Why three-year-olds add so much to the Cox Plate

The presence of a pair of three-year-olds in tomorrow’s Cox Plate has added a layer of intrigue to the weight-for-age race, and not for the first time.

The modern incarnation of the Cox Plate (Gr 1, 2040m), born that famous day in 1986 when four-year-olds Bonecrusher (Pag Asa) and Our Waverley Star (Star Way) went head-to-head in such memorable fashion, has had three-year-olds at the heart of its story.

They may have won just four of the 37 editions since 1986, the most recent in 2013, but in almost every edition they have contested, three-year-olds have added considerably to the quality of the field and the level of interest.

After the 2022 edition was without three-year-old representation, two will contest the Cox Plate this year: Militarize (Dundeel) and King Colorado (Kingman).

Militarize is the first Golden Rose (Gr 1, 1400m) winner to run in a Cox Plate since that three-year-old race attained Group 1 status in 2009, while King Colorado is the first JJ Atkins Stakes (Gr 1, 1600m) victor to tackle the weight-for-age championship since Almalad (Al Maher) in 2014.

The weight-for age conditions of the Cox Plate, the timing of the race in late October, plus the unique layout of Moonee Valley, are all contributing factors as to why three-year-olds have had such an important role to play.

Under weight-for-age, three-year-old colts and geldings carry 49.5 kilograms in the Cox Plate, while fillies carry 47.5 kilograms. That is eight kilos less than their four-year-old rivals (7 kilos less than northern hemisphere-bred four-year-olds), and 9.5 kilograms less than those aged five and over.

The timing of the race, relatively early in the season, is significant. The weight advantage of three-year-olds under WFA diminishes as the season progresses. So, when the Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Gr 1, 2000m) is held at Randwick in April, three-year-olds carry five kilos more than they do in the Cox Plate.

That is designed to account for the improvement, both physical and mental, that horses tend to make through their three-year-old season. It is, of course, an imprecise measure, as horses develop at different times and at different rates. Spring is arguably the time when three-year-olds improve at their sharpest rate.

The most recent three-year-old Cox Plate winner, Shamus Award (Snitzel), improved 23 official ratings points in his Moonee Valley win from his previous run when third in the Caulfield Guineas (Gr 1, 1600m), while So You Think (High Chaparral), vaulted the same number in the space of one run in his three-year-old victory in 2009.

Both those wins were memorable because the three-year-olds led all the way, using the tight-turning Moonee Valley track, and used their weight pull over their rivals to advantage to dominate the race from the front. However, while those wins tend to stick in our mind, a look back through those past 37 Cox Plates paints a different picture of that tactic.

There have been 12 three-year-olds who have led the Cox Plate field through the early stages since 1986 and So You Think and Shamus Award are the only ones who have been successful. Two others have been placed, Slight Chance (Centaine) and Stylish Century (Double Century); while in recent years three-year-old leaders Captivant (Capitalist) (8th) and Grandslam (Myboycharlie) (14th) have faded badly and failed to beat a runner home.

What has also become apparent in recent years is the diminishing will of trainers and owners to send their best three-year-olds to the race. Tomorrow will be just the second time since 2014 there have been multiple three-year-olds engaged. The average number of three-year-olds per year in the past eight editions has been just 0.75.

That has been part of an ongoing decline since the eras of peak three-year-old Cox Plate participation in the 1970s and 1980s. Splitting up by decade, we see in the 1960s the average number of three-year-olds in the race was 3.0. In the 1970s, that jumped to 4.6, including two editions, 1970 and 1977 where there were seven of them in the race.

The 1980s saw that level of participation sustained with an average of 4.3. That famous 1986 contest may have been fought out by a couple of New Zealand-bred four-year-olds, but the field that day included six three-year-olds.

The 1990s saw the first signs of a decline. The average Cox Plate three-year-old contingent in that decade was 2.5, and included the first Cox Plate since at least 1950, which didn’t feature a three-year-old. That was in 1993.   

It was a sign of what was to come as the 2000s averaged just 1.1 three-year-olds per Cox Plate, including two editions, 2003 and 2007, without any representation. That ticked up to 1.2 in the 2010s, a decade which again featured two races without any three-year-olds. So far in the 2020s, including tomorrow, the average three-year-old contingent per race is 1.25.

