First run in 1948, the G1 Underwood Stakes under weight-for-age conditions is regarded as one of the most important spring lead up races to the big three of the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup. Last Saturday New Zealand-trained four-year-old Ocean Park became the fifth consecutive winner from that age group to triumph in this significant spring feature.
In the last 20 years, the Underwood Stakes has provided the winner of 19 of the above-mentioned features with the Caulfield Cup being the most successful with 10 subsequent winners using the race as part of their campaign. However, both Northerly (2001-2) and So You Think (2010) have completed the Underwood-Cox Plate double this century, and it's this that could prove the more pertinent statistic as Ocean Park's main goal this spring is reported to be the big one at Moonee Valley.
Counted amongst the winners of the Underwood Stakes are other such notables as the immortal Phar Lap, Ajax, Tobin Bronze, Aquanita, Rain Lover and Octagonal.
Some idea of the quality of the Underwood Stakes can be gleaned from the fact that in the last 10 years, runners from the race have collectively won 38 Group 1 races in the following 12 months.
There was a lot to like about the win by Ocean Park. A lightly-raced type who made a brief appearance in Sydney during the Autumn where his two runs caught the eye. He had no luck in the Randwick Guineas closing late for eighth behind Mosheen then ran a head second to Laser Hawk in the G1 Rosehill Guineas after a torrid overland run.
No such bad luck last Saturday. Under Glen Boss, Ocean Park settled beautifully on the fence two pairs back under a leisurely-run early tempo.
Apart from a few strides approaching the home turn where Boss momentarily became held up, it was a clinical execution by horse and rider. Once Boss was able to switch around leader Voila Ici's heels just after the 200m mark in the home straight, Ocean Park displayed a dazzling turn of foot quickly racing clear to win with something in reserve.
It was Ocean Park's second run from a spell and his second consecutive Group 1 success, having taken the Challenge Stakes over 1400m at Hastings in his native New Zealand 21 days prior.
Ocean Park's win was the fourth in the Underwood by a New Zealand-trained galloper in the last 30 years, giving the Kiwis back-to-back victories. The ill-fated Lion Tamer was successful last year, The Phantom in 1990 and the great Bonecrusher in 1986.
In assessing the merit of the win a Timeform rating of 124p was assigned to Ocean Park, a jump of 4 lbs on his Rosehill Guineas master rating.
This figure is on the low side of possible values suggested by race historical standardisation procedures and under the five-year Timeform winning average for the race of 126. So You Think holds court as the highest Timeform rated winner of the race in the last 25 years on 130.
The race was also held back by the established ratings profile analysis of the pre-race form cycles going into the race giving support that the 124p value for Ocean Park was an appropriate value.
The good news for Ocean Park is that the average Timeform winning rating for the Cox Plate is around 125, a rise of just 1 lb on his current master rating. The manner of Ocean Park's win suggests there is more to come on Saturday's 124 rating, as implied by him retaining a Timeform 'p'.
The very slow early tempo did make it difficult for the back markers to get into the race but conversely the leaders and those racing handy to the speed did have an advantage.
In that respect runner-up Voila Ici, the former Italian Group 1 winner now with Peter Moody, may have been flattered and to some degree December Draw but their efforts were still full of merit.
Voila Ici improved his Timeform rating from 117 to 123 in the Underwood, an improvement not out of the question considering the ratings profile lift by stable mate Manighar. His next effort will be crucial in determining if this level can be relied upon as well as his immediate spring program.
Last year's Caulfield Cup favourite December Draw, who suffered a career-threatening injury during that race, is on the comeback trail and returned a rating of 120 against a master figure of 121 last spring. December Draw should improve again when next produced en route to another possible Caulfield Cup run.
The 2011 Caulfield Cup and Makybe Diva Stakes winner Southern Speed is racing in great heart. She was not favoured by the early slow tempo but ran the fastest last 200m which is significant in the context of the race.
She ran to a Timeform rating of just 113, some 8 lbs short of her master figure and 5 lbs below her second placed effort in the 2011 renewal. But in short she lost no admirers in the lead up to the defence of her Caulfield Cup crown.
Memsie Stakes winner Sincero appeared disappointing running to a Timeform rating of 116, ni9 lbs short of his master figure. Given the slow early tempo and the doubt about his ability past 1600m, it was a scenario that should have played to his strengths given his superior turn of foot.
His trademark acceleration in the last 200m was missing, just plodding into fifth place. Sincero has now raced four times past 1600m and is yet to fill a place. There must be a big doubt over his Cox Plate chances based on this stat alone.
Race favourite Manighar may have gone into the race as the highest rated runner but his odds of even money represented poor value.
Manighar travelled well during the race on the outside of Ocean Park but as rider Luke Nolen reported post race, he lacked the acceleration shown in the Makybe Diva run and felt flat.
Much was made of his second up form last campaign but in essence it was a very good run for third to Lucas Cranach and Illo in the G2 P Young Stakes (1800m), a fact supported by his ratings profile.
Clearly the first up effort had taken its toll on Manighar and like many horses could not "back up" second run from a spell, especially after just 14 days.
It was Manighar's worse run for Moody and we can expect him to bounce back when next produced.
SAJC Derby winner Zabeelionaire was good late running to a Timeform rating of 112, just four pounds under his Derby-winning figure.
Considering the tempo bias, the dour Zabeelionaire showed he was on track for the Cups. He is coming to hand very nicely. Personally he strikes me as perfect a 3200m horse and could easily be the "Aussie sleeper" against the imports come the first Tuesday in November.
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