Charged with the task of racing in what most Australian trainers would call the opposite direction, in a foreign land and on April Fools Day, Monegeetta mentor David Miles could be forgiven for a certain sense of apprehension with his stable star Villagem approaching heat three of the 2011 Inter Dominion series this Friday night.
But after handling Alexandra Park’s unique orientation and what many considered the stronger of two heats with aplomb last weekend, Miles is feeling more confident than ever that his flying five-year-old can handle both the course in question and the class of his opposition as he looks to book place in his first Inter Dominion Final on April 8.
“We were very pleased with the boy, it was a great way to start his assault,” Miles, who co-trains Villagem with wife Lisa said this week. “If we were ever going to find out if he was going to handle that way of going that was the night.
“We certainly had a number of hit-outs that way of going back home but we only really stretched his neck once and it’s totally different under race conditions with horses all around you.
“But he made a couple of searching runs in the race and still pulled a little bit of ground offa in a 26-second last quarter, so we were rapt. And as Lisa said straight after the race, it’s not only the horse that will improve from the experience but her too given it was her first drive back-the-front as well.”
With so much in his favour after finishing third on night one of the iconic trans-Tasman series, if the Monegeetta marvel has anything against him in Friday night’s penultimate preliminary it may be what would ordinarily qualify as a dream draw.
Set to start from gate two over the shorter 2200-metre trip this weekend, Villagem will be flanked by each and all of his major threats in the race.
But after a key stable change for Captain Joy (3) ahead of the NZ$40,000 co-feature, early race tactics - and what may have appeared a lay down misere forfrom the pole – may not seem as sure as they once did.
“Normally you’d hear you’d drawn barrier two and be doing handstands, but I suppose of the four best horses in the race, we may have ended up with the worst position,” Miles said.
“(Mr) Feelgood should hold the front, with Monkey King (9) right behind him and The Mightyquinn (10) right on our back, so we’re either going to sit parked or follow one of the lesser light horses of the series throughout.
“But with Lance (Justice) now driving Captain Joy, that might be a big advantage to us. Lance has got a great intimidation factor over here and if we let him have the death, he won’t be handing up I wouldn’t have thought, and we’ll look set to get the ideal run ahead of next week. So fingers crossed that’s how it all pans out.”
A top-five finish on Friday night should ensure that last season’s Chariots Of Fire champion, Villagem qualifies for his first Inter Dominion Final seven days later, where barrier draws around Alexandra Park’s challenging right-hand circuit will be crucial to the result.
Last chance draw for Lang champ over the Tasman
After experiencing contrasting fortunes on night one of Auckland’s seminal Inter Dominion series last Friday night, Champion Nagambie horseman Chris Lang will be hoping for a greater spread of good fortune this time around.
While Australia’s finest squaregaiting specialist could scarcely have been more pleased with his rising superstar Let Me Thru recording his second straight success across the ditch, the story was not so chipper for back-to-back Inter Dominion kings Gift, who could only manage 11th in what many have described as the most disappointing run of his career.
But after exhaustive examinations cleared the reigning Victorian horse of the Year of infection and injury during the week, Lang is putting the past behind him and relying on his champion’s polemarking draw and inimitable spirit to return him to the winners list – and ensure a position in the NZ$250,000 series Final in seven days time.
“It’s not a very nice situation to find yourself in with a horse likes Gift,” Lang conceded. “The only good news to come out of last week was that we couldn’t find any really big issue wrong with him, so we just have to hope it was an aberration and he bounces back on Friday night.
“Put plainly, if he goes like he deserves to be in an Inter Dominion Final he’ll qualify and if he doesn’t he won’t. That sounds insensitive to such a great horse, but that’s just the way it is.
“We haven’t lost too much sleep over it all, we’ve just tried to get him ready for the race as well as we can, beyond that we just have to hope for the best.”
While Australia’s undisputed trotting regent will head into night two of Alexandra Park’s Inter Dominion under a significant cloud, his superstar stablemate and heir apparent Let Me Thru will take on his 2200-metre heat as the form horse of the series and early favourite for the Final.
