Liam Howley was a nervous man this week as he waited to hear whether Virtuous Circle had made the field for the Group 1 Australian Cup (2000m) at Flemington on Saturday.
The Kyneton horseman had opted against a trip to Sydney with the Kiwi-bred three-year-old in favour of the $3 million feature, and he admitted to feeling the pressure in the lead-up to the field announcement.
“It has been a nervous wait as I have opted to take this path. I thought it would have been a bit easier to get a run,” Howley told RSN.
“Now that we are in, we are just going to enjoy the ride. He is fit and well and galloped at Bendigo yesterday and has come through it well.”
The son of Almanzor finished a luckless eighth in the Group 1 Australian Guineas (1600m) at Flemington earlier this month behind New Zealand filly Legarto and Howley has been pleased with his progress ahead of this weekend.
“I couldn’t be happier, he is fit and well and ready to go. It will be three weeks between runs, I am looking forward to it,” he said.
“There is genuine improvement in him. I think we didn’t get a fair crack at it (last start), his last 150m was clearly his best 150m, and the way he came through it suggests he is certainly looking for the 2000m. I am keen to see him on the big track.”
Virtuous Circle showed plenty of promise in the spring, with runner-up results in the Group 2 Stutt Stakes (1600m) and Group 2 Moonee Valley Vase (2040m), however, Howley elected to put him aside early and he believes that decision is paying off now.
“We felt we were physically underdone in the spring, that is why we put him away a bit early,” Howley said.
“No doubt he has come back bigger and stronger, so hopefully we are going to see the best of him over the next little bit.”
Howley is fully aware of the task ahead of his colt this weekend, but he believes his charge is more than up to the challenge.
“We are under no illusions, he has got to go to a new level to do that (beat the older horses on Saturday),” he said.
“We think he is at that level, we wouldn’t put him in there if we didn’t think he was going to be genuinely competitive. His work suggests he is right there but at the end of the day he has got to step up to meet them.”
All going to plan, Virtuous Circle will head north to Sydney after this weekend’s assignment in preparation for the Group 1 Australian Derby (2400m).
“I felt two trips to Sydney in the space of a fortnight was a bit much for him, that is why we avoided the Rosehill Guineas (Group 1, 2000m) last week,” Howley said.
“We opted to take this path and should he come through it well, he will be straight on the truck and straight to Randwick and take his place in the Derby.
“He is certainly physically ready for it (2400m) now. He is much stronger across his back and the way he has been recovering, pulling up between runs and his work is so much better. It is exactly what we were looking for now.
“I have got no doubt that the way he finds the line and the way he relaxes in the run that 2400m won’t be an issue, but he has got to do it under pressure to prove that he is worth the trip.”