The Commonwealth Cup: Pass or Fail for Britain's Youngest G1?

Muhaarar was a brilliant first winner of the Commonwealth Cup | Racingfotos

By Emma Berry and Brian Sheerin

On Tuesday the European Pattern Committee (EPC) announced that 42 races are at risk of being downgraded in 2025, including Britain's G1 Commonwealth Cup.

Its status will depend very much on its performance in 2024, which will mark the tenth running of the race introduced to the British calendar in 2015 as a readymade Group 1 in order to “create a more balanced programme and better opportunities for high-class sprinters”. The Commonwealth Cup, run at Royal Ascot over six furlongs for three-year-olds only, was initially open to geldings, though this rule was changed from 2020. Its introduction to the race programme coincided with the upgrading to Group 1 status of the Qipco British Champions Sprint S., formerly known as the Diadem S.

The Commonwealth Cup couldn't really have asked for a better inaugural winner than Muhaarar (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB}) and his ascent through the sprinting ranks illustrated to an extent the importance of a springboard such as this. The Shadwell colt, winner of the previous year's G2 Gimcrack S., had finished eighth, some seven lengths behind Make Believe (GB), in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains on his first and only try at a mile. His attempt at the Classic was understandable as Muhaarar had won the G3 Greenham S. over seven furlongs on his three-year-old debut. Dropped back to six, however, his season came alive. From the Commonwealth, which he won by three and three-quarter lengths from Limato (GB), he sailed faultlessly through the July Cup and Prix Maurice de Gheest before returning to Ascot to claim his fourth consecutive Group 1 victory in the newly promoted British Champions Sprint. 

Two more three-year-olds have won the latter since then: Sands Of Mali (Fr) (Panis), who was runner-up in the Commonwealth Cup of 2018, and  three years later Creative Force (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}), who had also won the G3 Jersey S. in 2021.

Commonwealth Cup ratings 

A race is rated through the average mark of the first four horses home. The EPC considers these ratings over a three-year period. The Group 1 parameter is 115, and to retain Group 1 status a race's rating must be within 2lbs of that mark. 

In the case of Group 1 races for three-year-olds only, if the average rating falls more than 2lb below the parameter in two consecutive years, then a majority vote among EPC member countries will decide whether or not the race is to be downgraded.

In 2020, race ratings were discounted owing to the Covid pandemic and the disruption to the racing calendar. The yearly race ratings for the other eight runnings of the Commonwealth Cup are shown below, courtesy of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), along with the first four finishers for each year. 

2015 115.00 (Muhaarar, Limato, Anthem Alexander, Salt Island)

2016 112.25 (Quiet Reflection, Kachy, Washington DC, La Rioja)

2017 117.25 (Caravaggio, Harry Angel, Blue Point, Bound For Nowhere)

2018 111.50 (Eqtidaar, Sands Of Mali, Emblazoned, Stone Of Destiny)

2019 118.75 (Advertise, Forever In Dreams, Hello Youmzain, Ten Sovereigns)

2020    (Golden Horde, Kimari, Ventura Rebel, Royal Commando)

2021 110.75 (Campanelle, Dragon Symbol, Measure Of Magic, Dandalla)

2022 111.25 (Perfect Power, Flaming Rib, Flotus, Cadamosto)

2023 114.50 (Shaquille, Little Big Bear, Swingalong, Ocean Quest)

As we can see, three of the eight rated runnings to date have met or exceeded the Group 1 parameter of 115, and one fell below that by less than 1lb. Of concern is the fact that the other four were all some way short, even with that 2lb concession. The ratings of 2021 and 2022 triggered a warning, and while last year's running was up to par, the three-year average rating for the race remains below 113. 

The race's lowest rating of 110.75 will be discarded from the three-year cycle this year, so a vintage renewal in 2024 will certainly help matters (we're looking at you, Vandeek).

How good were the winners?

Muhaarar was a hard act to follow but Quiet Reflection (GB) (Showcasing {GB}), the first filly to win the Commonwealth Cup, went on to win the G1 Haydock Sprint Cup in the same season as well as finishing third in the G1 July Cup. She remained in training at four and won the G3 Renaissance S in Ireland.

