It has been a truly spectacular Darwin Cup Carnival for champion Top End trainer Gary Clarke.
On Saturday, he ended the 2021/22 season with victory in the $135,000 Palmerston Sprint (1200m) when former NSW galloper Syncline, a six-year-old gelding these days, saluted with Jarrod Todd in the saddle.
On Monday, Clarke started the 2022/23 season in magnificent fashion when Victorian gelding Playoffs celebrated his sixth birthday with a dominant win in the $200,000 Darwin Cup (2050m).
After winning his first Palmerston Sprint aboard Syncline, Todd produced a gem of a ride on Playoffs to secure his second Cup victory, after guiding the Neil Dyer-trained Royal Request to the promise land in 2017.
In 2018, Clarke and his former No.1 stable rider Brendon Davis won the Palmerston Sprint and Darwin Cup double with Captain Punch and Zahspeed, respectively.
Syncline’s victory made it five Palmerston wins in the past seven years for Clarke, while Playoffs’ triumph made it three Cup wins for the Northern Territory’s leading trainer following the success of Lightinthenite (2015) and Zahspeed.
A former jockey, Clarke also won the 2000 Darwin Cup on the Steve Paynter-trained Star Bullet.
Clarke ended the 2021/22 season with 55 wins to claim the Top End trainers’ premiership for a 10th-straight year, while Todd punched home 44 winners to secure the jockeys’ premiership for the third year in a row.
At the end of the Darwin Cup Carnival, which comprises eight race meetings, Clarke and Todd also finished at the top of the pile with 17 and 15 wins, respectively.
Clarke also won the $75,000 Darwin Guineas with Wolfburn (Adam Nicholls), the $60,000 Chief Minister’s Cup with Playoffs (Todd) and the $40,000 Darwin Corporate Park Cup with Autocratic (Todd), and finished second in the $135,000 NT Derby with Wolfburn (Todd).
It was an emotional victory for Clarke and wife Sharlene, as well as for other family members and close friends, on top of what has already been a tumultuous period following the passing of their son Guy late last year.
Playoffs, who arrived in the Top End from the powerful Ciaron Maher & David Eustace stable in Ballarat, produced good form in Melbourne as a stayer and his main objective during his stint in the tropical north was to win the Darwin Cup.
Maher was also trackside at Fannie Bay on Monday to watch the win by Playoffs.
His victory in the NT’s biggest race also proved that the Chief Minister’s Cup continues to be a wonderful guide as Playoffs became the ninth winner of the weight-for-age event since 2002 to take out the Darwin Cup – a list that also includes Lightinthenite and Zahspeed.
Playoffs was the $4 second favourite in the Cup with the Robert Gulberti-trained Living The Dream (Brad Rawiller) from Broome starting as the $2.25 favourite following his eye-catching victory in the $50,000 Metric Mile on July 23.
Playoffs and Living The Dream had just the one start at Fannie Bay, and after drawing barrier three there was justifiably plenty of support for the WA horse after his Victorian rival landed gate 11 in the 12-horse field.
When the gates crashed back, Playoffs had 300m to work his way across to the fence and he in fact led passing the winning post for the first time before settling behind Emma Steel’s Buntine Cup (2050m) winner Gone Bye (Adam Nicholls) heading up the side after leaving the home straight.
Not much changed along the back straight with Gone Bye heading Playoffs, Angela Forster’s Starouz (Sairyn Fawle) and Jason Manning’s Noir De Rue (Vanessa Arnott) with Living The Dream not far away in fifth place.
Clarke’s Vallabar (Anthony Darmanin), a recent arrival from Tasmania, and Kaonic (John Keating), trained by three-time Darwin Cup winner Neil Dyer, were next in line with 1100m to go and neither horse showed any signs of distress.
Before leaving the back straight the Mark Nyhan-trained $21 hope Trident (Sonja Wiseman) unfortunately broke down passing the 800m mark.
Rounding the final corner and with 500m to go the pressure intensified with Playoffs making his move on Gone Bye just as Living The Dream showed signs of wobbling.
Swinging for home, Playoffs had shaken off Gone Bye ($9.50) and set sail for home as Kaonic ($41) – winner of the Bridge Toyota Cup (1600m) on July 3 – Vallabar ($41) and Kym Hann’s $8 chance Our Destrier (Stan Tsaikos) began to unwind.
Noir De Rue ($26), third in the Cup last year, refused to yield, Starouz ($71) had called it a day and it was clear that Living The Dream, as well as Danon Roman ($51) – runner-up behind Highly Decorated in the 2021 Darwin Cup – Venting ($12) and I Am The Fox ($15) were shot.
With 100m to go Playoffs was home and not only did he win by two lengths from Kaonic, who jumped from the inside gate, but he also broke the track record for the 2050m set by 2021 Darwin Cup winner Highly Decorated (2.03.89) by stopping the clock at 2.03.57.
2022 Darwin Cup race replay | Monday, August 1
Vallabar, fourth in the Buntine Handicap on July 16, finished a length and a half adrift of Kaonic to claim third place from Noir De Rue and Gone Bye, who were incredibly brave, and Our Destrier – while Living The Dream came ninth.
“I’m one relieved man, I can tell you that,” Clarke said after the race.
“Ciaron contacted me ages ago and said do you think this horse is good enough to win the Darwin Cup.
“That was quite a while ago and it’s been a plan in motion ever since.”
There was conjecture as to whether or not Todd would vie for the lead once they jumped and settle, or find a spot somewhere in the pack in a bid to save petrol.
Todd went with the former.
“That was a bold move – if he was ever going to be vulnerable it might have been a little bit at the end, but that horse, he’s one tough horse,” Clarke said.
“I said (to Jarrod) you’ve probably got to be positive out of the gates because it’s always a mad rush to the first bend.
“Then things sort themselves out after that.
“I said, I will completely leave it to you as to how you bounce and what you do, but I just stipulated to hold his spot getting into that first bend.
“He’s one nice horse, it’s very satisfying.”
To add more cream to a very big cake, Clarke also won his first ever Alice Springs Cup (2000m) in May when Todd produced another five-star ride to guide the now retired Count Of Essex to victory.
Of all the features Clarke has won in the NT, the Alice Springs Turf Club’s biggest race at Pioneer Park had constantly eluded him over the years.
It wasn’t meant to be for Living The Dream on this occasion and he’ll live to fight another day.
Although he started the Cup as a deserving favourite after his win in the Metric Mile, there was always a slight doubt if respectable form over the long trips in rural WA would stand up against a horse like Playoffs, a consistent performer over the long trips in Melbourne.