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A host of racing stars have launched the Festival of Racing in Victoria which begins with the first Group One race of the year.

Saturday’s CF Orr Stakes meeting at Caulfield heralds the start of the Festival of Racing which runs until Mornington Cup day on March 24 and features nine Group One races in Melbourne and 13 country Cups.

The Festival of Racing was launched in Melbourne on Wednesday morning with the stars including champion trainers Gai Waterhouse and Darren Weir and Melbourne Cup-winning jockeys Michelle Payne and Damien Oliver.

Ballarat trainer Archie Alexander and apprentice jockey Stephanie Thornton are the Festival of Racing ambassadors while Geelong AFL captain Joel Selwood, who is also a racehorse part-owner, was in attendance as the Festival of Racing owner ambassador.

Oliver missed last spring’s Melbourne Cup carnival at Flemington because of an improper riding suspension incurred in the Cox Plate but the 10-time Melbourne jockeys’ premiership winner is hoping to be a major player in the feature races during the Festival of Racing.

“I was very well rested during the spring carnival so I’m really looking forward to a good autumn,” Oliver said at the launch.

“The last month to six weeks has been really good and I’ve been getting plenty of winners and building up some nice horses to ride.”

Among Oliver’s main carnival chances is Australian Guineas hopeful Levendi.

Weir has a strong chance of claiming the year’s first Group One race on Saturday with three of the main CF Orr Stakes chances in Tosen Stardom, Black Heart Bart and Brave Smash.

“The Festival of Racing is a fantastic opportunity for Victorians to see racing’s best in action in a relaxed atmosphere, with first-class food and entertainment on offer at a broad range of race meetings across the state,” Racing Victoria’s chief executive Giles Thompson said.

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