The road to the NSW $500,000 Country Championships Final continues at Tamworth Jockey Club on Sunday with the running of the $150,000 Hunter and North West Country Championships qualifier over 1400m.
The Lyle Chandler trained Banju is currently sitting $3.50 favourite with online bookmakers. Scone based Chandler says he has had to be patient for the five year old Benifica gelding to work it out, but he has been rewarded with two wins and a second from his last three starts, all being TAB Highways over 1400m-1500m. Chandler says he purchased Banju with the aim of targeting the Highway races and he really wanted to give him a spell now but thought instead he would push on toward The Championships. He has been kept fresh for Sunday with just a 900m trial since his last race on January 15th.
Tamworth trainer Cody Morgan has won two of the last three Hunter and North West qualifiers, but is yet to feature in the placings in the highly coveted $500,000 final at Royal Randwick. He hopes to change that this year, saddling up three confirmed runners on Sunday in Wren’s Day, Anethole and Ezekeil. With three scratchings so far, including Morgan’s own very fancied Edit, Macleay is also a possibility for Morgan at fourth emergency.
Wren’s Day will be racing first up after a spell, but with two recent trials Morgan is confident he can find the line over the 1400m. The eight year old Medaglia d’Oro gelding has previously won and placed over the distance and if able to qualify the fitness gained will have him ready to peak in the final in a months’ time.
Anethole comes in with a last start second on February 5th in the TAB Highway (1200m). The five year old Exceed and Excel gelding is yet to be tried over the 1400m, but Morgan is very confident he will run the trip. William Pike is aboard Morgan’s lightly raced Ezekeil, who at acceptances was first emergency but was guaranteed a start when Brett Cavanough’s It’s Me was an early scratching. Although yet to be tried over 1400m, the three year old Divine Prophet gelding boasts an 8: 3-1-2 record and is ready to step up to the distance.
Tamworth Jockey Club general manager, Michael Buckley, says that there is a great buzz around town leading up the qualifier. He is thrilled that Pike accepted the invitation to ride on Sunday, commenting that the fact Pike has such a cult following is massive for the club. Pike was happy to make the trek to Tamworth, “I haven’t seen that sort of money thrown at these sorts of races before, but I know the final is pretty big and my job is to get the horse into the final for the connections and for myself,” he said.
Scone based Cameron Crockett is backing the ability of Mr Hussill to take on the race first up. Although a run coming into the race would have been preferred, he is very happy with the horse and assuming he can gain a place in the field, has him primed to be at his peak in the final next month. After a successful start to his racing career, Mr Hussill, a six year old gelding by Husson, suffered from injury setbacks, resulting in nearly two years away from the races. His dedicated owners were rewarded with their patience when Mr Hussill won a 1200m Highway at his first start back in July last year. He has since gone on to place in two more Highways and running a very gallant 6th, beaten just 1.68L, in the $1.3m The Kosciusko (1200m) in October.
Also lining up for Crockett is Commando Hunt. While he doesn’t class the Time For War four year old gelding as highly as his stablemate Mr Hussill, Crockett says his preparation has been perfect and while coming up against higher rated horses, his comparable fitness could help him get over the line, especially if the track ends up heavy.
The Storm in Me has had her preparation based around the Country Championships, says her Muswellbrook trainer Tim McIntosh. It was always thought 1400m would suit the Press Statement filly and he is confident she will perform well, especially after her impressive last start win in the class four 1300m at Scone on February 14th. Still being just a three year old filly, McIntosh concedes there is plenty of time to have another crack if she performs below expectations. McIntosh also saddles up Absolute Trust. The six year old gelding has been luckless in his last couple of starts, but McIntosh is confident he is ready to run a big race.
Brett Cavanough may have scratched his early favourite, It’s Me, but still has two other legitimate chances in Street Power and Patino Ruby. Street Power, a four year old gelding by Street Boss, is coming in first up after a last start win on November 13th in the CL3 1300m TAB Highway at Newcastle. Four year old More Than Ready mare Patino Ruby has been racing in strong company with her last start on February 12th being the G3 Triscay Stakes (1200m) where she finished 8 of 13. Cavanough’s successful Scone stable hasn’t had a runner in the final since 2016 when Steakandbearnaise finished tenth. He will be looking to improve that record in 2022 and has confidence that Street Power and Patino Ruby are up to the task.
Aleacia Bennnett has a small boutique stable in Muswellbrook, but her five year old Darci Brahma mare Cecilia comes into the qualifier with a last start win in the Queen of The North (1200m) at Port Macquarie. While having to work hard early sitting behind the leader on a heavy 8, she was able to peel away for a comfortable 1.4 length victory. “She just tries. She’s tough and she wants to win and wants to do her best and we saw that yesterday,” Bennett said after the win.
Krissie Simpkins saddles up five year old Smart Missile gelding Air Marshall. Trained at Muswellbrook, Air Marshall has finished fourth his last four starts, beaten less than a length in the last two. His second last start being at Randwick in a CL3 TAB Highway (1100m) on December 26, narrowly beaten by Cody Morgan’s Anethole.
If You Think So, trained in Scone by William Freedman, has been granted a run as second emergency. The five year old So You Think mare comes back from a couple of disappointing runs last August and a subsequent change of stable. She trialled nicely twice under Freedman’s care last month and he will be hoping for a return to form for her on Sunday.
Third emergency Steplee, trained by Rodney Northam in Scone, has also come into the field. The four year old Sidestep gelding is a winner over 1300m and 1500m, narrowly beaten into second two starts back over 1400m at Newcastle in a BM66. Northam is no stranger to The Country Championships. After All That finished last in 2016, coming back and gaining a place in the final again in 2017 to run second. He then had fancied mare Spiranac finish seventh in last years final.
With more than a day to go, there is still time for remaining emergencies Macleay (Cody Morgan), Auntie Monnie (Sue Grills) and Kinship (Rodney Northam) to gain a place at the start.
Tamworth Jockey Club are primed for what will be a magnificent day of racing and festivities. The day features seven other quality races, but all eyes will be on race 7, the always hotly contested Hunter and North West Country Championship qualifier.