Caravaggio (Scat Daddy) won the Flying Five S. three months after his Commonwealth victory, and that race has subsequently been upgraded to Group 1 status. He led home two sprinting stars in Harry Angel (Ire) (Dark Angel {Ire}) and Blue Point (Ire) (Shamardal). Harry Angel collected the July Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup that same season, while Blue Point really came into his own at four and five with back-to-back wins in the G1 King's Stand S., the second of which came in the same week that he won the G1 Diamond Jubilee S. in the summer following his victory in the G1 Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai. He was the champion first-season of Britain and Ireland in 2023.

Eqtidaar (Ire) (Invincible Spirit {Ire}) failed to sparkle after his narrow victory in the Commonwealth Cup, but his runner-up Sands Of Mali we have discussed above.

The highest rating achieved in the race came in 2019 when the subsequent Prix Maurice de Gheest winner Advertise (GB) (Showcasing {GB}) had Hello Youmzain (Fr) (Kodiac {GB}) behind him in third, and the latter went on to win that year's Haydock Sprint Cup followed by the Diamond Jubilee in 2020. In fourth that day was Ten Sovereigns (Ire) (No Nay Never), who won the July Cup on his next start, and the redoubtable Khaadem (Ire) (Dark Angel {Ire}), who won that season's Stewards' Cup, was seventh. Khaadem also won the G2 King George S. in 2022 as well as last year's G1 Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee S. (formerly the Diamond/Platinum Jubilee) as a seven-year-old.

The 2020 winner Golden Horde (Ire) (Lethal Force {Ire}) was subsequently third in both the July Cup and the Sprint Cup, while Campanelle (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}), who was awarded the race in the stewards' room after being headed by Dragon Symbol (GB) (Cable Bay {Ire}) at the wire, returned to Ascot the following year to take third in the Platinum Jubilee. She had also won the G2 Queen Mary S. and G1 Prix Morny during a top juvenile campaign.

Perfect Power (Ire) (Ardad {Ire}) was another crack two-year-old who gathered the G2 Norfolk S., G1 Prix Morny and G1 Middle Park S. before returning at three to lift the Commonwealth Cup. He too had found the mile beyond him when finishing seventh to Coroebus (Ire) in the 2,000 Guineas after winning the Greenham.

And that brings us to Shaquille (GB) (Charm Spirit {Ire}), last year's top-rated three-year-old sprinter in the world on a mark of 120. His Commonwealth Cup victory over the favourite Little Big Bear (Ire) (No Nay Never) was followed by a sound beating of his elders in the July Cup.

Of the seven male winners to date, six are currently at stud in Britain, France and Japan. Eqtidaar died last year. Another eight of the placed horses are now active stallions.

Overall it's a pretty solid roll call for a race which raised eyebrows when being parachuted into the programme as a brand new Group 1 but which generally can be considered to be doing the job it was designed to do.

Following Tuesday's announcement by the EPC, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) expressed its disappointment at the lack of support for its bid to upgrade the G2 City of York S., a move which would provide another tweak to the sprint programme and make it the sole seven-furlong Group 1 race in Britain. The EPC also turned down an application from the BHA to upgrade the G2 Qipco Champions Long Distance Cup.

What do the experts think?

The BHA's director of international racing and development Ruth Quinn, who also sits on the EPC, recalls the unprecedented decision to create the Commonwealth Cup and award it Group 1 status from the outset.

“It was a project that [the EPC members] were all very passionate about and fully embraced, and they understood the reasons why Britain was putting it forward as a strategic case.

“At the time there was a lot of surprise that we were looking to create a new Group 1 race from scratch, which was unheard of, but it was a brand new concept and we were trying to capture people's attention in a way that the race programme hadn't been able to before. It meant that if you win the Middle Park you don't have to go and try your horse in the Guineas if it's a genuinely speedy animal. Everyone knows that three-year-old sprinters are going to struggle against older horses if we don't give them a helping hand in the first half of the season.”

