Boost for stayers in bid to help division flourish
But trainer Mark Johnston has 'grave concerns'
The first steps on a long-term journey designed to reinvigorate and protect the Flat stayers' division in Europe have been revealed, with the Goodwood Cup becoming a £500,000 Group 1 and the Queen's Vase upgraded to Group 2.
The changes – which were many and varied – announced by the European Pattern Committee on Wednesday were generally well received, although the reduction in distance of the Queen's Vase, to a mile and six furlongs from two miles, will disappoint some racing professionals, racegoers and fans – and trainer Mark Johnston spoke of his "grave concern" at the move.
The EPC's overarching aim is to breathe new life into a sector of Flat racing which has become in danger of being sidelined as owners, trainers and breeders push more towards fast horses and quick bucks.
The Qatar Goodwood Cup's prize-money has been boosted by £200,000, while the Queen’s Vase becomes Group 2 from Listed, having been downgraded from Group 3 in 2014.
All Pattern races of a mile and five furlongs-plus will be protected from downgrade until at least 2022, a move it is hoped will help boost the number of young stayers in training and capture the imagination.
EPC chairman Brian Kavanagh said: “A few years ago the EPC downgraded the Queen’s Vase. This was an uncomfortable outcome but it helped to concentrate minds on the need to develop greater depth to the pool of young stayers.
"The reduction in trip should help to make it more of a target for a greater number of quality young horses.
“The European programme needs to be ambitious enough to capture people’s attention and start to change behaviour, by making the breeding and buying of stayers a more attractive option. Our aim was to embrace a small number of meaningful enhancements to the Pattern for 2017, with scope for further developments in years to come.”
The BHA stressed the staying-programme initiatives would take three to five years to make a real impact, in contrast to the almost instant lift the three-year-old sprinting division received when changes were made in that area, including the introduction of the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot.
BHA director Ruth Quinn said: “We have a weighty responsibility to protect the continued production of quality stayers in the future, for a number of wide-ranging and significant reasons.
"The rich diversity of our race programme, maintaining variety in the gene pool and, as a consequence, our horse population, creates one of the most important, enviable and fascinating dimensions of British racing. Our support must focus on both the aspirational top end and the grassroots.
“Clearly this is not something that can be tackled overnight. Unlike the recent major enhancements we made to the three-year-old sprint programme in the first half of the season, where there was the additional attractive prospect of creating commercial stallions, it will be much more difficult to change behaviour quickly with this project.”
Johnston, who has handled staying greats Double Trigger, Double Eclipse and Royal Rebel, has won the Queen’s Vase, restricted to three-year-olds, on seven occasions. He feels reducing the distance is a negative move for true stayers.
"The Queen’s Vase is a race for stayers and, while I understand the race comes early in the careers of horses, these changes will penalise horses who stay and benefit more middle-distance horses.
"Can you say horses such as Estimate and Leading Light, who have won the race recently and gone on to win the Gold Cup, would have won over shorter? Maybe, but they’re true stayers and the sort of horses who should be being catered for by races like the Queen’s Vase.
“There aren't that many races before Royal Ascot for staying horses and on occasions I’ve sent horse to the Queen’s Vase that we’ve not been sure about as stayers and they’ve won. The race should be run to support horses who stay and the programme should be improved for them, instead of for horses who can step up from middle distances and outspeed staying horses.”
William Haggas, also a member of the Flat Pattern Committee, said: “Another Group 1 Cup has got to be welcomed, as have the changes being made to the Queen’s Vase.
"This is the key three-year-old staying race in the first half of the season and there's good reason to make it a real target, rather than an afterthought for horses perhaps felt to be not good enough to win over 12 furlongs.
“In my view having the race as a Group 2 should make a noticeable difference and the reduction in distance is something I support strongly.
"The existing trip is a very stiff test for a three-year-old in mid-June, whereas the slightly reduced distance will see the race appeal to a wider pool of young horses with potential to be high-class stayers of the future.”
Many other race condition changes, upgrades, downgrades and new races were revealed, with Italy having three Group 1s downgraded to Group 2.