Champions Stakes Day contenders in genuine Championship races
In the 162 years of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, you would think that there is little that could change to make it better. But the introduction of TAB Champions Stakes Day to wind up the Carnival has delivered in spades.
A reworked feature sprint that had already reverted some years earlier from a handicap to weight-for-age, the big handicap Cantala Stakes becomes the Champions Mile also at weight-for-age, plus the Mackinnon Stakes, moved in 2017 from Derby Day to day four to become the Champions Stakes with a cracking field.
Saturday will be something, as we look at the main contenders.
Darley Champions Sprint
Nature Strip is back. Vanquished in The Everest (1200m) when beaten by Giga Kick! For many punters that might be the feeling they had on the day but with so much expectation, Chris Waller’s star still finished just a length from victory.
Long preparations haven’t been the go under Chris Waller’s management with the now eight-year-old, but not only has Nature Strip won at his third-up run on seven out of nine occasions with a record of three wins and one second placing in four runs over the Flemington 1200 metres – including winning this race on two occasions.
It is hard to see that Nature Strip is vulnerable this time.
Bella Nipotina is seeking a Group 1 double after winning the Manikato Stakes at Moonee Valley. The 1200 metres is certainly her go and if you take Craig Williams’ word after her last win, there’s little to dislike about her chances as well.
“Her performance was phenomenal, but she did that last time in the Moir but was beaten by the track and barrier,” Williams said.
Giga Kick deserves to be well in the market and is at $5.50 with TAB. He’s undefeated in five starts with two of those wins down the Flemington straight.
If you take the Racing & Sports Ratings as an indicator, Giga Kick is a horse on the way up. Not quite the case for Nature Strip.
For Racing & Sports’ Senior Handicapper, Adam Blencowe, he sees it this way:
“Nature Strip has come through the Everest to run an improved rating at Flemington in each of the last three years and so, despite defeat last time, the world's champion sprinter remains the horse who will decide the outcome of the Champions Sprint,” Blencowe said.
“When he finds his flow he runs to a level that the very smart Giga Kick and Bella Nipotina will surely be unable to match despite coming off high-rating wins last time.”
Kennedy Champions Mile
As late as Tuesday, Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott hadn’t decided whether Alligator Blood would step back in distance to the Mile or take on Anamoe and co over 2000 metres.
They’ve gone with the former and despite being unplaced at Group 1 level at his past two starts, the last time Alligator Blood won when fourth-up was at Flemington over the mile in the Group 1 Australian Guineas in 2020.
“Alligator Blood hasn't quite got home over further and returns to the mile looking hard to peg back and Mr Brightside, also beaten in the Cox Plate last time, looks sure to get a better chance this time with the draw expected to have him within striking distance,” Blencowe said.
A Group 1 win for Western Victoria would beckon should the Lindsey Smith-trained Tuvalu score. His last start win in the Toorak Handicap was a career peak and is yet to finish outside of the top two when racing at Flemington.
The Gilgai Stakes victory at Flemington over 1200 metres opened Private Eye’s campaign. Though his last start at Randwick wasn’t at Group 1 level, he’s back to it today.
They don’t come much more consistent than Joe Pride’s warrior and the week back-up last delivered a fifth placing in the Mackinnon Stakes (now Champion Stakes) twelve months ago.
“Private Eye has, in the blink of an eye, evolved from a smart performer into one of the top half-a-dozen horses in the country and it may well be that by Saturday night he has strengthened his position in that top bracket,” Blencowe adds.
“As an Epsom winner, the mile should hold no fears. In fact, one of the more remarkable parts of Private Eye's spring so far is that it has come over trips short of 1400m and with such brilliant speed.
“His late splits at Rosehill showed him well on top at the finish and with no signs of stopping. Stopping him now will be no easy task.
“Throw in strong winners of the Crystal Mile and the Toorak in Tuvalu and you have the makings of the best mile of the year and a genuine championship race.”
TAB Champions Stakes
Is it all about Australia’s hot horse, Anamoe?
Despite being trained at the ‘course of history’, Anamoe faces the Flemington starter for the first time on Saturday and the markets have him slightly in the red at $1.95.
The Cox Plate winner, a performer so consistently at a high level with a Timeform rating of 125 – that’s what you expect of winners of races like that.
Despite co-trainer Mick Price’s frustration at the awkward barrier drawn 8 which has the 2022 Group 1 Makybe Diva Stakes winner likely to drift back in the run once again, I’m Thunderstruck has been on a steady ratings climb since.
“Anamoe and Thunderstruck go again and while the ledger reads 2-0 to Anamoe such a simple read of things hardly does the contest justice,” Blencowe said.
“They both ripped home in the Might And Power Stakes at Caulfield before Anamoe used his versatility and class to outmanoeuvre I’m Thunderstruck at The Valley.
“A return to Flemington seems significant but tactics will be more so. I’m Thunderstruck, so strong in a finish, must keep tabs on the nimble Anamoe if he is to make that count for something.”
Like Champions Day, changes are afoot on the racing landscape so could we be looking Flemington’s Champions Stakes Day becoming the new Cox Plate?