Alabar Victoria Derby time is meant to be an exciting part of the season for champion reinsman Gavin Lang. Instead, the series that culminates with a $150,000 Group 1 final at Moonee Valley on Saturday night, February 7, has the potential to provide the Melton master with one of his biggest headaches in years.
Lang is the regular driver of the two horses many consider the top contenders for Australia's oldest pacing classic; Captain Joy and Bus To Harland.
The pair are engaged in separate $20,000 heats at Ballarat this Saturday night, but should they both secure a top-three placing that will guarantee them a berth in the final (the two fastest fourth placegetters also progress) then it becomes decision time for Lang.
"They're a couple of nice drives, but the only trouble is if they both get through to the final then you have to make a decision between one or the other," Lang said. "That's when things can be a bit uneasy."
There wouldn't be any shortage of drivers willing to swap places with the 50-year-old, who won last year's Derby behind Tanabi Bromac. Lang also won the 2004 classic aboard The Sentry.
Breeders Crown winner Captain Joy has won both his runs this time in, including a breathtaking 31-metre, 1:54 stroll in the park at Menangle on January 13, while last season's APG champion Bus To Harland's only Derby lead-up was a slick 1:56.9 win at Bendigo on January 5.
New South Wales raider Captain Joy drew the better of Lang's two Derby fancies, landing gate two in the second heat, which also contains talented trio Lightning McCool (one), Garnet River (three) and We Dare To Dream (12).
Not only does Bus To Harland have alley 12 to contend in the third heat, among his rivals are South Australian Derby winner Living On Fire (11) and much-hyped Western Australian colt Crown Bromac (five).
"I've only seen Captain Joy on the telly this time in, but he looks like he's in pretty good form, so off barrier two he should get his chance," Lang said. "It appears he hasn't come back any worse and that's the main thing.
"Time wise, Bus To Harland went quite good first up and he's had a couple of trials since to keep him up to the mark.
"Okay, he hasn't drawn so good, but that can be said of a couple of his main dangers too, so it's not the end of the world. It's just a matter of getting through this week and hopefully having more luck next week."
Captain Joy's heat is the third event on Saturday night's bumper 10-race card and will be run at 7.02pm, while Bus To Harland is engaged in race six at 8.30pm.
The other of the night's three qualifiers will be run at 6.32pm. Classy pair Kid Coconut (one) and Hilton Fly High (two) have drawn to be prominent, but local hope Franco Newsman has an awkward barrier 10 to overcome.