1980 Durban July final field debacle led to today's fairer selection system
CAPE TOWN - Forty years ago a final field debacle in the Vodacom Durban July led to a change being made in the selection process starting from 1981 onward and today whilst there are still gripes from the connections of those who don't get in the system does at least give all entries a chance.
Legendary three-times July-winning trainer Mike Bass remembers the newspaper billboards which pronounced the devastating news that his charge Cracker Lily, who was just about the ante-post favourite for the 1980 race, had been eliminated.
In 1980 the system was simply to select the top 20 horses in weight order and as Cracker Lily had been set to carry a low weight of around 49kg he was eliminated.
Bass was known for his expertise in bringing horses on slowly but surely to their peak and he seldom took three-year-olds to KZN in the winter.
He allowed the tall Cracker Lily plenty of time to mature in his three-year-old year and to overcome his issues. His chief issue was his "stringhalt". This condition refers to a gait abnormality which is characterized by involuntary, exaggerated upward movement of one or both of the hindlimbs. Cracker Lily had no problem when galloping but when walking one of his hind-legs would often suddenly shoot up involuntarily, sometimes making contact with his stomach.
When the new season began the now four-year-old Cracker Lily was only a one-time winner but he was progressive and Bass targeted the July.
The colt by Palm Beach II (GB) out of the good broodmare Lily started his campaign superbly, winning three Progress Plates in succession from 1600m to 1800m.
He then finished 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 2nd in four B Division handicaps over 1500m, 1600m, 1700m and 1700m respectively.
He followed that by winning a B Division Handicap over 1800m at Kenilworth.
Bass then entered him in the Grade 1 weight for age (wfa) Queen's Plate over 1600m.
He finished a fine 4,25 length fourth to reigning July champion Over The Air.
In the process he beat Deep Magic by two lengths, World News by 4,25 lengths and Outswinger by 5,25 lengths.
Bass then ran him in the Grade 3 wfa South Easter Stakes over 1800m.
He waltzed in under regular pilot Paddy McGivern, winning by two-and-a-half lengths with the 1978 SA Guineas winner World News finishing third, beaten 4,75 lengths.
Cracker Lily then won the Cape Town Festival Handicap over 1900m at Kenilworth by an easy 1,75 lengths.
It is not clear from the archives how the weights were set for his next start in the Grade 2 Republic Day Handicap over 1900m at Greyville, which is today's equivalent of the WSB 1900.
However, it seems absurd that having thrashed World News in his two previous starts, both wfa events, he was now set to carry 3.5kg less than the World News.
Cracker Lily was set to carry only 50kg and the Form Turf Guide and Blood Horse analyst said, "Cracker Lily looks to be the horse to beat at the weights as long as Robbie Sham can overcome a wide draw."
As it happened he was beaten three-quarters of a length into second place by the top class Anytime Baby, who carried 56kg. Anytime Baby had shown how good he was by beating the celebrated Bold Tropic in the 1979 SA Guineas. The latter is commonly regarded as one of the best three-year-olds in South African history and he went on to win seven races in the USA including four Grade 2s.
The horse that finished third in the Republic Day, one -and-a-quarter lengths behind Cracker Lily, was six-year-old Beau Art, whose hitherto biggest claims to fame had been a runner up finish to the great Politician in the 1978 July and a third place finish to Politician in the 1979 Met.
Among the other horses Cracker Lily comfortably beat in the Republic Day were World News, Forty Winks, Outswinger and Statesman although he did receive weight from them.
Nevertheless, the top twenty in the weights for the July all accepted.
Cracker Lily was thus eliminated simply due to his low weight, whilst those he had easily beaten in various build up races, World News, Deep Magic, Outswinger, Forty Winks and Statesman, were all included.
The gentlemanly Bass recalls accepting Cracker Lily's fate matter-of-factly.
The subsequent July result saw the two horses Cracker Lily had split in the Republic Day, Beau Art and Anytime Baby, finishing first and second. The handicappers were given some vindication when Cracker Lily could only manage a 2,25 length second in the Sea Cottage Handicap over 1900m on July day, although he was giving 3.5kg to the winner Lagin.
However, Cracker Lily subsequently won the Grade 2 Clairwood Winter on the last Saturday of the season. He carried 49.5kg, and received 1kg from Lagin whom he beat into second by 1.5 lengths. July runner Forty Winks, carrying 56.5kg, was beaten 15,25 lengths.
From the following year onward the final field panellists were apparently allowed to select at their own discretion. This was likely in order to prevent what was becoming a familiar scenario, i.e. has-beens having one more crack at the July and effectively preventing the inclusion of young horses who had the form to win the big race.
The July fields in the 1970s were characterised by the lack of three-year-olds, which emphasised how difficult it was for a young horse to be included in the final field.
From 1970 to 1980 inclusive only 23 three-year-olds ran in the July and yet three of them won and two of them were runner ups, while one of them crossed the line first but was demoted after an objection.
Under today's merit rating system Cracker Lily would likely have been among the twenty top-weighted horses among the entries on the grounds of his Queen's Plate run alone.
However, more importantly he would have been near the top of the July log with such form and would thus have been an automatic inclusion in the final field.