Day At The Track

McGrath gears up for fight night

11:56 AM 06 Mar 2018 NZDT
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Sheriff,Harness racing
The Nigel McGrath trained Sheriff
Photo Bruce Stewart

Nigel McGrath isn't giving up. And the 16 new horses he has in his stable are proof of that as much as the two he has in Friday night's $250,000 Woodlands Derby at Alexandra Park.

McGrath has Sheriff and Aloka in the classic, again up against the might of the All Stars stables, who have the favourites in Chase Auckland and Sicario.

The All Stars pair relegated Sheriff to third in last Friday's Derby prelude, a position McGrath was not unused to. But he and fellow Derby trainer Cran Dalgety are two southern horsemen who in recent years have been able to, at least on occasion, halt the All Stars domination of our classics and Jewels.

Dalgety has Pat's Delight in this Friday trying to emulate Raukapuka Ruler's shock Derby win of 12 months ago, while last season McGrath trained Dizzy Miss Lizzy to win a Jewels and Sales Series Pace over the best of the Purdon-Rasmussen fillies.

He says training in such a rare, elite era is a challenge rather than discouraging.

"It has been said by a few people before but it is like finding a way to beat the All Blacks, it's not easy but it's not impossible," says McGrath.

"We did it a couple of times in major races last season and we have done it before in Sales Series races up here (Auckland).

"I think you can only keep analysing what you do as a trainer and keep trying to get better.

"But of course it also comes down to what stock you have and that is why the yearling sales are so important.

"I took 16 yearlings home this year from the sales and I bought them to win Derby and Sires' Stakes races, not run second or third.

"Those yearlings are my future and my owners' future so we are in for the fight," McGrath says.

McGrath is bringing that attitude to Friday night's Derby, saying he will instruct driver Blair Orange to use Sheriff's barrier draw to try and stay in front of the All Stars pair.

"I think often if you hand up you are running for second or third at best.

"And sometimes that is fine because each horse has to be rated to its strengths.

"But I think Sheriff is good enough to try his luck and make them work."

McGrath's second-stringer, Aloka, cost punters plenty when galloping in front in a lower-grade race last Friday but the trainer is not expecting a repeat of that problem: "He is a place chance at least ..."

While Chase Auckland lost his unbeaten record to Sicario last Friday, he will open as Derby favourite, having been forced to sit parked, and should improve with the run, his first in two months.

This Derby has real depth, incredible because it is an unusual year for our elite pacing three-year-olds, with sales, sickness and exports having halved the number of stars available.

Of the 13 top juveniles who made it to the Jewels last June, only two return for Friday's Derby while Australasian Breeders Crown winner King Of Swing has been sold to Perth. So the fact Alexandra Park has been able to attract nine genuine top-class three-year-olds is surprising.

The classic is the highlight of a huge meeting, with two rich juvenile finals, the City of Auckland Free-For-All, Greenlane Trotters Cup and Northern Mares Classic making it the strongest Alexandra Park meeting for the rest of the season.

Woodlands Derby

Alex Park, 8.48pm Friday
$250,000, 2700m mobile
The field
1: Culpeka (1)
2: American Brave (2)
3: Triple Eight (3)
4: Sheriff (4)
5: Aloka (5)
6: Chase Auckland (6)
7: On The Cards (7)
8: Pat's Delight (8)
9: Sicario (1 second line)

Michael Guerin

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