Australia’s two-year-old obsession is a myth

Australia may be renowned as a racing culture obsessed with precocious horses but the statistics tell a very different story.

The Golden Slipper (Gr 1, 1200m) sits at the centre of Australia’s love for two-year-old racing. From the moment that Todman (Star Kingdom) romped to an eight-length win in the first edition in 1957, it has become an ingrained part of Australian racing culture, with the fast and precocious nature of the race resonating with a nation that viewed itself in a similar way.

It emerged to challenge the Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 3200m) as Australia’s richest race in the 1980s and in 1986 became the first two-year-old race globally to be worth $1 million.

Long the world’s richest two-year-old race – it was worth $5 million in 2023 – the Slipper has fuelled Australia’s reputation as a hotbed of global juvenile racing. But while the riches may be unparalleled – there are ten two-year-old races in 2023 worth $1 million or more – the statistics tell a different story when it comes to participation.

Last racing season there were fewer Australian two-year-old starters than there have been in at least 30 years, with Racing Australia’s data revealing 2,721 juveniles took to the track. That is a 45 per cent fall on what the Australian two-year-old numbers were in 1993/94 and a 12.7 per cent reduction on the numbers a decade ago.

The obvious attributable factor is a reduction in the foal crop across that time, and while this has played a part, a key statistic indicates that in Australia, two-year-olds are proportionally making a much less significant mark.

The percentage of two-year-olds as compared to the overall Australian racing population is also at historic lows. Only 9.5 per cent of the 28,789 horses who started in Australia in 2021/22 were two-year-olds, down from 1993/94, when it was 13.9 per cent, and 2011/12, when it was 10.1 per cent.

It has hovered in that ten per cent range for most of the past decade in an ongoing trend which, when compared globally, indicates the long-held perception that Australia is a two-year-old obsessed racing nation is wide of the mark.

Australian two-year-old runners by season since 2012/13

Season 2YO Indiv. runners % of overall runners
2021/22 2721 9.5%
2020/21 2840 10.0%
2019/20 2832 10.1%
2018/19 2847 10.1%
2017/18 2775 9.8%
2016/17 2793 9.8%
2015/16 2874 9.8%
2014/15 2851 9.6%
2013/14 2971 9.8%
2012/13 3032 9.9%

The other useful metric is comparing participation directly to the corresponding foal crop. While horses bred elsewhere, chiefly in New Zealand, do bolster Australia’s two-year-old ranks, this gives us a strong indication of trend.

Those 2,721 juveniles who took to the track in 2021/22 represent, as a figure, 21.3 per cent of the 2019 Australian foal crop of 12,749.

That is the lowest ratio since 2015/16 but is marginally higher than the overall average since 1993/94, which stands at 21.2 per cent.

However, that participation metric stood at 25 per cent in the late 1990s, indicating a general trend away from racing two-year-olds in recent times.

As mentioned, there is considerable financial incentive to race two-year-olds, with ten of Australia’s 89 $1 million-plus races in 2023, 11.2 per cent, restricted to juveniles. In 2021/22 there were 71 stakes races for two-year-olds in Australia, representing 10.6 per cent of overall stakes races, again a higher proportion than the 9.5 per cent representation of individual starters.

At the top level, it gets a little harder with just five of Australia’s 74 Group 1 races, or 6.8 per cent, staged for juveniles. That is compared to 25.7 per cent which are restricted to three-year-olds, who last season represented 26.1 per cent of the racing population.

While Australia’s prize-money, particularly in that two-year-old space, remains the envy of much of the world, the level of participation in two-year-old racing actually lags well behind other jurisdictions.

We looked at data from three other countries, the UK, the US and Japan (JRA), all of which boast higher participation rates from their two-year-olds than Australia.

While 9.5 per cent of individual runners in Australia last season were two-year-olds, in 2022 that figure stood at 17.5 per cent in the US, 26.5 per cent in the UK, and 29.1 per cent in Japan.

While the UK figure has been steady for about a decade, the US percentage was the highest on record (available data extends back to 1988), while Japan’s proportion of two-year-olds has grown from 19.8 per cent back in 1990, to 26.6 per cent in 2012 and now to 29.1 per cent.   

Percentage of two-year-old runners to overall runners by season since 2013  

Year     UK       US     Japan
2022 26.5% 17.5% 29.1%
2021 26.6% 17.0% 29.1%
2020 26.6% 15.9% 29.8%
2019 26.1% 16.5% 29.4%
2018 27.0% 16.3% 28.3%
2017 26.7% 16.2% 28.1%
2016 27.0% 16.0% 28.5%
2015 27.9% 15.3% 28.4%
2014 26.8% 14.8% 28.3%
2013 26.2% 14.0% 27.5%

 In pure numbers terms, Japan is heading upwards. There were 1,267 individual juvenile starters on the JRA in 1990, and that more than doubled to 2,878 by 2012. Last year it was 3,294.

Programming has played a strong part. The number of JRA two-year-old races has grown from 401 in 1990 to 607 by 2012 and now stands at 650.

Conversely, the annual number of two-year-old runners in the US has diminished by 12.7 per cent in a decade, but not by as much as the overall number of individual runners, which has dropped 17.4 per cent since 2012. Britain’s two-year-old numbers are steady.

Looking at foal crops – which we restricted to the US and Japan as the UK has a much higher proportion of imported horses – we see the difference to Australia is even greater.   

The 2022 data shows us that 44.6 per cent of the 2020 foal crop from Japan debuted as two-year-olds on the JRA, while the data out of the US also indicated a much stronger preference for getting foals to the track in their two-year-old season, with a 42.2 per cent starters-to-foal-crop ratio. In Australia, that 2021/22 figure was 21.3 per cent.

So what about black-type racing? Which jurisdiction preferences two-year-olds most in its stakes scheduling?

The answer is not Australia, where 10.6 per cent of stakes races are restricted to juveniles and there are only five Group 1s for two-year-olds out of a schedule of 74, a 6.8 per cent share.     

The US has a similar stakes representation as Australia, with 10 per cent of races restricted to juveniles, however, at the elite level there are much greater opportunities, with 14 individual two-year-old Grade 1 races, representing 14.4 per cent of all Grade 1 races staged Stateside.

On the JRA, there are 160 Graded and Listed races, with 17 of them, or 10.6 per cent, for two-year-olds. The juveniles are only afforded three of the 24 Japanese Group 1 races, 12.5 per cent of those staged each year.   

The best place to race a two-year-old for stakes glory is in the UK, where there are 60 juvenile stakes races programmed, or 32.4 per cent of all stakes races. Of the 36 Group 1 races, five of them, or 13.9 per cent, are for juveniles.

However, breaking it down to a ratio of two-year-old runners-to-stakes races, Australian juveniles are best placed, with one stakes race for every 38 two-year-olds in action. The same metric is 1 in 47 for the UK, 1 in 120 for the US and 1 in 194 in Japan.

Proportion of two-year-old stakes/Gr 1 races per selected jurisdiction

Jurisdiction % overall Stakes races % overall G1 races % 2YO SR/Runners 2YO G1R/runners
Australia 10.6% 6.8% 2.6% 0.2%
UK 32.4% 13.9% 0.8% 0.2%
USA 10.0% 14.4% 2.1% 0.2%
Japan 10.6% 12.5% 0.5% 0.1%

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