Surf Dancer has secured the opportunity to start in the $2 million Big Dance after leading throughout to win the South Grafton Cup (1610m) on Sunday.
The Gai Waterhouse & Adrian Bott-trained five-year-old held on comfortably under the guidance of jockey Winona Costin, scoring by one-and-a-half lengths.
Solar Apex, trained by Chris Waller, ran an eye-catching second when Ben Looker came from midfield off the rail to make an impressive move down the middle. The Annabel Neasham-trained Lightning Jack was a half-length away in third.
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Surf Dancer, an Irish-bred son of Lope De Vega, started his career in England, amassing three wins from eight starts, including the Listed King Charles II Stakes (1408m) at York in July of 2020.
Sunday’s South Grafton Cup win was his second from eight Australian starts, his first being an 1800m Benchmark 94 at Rosehill three starts back when gaining the lead early and holding on for a comfortable win.
Taking up the lead again last start, he was run down in the closing 250m in the Listed W.J. McKell Cup (2000m) on June 18 at Rosehill to eventually finish sixth of eight.
But Surf Dancer’s frontrunning style of racing worked impressively again on Sunday, immediately promoting the gelding to equal favouritism for The Big Dance at Royal Randwick on the first Tuesday in November, sitting at $8 along with Rustic Steel with online betting sites.
The introduction of The Big Dance saw interest skyrocket in the otherwise modest country feature.
The South Grafton Cup prizemoney was boosted to $80,000 (up from $50,000 last year), and as a Big Dance qualifier it was always going to attract a quality field and entice Sydney trainers to target the race.
This was proven when 51 nominations were received for the feature – a race usually seen as more of a build-up for the Listed Grafton Cup (2350m), which is to be run on Thursday, July 14.
Some 12 of the 20 final acceptors for the South Grafton Cup this year were from Sydney stables, including six from the Chris Waller stable and two Waterhouse & Bott runners.
Five were from the provincials, including two from Group 1 trainer Kris Lees with one from Queensland and a solitary country-trained runner – the Lisa Sheppard-prepared Racketeering, who was exempt from ballot by winning the Wauchope Cup.
A second country runner, Brett Cavanough’s Eiger, later made the field following scratchings.
To put things into perspective, last year’s South Grafton Cup was won by the Bob Milligan-trained Texas Storm and took place without a single runner from a city stable in the field.
By the time the field jumped, Sydney trainers were represented by seven of the eventual 11 starters and had the top six placegetters.
Metropolitan stables are well within their rights to have runners in any such events, but some country participants say city horses raiding country loot is coming at a cost.
Racing NSW has invested a lot in country racing over the last few years with the introduction of the $1.3 million Kosciuszko, the rich Country Championships series, TAB Highways and Showcase meetings for country-trained horses only and increasing minimum prizemoney levels for all country meetings from the start of this month.
There is no doubt NSW Racing has been on an upward spiral with prizemoney skyrocketing to record levels for the upcoming season; however, the fear remains from many industry participants that it will come at the cost of country racing.