly become an easy target for city and provincial stables, and the numbers don’t lie, with recent fields dominated by city class horses, while many country horses have either been balloted out, or have been well down in the weights, often listed as emergencies, due to these races being grading with metropolitan ratings.
Kempsey trainer Rocky Simonetta, who has enjoyed recent country cup success with Prima Stella, doesn’t believe he, or other trainers in his region, should have to take on city and provincial horses just because of The Big Dance.
“We have only got country horses, and we shouldn’t have to race city and provincial horses in our cups; they are just coming here and taking our money,” Simonetta said.
“It’s not cheap to train in the country and we are here in the country because we have got those types of horses, and I think it (The Big Dance) should be country only if they really want to help us.”
Simonetta said his owners shouldn’t have to go and buy horses, which he believes are out of their budget, just to compete in county cups, and he believes now, more than ever, it will be harder to get country owners on board when purchasing new horses to race in the country.
“We can’t buy city horses, and we can’t get those good horses, because we are out in the bush, which is fine, but we shouldn’t have to race against those good horses either,” Simonetta said.
“I can’t get owners to pay $100,000 for a horse. I am lucky to get $6000 horses.
“It’s good that I have an owner in Sydney, and he sends me his horses, but I can’t get other owners on board because they are loyal to their trainers.
“We won’t be able to afford horses good enough to win these races and if we keep racing against city and provincial trainers, owners won’t want to buy any horses.”
Wellington trainer Michael Mulholland, who is commonly referred to as the ‘Country Cup King’, owing to his success with the likes of Reward Seeker, Steamin’ and Athena’s Lad, doesn’t understand why city trainers need to set their horses for country cups, especially when there is so much money to be won in town.
“Metro (metropolitan) horses can run for $130,000 every Saturday each week; why do they need to come out here to win our races?” Mulholland asked.
Mulholland understands that the top end of town will always race for the state’s premier country cups, but he believes they should be excluded from competing in middle tier country cups, giving country and provincial stables a chance to win feature races.
“These country cups; they should only be for country and provincial horses,” Mulholland said.
“Yes, your big cups worth $200,000, like Tamworth, Scone, Wagga and those good races; they are already basically Group and Black Type races, and they are open slather, but the rest shouldn’t be impacted.
“It’s the ones for $100,000 and below that I’m worried about, and they should be left for us and the provincial trainers too.”
Mulholland does have an issue with Racing NSW stewards using metropolitan benchmark ratings to grade country cups, especially those country cups that have never previously needed to be graded in such a manner.
“What about cups like Coonamble. Will they leave it to be graded as a country race, or will they let all the city horses turn up and grade them with that metro rating,” Mulholland asked.
“They are basically making these country cups into metro races. If it keeps happening, I don’t think any country horses will get into them, let alone win them.”
The popular country trainer does see a future for The Big Dance, but only after some major changes.
“At the end of the day, The Big Dance could work, but right now, it’s there to cater for city horses and they should try and leave country cups for the country,” Mulholland said.
Apart from helping country clubs with turnover, Coffs Harbour trainer Noel Mayfield-Smith didn’t see a lot of benefit in having The Big Dance.
“It’s just another concept race with a lot of prize-money and it’s open to all, and other than to increase club’s turnover, I don’t see what benefit it is to country trainers,” Mayfield-Smith
The former Hawkesbury trainer, who used to be a representative on the NSW Trainer’s Association, doesn’t believe country trainers will have much of a chance to qualify their horses for the The Big Dance either.
“Those trainers are not going to win it with those nine-year-old stayers, are they,” Mayfield-Smith said.
“Old cocky’s will breed a horse, but they don’t breed a lot of stayers, and the chance of one of them coming up through those ranks is limited, so there won’t be those horses in the country good enough to win those races.”
Veteran Canberra trainer Keith Dryden has already qualified Dream Runner for the 2022 edition of The Big Dance, with his mare finishing second in last month’s Wagga Gold Cup, and while he can see The Big Dance working in the future, he doesn’t believe it is structured correctly in its current format.
“I think The Big Dance is a good thing for clubs, but it’s a negative for the country,” Dryden said.
“I would have liked to have seen it done a lot differently and I think it’s just ridiculous; Annabel (Neasham), Gai (Waterhouse) and those trainers wouldn’t normally go to the Wellington Cup or races like that, but with this Big Dance, now they are flooding those races and making it hard for country trainers and it’s nearly impossible to win those races.”
Dryden believes Dream Runner qualifying for The Big Dance will be one of the few exceptions.
In fact, he believes The Big Dance may lead to more country owners taking their horses to city trainers, meaning country trainers will miss out altogether in the future.
“I have qualified with one horse (Dream Runner), which was a second-place getter in the Wagga Cup, and it is a horse by Wilful Default,” Dryden said.
“There wouldn’t be many of them going around, and the thing is, country trainers won’t get those country horses for the country cups anymore.
“What owners are going to do; they are going to give those horses to Sydney trainers.
“Lets face it; if you are going to pick between Keith Dryden and Chris Waller when trying to get your horse in The Big Dance; you will send them to Chris Waller because he will give you the better chance.”
Tamworth trainer and former NSW Trainer’s Association representative Sue Grills reiterated Dryden’s comments regarding the potential impact of The Big Dance on racehorse ownership.
“I think it is going to impact your country owners as much as anyone,” Grills said.
“Everyone loves to have a runner in their local cup, and us trainers don’t have a hope, and what are those owners going to do?
“You’re normal Joe Blow owners won’t be able to afford good enough horses to win those cups and you might even have more owners pull out on you because they will be looking to go to those city trainers for a chance to win their country cup.”
Grills agreed with other trainers and believed country cups included in The Big Dance were no longer true country cups.
“They are not country cups anymore,” Grills said.
“They have taken the fun out of it for owners and trainers, and I think it is the worst thing out there for country racing.
“If it’s a country cup, it should be weighted for country horses, and they should make those good horses carry the weight if they want to come out here.”
The Tamworth trainer also believes The Big Dance can work going forward, but she suggested there needed to be some major changes.
“For sure it can work, but only if they benchmark these races with country benchmarks,” Grills said.
“There needs to be a lot of big changes for it to work, but as it is, it’s all for the city and it doesn’t benefit the country at all.”