Are the six newly upgraded Group One races for fillies and mares in Europe worthy of their status?

Well that is too soon to say, but there is a significant difference between the newly upgraded “f&m” events and how other races that have earned Group One status over the years. The key word is “earned” of course, as a race cannot, under normal circumstances, be upgraded unless it has earned it through attracting high quality fields.

Still, the upgrading of six races to Group One in 2004, was triggered mainly by the wish to improve opportunities for fillies and mares. Such a factor would almost certainly not be allowed much emphasis in discussions concerning upgrading races for males. Ruth Quinn, racing director at the British Horseracing Board, said at the time: “I am delighted to be able to announce these considerable improvements to the race program for fillies and mares. We want to offer every encouragement to fillies to extend their racing careers in Britain”.

What Quinn was actually saying, between the lines, was that the BHB were anxious to stop the export of potentially high class broodmares to the US, where better purses and black type opportunities in Graded handicaps make it more viable to continue a filly’s racing career before retiring her to the paddocks. So, two years ago, Europe offered a greatly improved program for fillies and mares aged three and up, including these new Group One races: Falmouth Stakes 1 mile (England) Sun Chariot Stakes 1 mile (England) Matron Stakes 1 mile (England) Pretty Polly Stakes1 1/4 miles (Ireland) Prix d’Astarte 1600 metres (France) Premio Lydia Tesio 2000 metres (Italy) Interestingly, these six were also the only races upgraded to Group One status that year.

How far off having earned the status were some of these new championship “f&m” races? The two in England are perhaps the two strongest and, as it has been won by stars like Sonic Lady and Al Bahatri, many would argue that the Falmouth Stakes was long overdue its upgrading. But the year before being staged as a Group One for the first time it was won by Macadamia – who had won the Royal Hunt Cup off handicap mark 93 three weeks earlier. She was improving of course, and two starts later she ran second in another Group Two, the Sun Chariot Stakes. That day, she was chasing Echoes in Eternity – who had not even been given the mark 100 by the BHB handicapper for her Listed win at Yarmouth just over two weeks earlier.

At the time, many would argue that these were weak Group Two events. Twelve months later they both held Group One status, as the European Pattern program underwent some major changes: - 23 new Group races were introduced, 21 as Group 3 events and four as Group 2 events. - 17 of the 23 races were restricted to fillies and mares aged three and up (three were for juvenile fillies). - 17 Group races were upgraded. Six races went up to Group One status, ten races went up to G2 status and one race went up to G3 status. - 11 of the 17 races were restricted to fillies and mares aged three and up (two were for juvenile fillies). Excluding the juvenile races, no fewer than 28 of a total of 40 new / upgraded races were contests restricted to fillies or fillies and mares. It is also interesting to note that, despite having given 40 races an elevated status, the European Pattern Committee downgraded only six events.

The Pattern Book had either been, or become, imbalanced. After such a shake-up in 2004, it was no surprise when only minor changes were made prior to the 2005 season. Four races were upgraded and two races were downgraded that year, including the Prix Lupin (a previous Group One race which was withdrawn from the pattern to allow the French Derby to be run at 2100 metres). Over the two-year period, no other race was downgraded from Group One status.

Is the European Pattern Committee gambling when upgrading as many as six fillies & mare races to Group One with one throw of the dice? Not if enough owners decide to keep top class fillies in training. They are the ones taking the financial gamble and, as one is striving to see fillies that have already won in Group One company stay in training, purses play a crucial role. The lure of prize money must not only outweigh the lure of a sale of the filly, or a sale of her first yearling, it must also be big enough to over-shadow the risk factors involved in keeping a valuable filly in training. Funds were added, as the Falmouth and the Sun Chariot both jumped up from £58,000 to £116,000 in value when being upgraded. That was the financial reward as Attraction took the first Sun Chariot Stakes carrying Group One status. Two weeks later the mare Chorist picked up £81,576 for finishing second to Haafhd in the Champion Stakes (Gp1) – where she was the only female runner. She had earned just shy of £110,000 when beating her own sex in the Pretty Polly Stakes (G1) at the Curragh earlier in the season. Chorist’s second in the Champion probably enhanced her broodmare value more than what was the case for Attraction when she won the Sun Chariot. This simply because Attraction had already won three Group One races. When a filly with such an impressive CV stays in training, one has to say that the enhanced program has already given positive results.

Though what will the enhanced program achieve in the long run? Will it make more and more Group One winners stay in training, or will it simply create more (party sub-standard) Group One winners? The big breeding operations, with Juddmonte at the forefront, will never stop sending numerous fillies to continue their racing careers North America, and a filly like Attraction – owned by the Duke Of Roxburghe – would never be exported in any case. In the 2004 Sun Chariot, Attraction beat Chic and Nebraska Tornado, giving the race the look of a solid Group One. Last year’s edition was won by Peeress, who beat Sumitville and Musicanna. That was hardly a genuine Group One finish but it is too soon to assess the success or failure of the upgrading this event.

Overall, the new Group One races seem to have got off to an adequate start. The continuation is perhaps more important. Will they all be deserving continued Group One status in about five years’ time? And if not, how difficult will it be for the Pattern Committee to downgrade one or two of them? Such a move will probably very difficult. Racecourses, trainers, owners and breeders combine for rather a formidable pressure group, and they will all be interested in keeping these races at Group One status. Even if they should become numerically strong enough to be self-destructing quality-wise, producing below par championship races, and in turn produce below par Group One winning broodmares.

A total of 85 Group One races were staged in Europe last year. 19 of these were races restricted to fillies (for 3-year-olds or 3-year-olds plus). In other words, 22.35% of all Group One races are for the fairer sex only. These are races that give the girls protection from competition with males. It is easy to see how the decision to upgrade six such events was a major change. Nevertheless, fillies and mares who race exclusively in their own division are still not offered anything as big a slice of the cake as they are in USA. North American racing has long had a lucrative program for fillies and mares. The US racing circuit will be staging 104 Grade One races in 2006, of which 39 are restricted to fillies and mares (excluding those for juveniles). This means that 37.5% of all Grade One events are “f&m” races and, not surprisingly, a great number of female runners stay in training well past their 3-year-old season. What it also means, however, is that US trained fillies and mares are rarely seen competing with males at Grade One level.

This is a feature that has always played an excellent role on the vivid and colourful stage called European horseracing. The true championship races should always involve clashes of sexes, as well as clashes of generations. If the increase in upgrading of European Pattern races restricted to fillies of mares continues, clashes of sexes may well be a rarity. If not a thing of the past altogether. An ‘Arc’ or a ‘Jacques le Marois’ without a top filly involved would not be quite the same, would it? It would not be as competitive. Many will argue that this would be a small price to pay, in return for seeing more top older fillies in training over a period of two to three years.

Maybe so, but more Group One races will always mean more sub-standard Group One races. And increasing top level opportunities for fillies and mares will have a knock on effect also on some of the established Group One events open to both sexes. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes are not likely to be vulnerable in the foreseeable future, though races like the Prix d’Ispahan, Sussex Stakes, Preis von Europa and Champion Stakes could easily lose some big players of the fairer sex. Many of them will be campaigned exclusively in “f&m” races. So, without throwing out an unnecessarily early opinion on these new developments, perhaps one can offer this (provisional) theory: Giving the filly & mare division significantly increased protection can have positive effects, but overdo it, and negative side-effects will be part of the bargain.