Having simply bullied his rivals into submission last Friday night to make it two from two in Auckland and nine in succession overall, the flying five-year-old must overcome a horror draw (13) and the might of I Can Doosit (4) to make it 10 on the run.
But while his understandably proud conditioner concedes that a win this week would be a wonderful result for his son of, he also knows that next week, not his one, will be the measure of just how far his gun young trotter has come.
“We’ve been singing his praises for a long time,” Lang said. “But very few horses make the jump from age-restricted racing to Grand Circuit level and just keep on winning. It’s just been freakish what he’s been able to do in such a short time.
“I don’t think he’s drawn the strongest heat which is probably something, but I don’t think he should be favourite from where he’s drawn, especially over the short trip.
“I Can Doosit has been talked up in a big way over here, both by his trainer Mark Purdon, who is a highly respected horseman and by the press, so he is actually the one to beat in the race, this is his big chance to roll us I reckon.
“It’s just lucky for us that Let Me Thru only has to turn up to qualify for April 8 now, so the pressure’s not on us this week. We’re already there.”
Stewart star set for Bliss in FFA Sprint
Just one run shy of a picket fence formline and careering through his classes with merciless ease, Scott Stewart’s freakish four-year-old pacer Bitobliss may well be this state’s most exciting rising star.
But as those in both this sport and a multitude of others know all too well, the yawning chasm between potential and prestige is one that many athletes – equine and otherwise – can find difficult to traverse.
So it with cautious confidence rather than bullish bravado that Stewart and his striking son ofapproach their first foray into the big league in the $20,000 SEW-Eurodrive Sokyola Sprint at Victorian harness headquarters this Friday night.
“I only nominated knowing that he’d draw pretty good under the conditions of the race,” the gun Congupna horseman revealed.
“If I’d gone in the M1 to M2 race I’d have drawn out in seven or wide on the back row, so with Smoken Up and a couple of others away I just thought the time was right to give him a crack at this level.
“To be honest I’m not totally sure he’ll handle it, but we’ve got to find out sooner or later and with the draw we’ve jagged I don’t have to drive him like he’s the best horse in the race for a change, so it’s a very appealing race to find out where we’re at.”
The fortuitous and favourable draw to which the former Inter Dominion-winning driver refers will see his winner of 11 from 15 lifetime starts with plenty of options at the start of the 1720-metre feature at Tabcorp Park this weekend.
Once again wary of the step up in grade his stable star faces opposing rejuvenated superstar Decorated Jasper (10) and duel Geelong Cup king Our Malabar (11) among others however, Stewart is happy to make it clear he’ll be seeking a soft run in transit for Bitobliss if one is up for grabs.
And with no shortage of early speed drawn directly to their right, it seems certain that Vin Knight’s former right hand man and his genuine rising star will be sweating on a sprint lane exit for success at his biggest career challenge this Friday night.
“First up in this class I’d be more than happy to take a trail behind the right horse,” Stewart revealed. “In fact it would be ideal.
“He’s a very versatile horse, and while we know he can race very tough, he can also show a pretty good turn of foot, so with a soft trip we’d be expecting he’ll have every chance to show whether he’s good enough at this level or not.
“They’re all very strong, tough old horses we’re up against, but we’ll be in the first few and most of them will be working around us, so if things pan out as we hope, he should be in it up to his ears.”
All things being equal the SEW-Eurodrive Sprint this Friday will be Bitobliss’ final run before a sortie north of the border to take on Australia’s finest four-year-olds in the Hondo Grattan Stakes and Chariots Of Fire at Menangle later in the month.
by Jason BONNINGTON
Anne-Maree Conroy has 249 career wins and is engaged aboard Ex Con in Race 1 (1:20pm) at Tabcorp Park, Melton today and Corey Boy in Race 7 (9:30pm) at Bendigo tonight.
Villagem's last win at melton's Tabcorp Park on November 5, 2010: