Healthy fields make mockery of Darwin’s “off-season”

Fannie Bay racing is flying despite it being the wet season in the Top End.
Late December and early January is the height of the wet season and it’s predominately a quiet period in the Top End, but the numbers for Darwin meetings at Fannie Bay have surprisingly exceeded expectations with recent monsoonal rains not even proving a deterrent.

It’s normally quiet in the Top End at this time of year.

Not surprising as it’s the wet season, usually interpreted as the off-season.

However, numbers are up and on New Year’s Eve the Darwin Turf Club had the rare distinction of staging an eight-race meeting at Fannie Bay.

You might get eight races or more during the Darwin Cup Carnival in July and August, but to have so many races in December was unexpected.

After hosting six races on December 9 which attracted 42 runners, five races were scheduled on December 17 for 38 starters before the meeting was abandoned.

A freak lunchtime storm on race day left Fannie Bay’s dirt surface in an unfit state for racing, but come December 31 it was all systems go when 65 runners started despite relentless monsoonal rains that left the track in a wet and muddy condition.

Darwin will host it’s first meeting for 2023 on Saturday with 53 horses having accepted for yet another high quality six-race meeting.

“Losing that meeting on December 17 was a blow – not that we wanted to lose it, but we did,” Thoroughbred Racing Northern Territory chief executive officer Andrew O’Toole said.

“It’s probably helped our numbers at the New Year’s Eve meeting, this meeting and hopefully Australia Day, but with the rain coming it made the weather conditions cooler for the horses – the humidity wasn’t as bad.

“We’ve got plenty of horses in work – trainers Gary Clarke, Phil Cole, Chris Pollard and Tayarn Halter for example have good numbers.

“It’s a super meeting once again on Saturday, really good – I’m pleased about it.

“I think the Australia Day meeting will be similar.

“We’ve basically got four meetings in four weeks as we also race February 4, February 10 and February 17 – the odd one of them might be a little bit lighter.”

The feature race on Saturday is Heat 2 of the Ladbrokes Summer Sprint Series for the 0-70 runners over 1200m with Chloe Baxter’s First Crusade and Swing With Junior, Chris Pollard’s Cudjerie, Tom Logan’s Virtuous Miss, Phil Cole’s Vunivalu and El Magnificence, and Mark Nyhan’s Jet Jackson clashing in what should be a high quality affair.

Tayarn Halter’s Noble War ($18 with horse betting sites), with Alice Springs apprentice Dakota-Lee Gillett aboard, won Heat 1 over 1100m (0-64) on December 31, which also doubled up as Heat 6 of the Lightning Wet Season Series.

Heat 5 of the Wet Season Series over 1300m (0-64), scheduled originally for December 17, takes place this weekend with Heat 7 over 1000m (BM54) also programmed for Saturday winding up the qualifying process.

The leading 12 horses from the heats – based on a pointscore system – will then qualify for the $40,000 Final over 1200m (0-70) on Australia Day (January 26).

“Once the weekend’s two races are done I’ll notify the trainers as to which horses are eligible for the Final and then they can nominate or not nominate – it’s up to them,” O’Toole said.

“The Wet Season Series basically accommodates the mid-grade sprinters.”

Introduced last year, Patrick Johnston’s El Sicario (13) topped the pointscore from Kerry Petrick’s New Roman (9) and Tom Logan’s Fromthenevernever (8).

Gary Clarke’s Blue Odyssey (Barry Huppatz) won the 2021/22 Final from stablemate Mr Cashman (Jarrod Todd) and Mark Nyhan’s Pembroke Castle (Sonja Wiseman).

The pointscore system continues in the Final with the leading trainer overall picking up $2000.
There’s eight heats of the Summer Sprint Series with the next six on January 26 over 1300m (Average Benchmark), February 4 over 1100m (0-64), February 10 over 1100m (0-76), February 17 over 1000m (0-64), March 4 over 1100m (0-64) and March 18 over 1300m (Open).

The Summer Sprint Series will not only see horses pick up points for finishing first (10 points), second (5 points), third (3 points) and fourth (2 points) in a heat, but a further one point for lining up in two heats and a further two points for appearing in three or more heats.

There is no final with the horse topping the pointscore picking up $2000, while the trainer will pick up a $1000 bonus.

The owner of the horse which has the most starts in the series also receives a $1000 bonus.

A countback process will apply in the event of a tie in all categories.

The concept is in its fourth year and previous winners include Tayarn Halter’s Eastwood (2019/20), Chris Pollard’s Twilight Maneuver (2020/21) and Mighty Murt (2021/22), who was under the guidance of Alice Springs’ Lisa Whittle before transferring to Darwin’s Garry Lefoe.

The Wet Season Series and Summer Sprint Series in Darwin has only enhanced the interest in racing during the “off-season”, just like the Ladbrokes Winter Series in Alice Springs which debuted in 2022.

Kicking off on May 29, a month after the Alice Springs Cup Carnival, there were 10 heats before Lisa Whittle’s Liberty Blue (Sonja Wiseman) won the $40,000 Final over 1200m (0-66) at Pioneer Park on August 26.

Darwin Turf Club – 2022/23 Lightning Wet Season Series (current Top 12): 7 War Games; 6 Kirakat; 5 Beachhaven, Crazy Lad, Noble War; 4 Hard To Excel; 3 Blueant, Hattan Man, Light And Dark, Manly Cove, Rojo Boom, Yowza.

Pointscore for Heats: 5 points (1st), 3 points (2nd), 2 points (3rd), 1 point (unplaced).

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