But while the quantity has fallen, it’s arguable that the quality has been maintained. Of the last eight three-year-olds to contest the race, including tomorrrow’s pair, six have already had Group 1 wins on their resume ahead of their Cox Plate runs. Three of the past six three-year-old runners have placed in the race.

They also add significantly to the betting dynamic. Of the 15 three-year-old runners in the Cox Plate since 2010, there have been two favourites in the market, plus a further four who started in single figures.

What is also interesting is that every three-year-old colt which has contested the Cox Plate since 2000 has gone onto a career at stud. That list of 18 future stallions includes 13 who have gone on to produce Group 1 winners, among them Savabeel (Zabeel), Bel Esprit (Royal Academy), So You Think, All Too Hard (Casino Prince), Pierro (Lonhro), Proisir (Choisir) and Shamus Award.

The progeny of So You Think and Savabeel recently quinellaed Australia’s richest sprint race, The Everest (1200m).

Of those Cox Plate three-year-olds who went on to become stallions, two, All Too Hard (2012) and Shamus Award (2013), have runners in tomorrow’s race, Alligator Blood and Duais.

The other stallion represented tomorrow who ran in a Cox Plate is Militarize’s sire Dundeel (High Chaparral). He didn’t contest the 2012 Cox Plate as a three-year-old, running in the Moonee Valley Vase (Gr 2, 2040m) on the same day instead, where he suffered the first defeat of his career.

He returned to the Valley a year later in 2013, starting favourite in the Cox Plate, but could only finish seventh, six lengths adrift of Shamus Award. Tomorrow represents just the second time in modern Cox Plate history that two prior Cox Plate combatants have had their progeny come up against one another in the race.

The last time that happened was in 2020 when Pierro’s (Lonhro) Arcadia Queen (fifth) faced Ocean Park’s (Thorn Park) Kolding (13th), their sires having finished third and first respectively in 2012.      

Three-year-olds in the Cox Plate since 1986

Year Total Horses
2023 2 Militarize, King Colorado
2022 0 – 
2021 2 Anamoe (2nd), Captivant (8th)
2020 1 Grandslam (14th)
2019 1 Castelvecchio (2nd)
2018 0
2017 1 Royal Symphony (4th)
2016 1 Yankee Rose (3rd)
2015 0
2014 3 Sweynesse (8th), Wandjina (10th), Almalad (13th)
2013 2 Shamus Award (1st), Long John (9th)
2012 3 All Too Hard (2nd), Pierro (3rd), Proisir (8th)
2011 1 Helmet (8th)
2010 0
2009 2 So You Think (1st), Manhattan Rain (2nd)
2008 1 Samantha Miss (3rd)
2007 0
2006 1 Miss Finland (6th)
2005 2 God’s Own (8th), Hotel Grand (14th)
2004 1 Savabeel (1st)
2003 0
2002 1 Bel Esprit (8th)
2001 1 Viscount (3rd)
2000 2 Fubu (8th), Show A Heart (10th)
1999 3 Testa Rossa (4th), Redoute’s Choice (5th), Commands (11th)
1998 2 Dracula (7th), Kenwood Melody (10th)
1997 2 Encounter (4th), Schubert (6th)
1996 2 Anthems (7th), Adventurous (8th)
1995 2 Octagonal (1st), Our Maizcay (14th)
1994 2 Danewin (5th), St Covet (8th)
1993 0
1992 5 Slight Chance (3rd), Coronation Day (8th), Muirfield Village (9th), Burst (10th), Palace Reign (Fell)
1991 3 Ready To Explode (6th), Kinjite (11th), Chortle (14th)
1990 4 Canny Lad (3rd), St Jude (6th), Lord Revenir (9th) Integra (10th)
1989 5 Stylish Century (2nd), Tristanagh (7th), Courtza (10th), Procol Harum (12th), Zabeel (14th)
1988 4 Run Straight Run (4th), Almurtajaz (5th), Vitalic (7th), Glenview (10th)
1987 6 Our Poetic Prince (2nd), Beau Zam (5th), Midnight Fever (6th), Marwong (7th), Kaapstad (8th), High Regard (11th)
1986 6 Dandy Andy (5th), Drought (6th), Tristram (8th), Abaridy (10th), Society Bay (11th), Imprimatur (13th)


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