She adds, “If we hadn't put it in at Group 1 level then I think we would have had a much harder task in making them change their behaviour, and we did hit the ground running with Muhaarar. And we had a good few years of real talking horses for the race over the winter.

“I do feel it is serving a broader, long-term role which just didn't exist in the past.”

Aidan O'Brien saddled the 2017 winner Caravaggio, as well as last year's runner-up Little Big Bear. He says of the possibility of the race being downgraded, “It would be a massive pity. The Commonwealth Cup is a very prestigious race and it is in a great slot in the programme book for the three-year-olds. It has just become a very important race in a relatively short space of time. 

“Strategically, it might not be a great idea if they decided to downgrade the race. I think it should remain a Group 1 because it's a very important race in an important place in the calendar. 

“You get the best three-year-old sprinters turning up there every year. I remember when it wasn't there and its addition has made a massive difference. Everything is right with the race. They might be jumping the gun if they downgraded it.”

Breeder and former trainer Luca Cumani agrees with O'Brien. He says, “I think it's a very important race for three-year-old sprinters and it filled a gap in the calendar that existed before. Before, everybody had to try to make a potential sprinter into a miler by trying him in the Guineas and only then have to revert to sprinting but have nowhere to go in his own age group, but instead having to take on the older horses. So they were marking time for almost a year until the horse became a four-year-old and could start to be competitive again.

“So I think it does definitely fill a gap in the Pattern and I would be very sad to lose it as a Group 1 race. I am surprised that it is in danger.”

Kirsten Rausing, breeder and owner of Lanwades Stud, is keen to see the City of York S. upgraded to a Group 1. It has been won in the last two years by the dual Group 1 winner Kinross (GB), and Rausing's homebred Sandrine (GB), herself a treble winner at Group 2 level over six and seven furlongs, has been third in both of the last two runnings. 

She says of the Commonwealth Cup being on the at-risk list, “In general it is of course disappointing but personally I feel the retention of Group 2 status for the City of York Stakes is of more concern. Upgrading that race would have given us a first Group 1 over seven furlongs in the UK. One hopes that the upgrade will come in 2025.

“Re the Commonwealth Cup, [the possibility of] downgrading it must be seen as an admission that the race has not achieved the original ambition of attracting the world's best sprinters. Whether the reason for this is the race date in the context of the worldwide racing calendar, or perhaps the, although rich by UK standards, relatively low prize-money, or the inevitable absence of Japanese representation in a sprint race. Who can tell?”

Richard Fahey, trainer of Perfect Power and Sands Of Mali, says, “One of the problems was that we were selling [sprinters] off to Hong Kong and this race was brought in to try to give us a chance to keep them. We've had a lot of luck in the race and I am hugely surprised to see that it's on the list. 

“It's a stepping stone for the younger sprinters. Yes, it's an easier option for them in some respects, and maybe that's why the ratings aren't standing up, but obviously it's a restricted pool of just three-year-olds. 

“It would be a shame if it's downgraded, as there are some good prep races for it. They upgraded the [G3] Pavilion and the [G2] Sandy Lane when the Commonwealth Cup was introduced, so what happens to them if it becomes a Group 2?”

Joe Foley, owner of Ballyhane Stud, stands Sands Of Mali and was also instrumental in the purchase of Shaquille for Steve Parkin's Dullingham Park. He says, “I was surprised to read that the race is in danger of being downgraded. The Commonwealth Cup has been a very successful race since its inception. Obviously I paid close attention to the race last year and Shaquille was very impressive but then he went on and achieved a big rating on his next start when beating his elders in the July Cup. Last year's Commonwealth Cup was an up-to-scratch renewal. Not only had you Shaquille in there but the runner-up, Little Big Bear, was a high-class two-year-old who achieved some big ratings. You had Swingalong in third and another very good horse in fourth [Ocean Quest]. To see that the race is under the spotlight after such a high-class edition is surprising. I'd be very disappointed if that happened.”

 

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