Victoria’s Summer of Glory unofficially begins this weekend with the Group 1 PETstock Ballarat Pacing Cup at Bray Raceway.
And sensationally, the race has had its fair share of drama before a horse has even set foot on the track.
As always, the $100,000 stake has lured a group of excellent open class stars including a pair of rockstars from the dominant All-Stars barn in New Zealand, a dynamic duo from local trainer Emma Stewart’s crew and a scattering of veteran performers.
When markets opened, Heaven Rocks – making his debut in Australia – was listed as favourite before punters pummelled into his stablemate Vincent. An incredibly short time after markets opened, Vincent was slammed into favouritism.
48 hours later, Heaven Rocks was installed as a $1.80 favourite but not because punters’ confidence was restored in the enigmatic pacer.
In a cruel blow to the race, Vincent was scratched due to what is a considered a minor concern for the magnificent four-year-old who is unbeaten in his last eight starts.
So now, this Group 1 gutbuster is up for grabs with many of the race’s biggest questions lying within the opening 400m.
Here is my runner-by-runner preview of one of my favourite races on the Harness Racing calendar!
1 HEAVEN ROCKS – Mark Purdon & Natalie Rasmussen
Almost all questions to the mapping of this race are in the hands of the big horse from the All-Stars.
Heaven Rocks has shown brilliance surpassed by only Lazarus but has had almost as many self-inflicted meltdowns in races.
His best effort will see him win this race running away from them but what happens at the start will likely determine what happens at the end.
The son of Rocknroll Heaven has raced off the unruly for the past twelve months and the stable has admitted the ace was the last draw they would have wanted when they resumed from off the arm.
He’s just as likely to gallop as he is to lead for fun. The first 400m are not to be missed.
2 SHADOW SAX – Emma Stewart
Injuries detailed his four-year-old season but Shadow Sax has re-commenced in sparkling form, unbeaten this campaign.
His South Australian Cup triumph was magnificent but this is another rise in class. Heaven Rocks and Lennytheshark are clearly superior to this guy at this stage but both are wavering whilst Emma Stewart’s charge is on a steep upward trajectory. He’s a clear threat to take out his hometown Cup.
3 BERNIE WRINKLE – Glenn Douglas
Unless Bernie can get to the pegs quicksmart, he will be left for dead in this one. The favourites have a dozen lengths on him but he’s run above his pay-grade many times before.
Those who love the exotic $5 trifectas will be hoping for some drama from Lenny and Heaven Rocks allowing outsiders like Bernie Wrinkle to make a run at third or fourth place.
4 MAJOR SECRET – Emma Stewart
His career has been outstanding but this time in, conquering Tasmania has been Major Secret’s only big achievement.
He has been rolled as a short-priced favourite at his past two starts despite having the prime run in both events.
The Art Major entire’s best would see him capable of taking this out but he would need to improve rapidly.
His gate speed is a key however and he could be the one to pressure Heaven Rocks into an error or even cross him completely.
5 THE FAITHFUL – Amanda Turnbull
Has run a few nice races this time in but the Bendigo Cup probably proved he is a decent way off the very best horses.
Where he ends up in the run is unknown but it is likely he will be too far back to run past the leading few.
6 VINCENT – Mark Purdon & Natalie Rasmussen
Unfortunately scratched due to swelling in his leg. Co-trainer Natalie Rasmussen explained the injury was minor but you never take chances with horses of Vincent’s quality.
The race is poorer without him but his main goal will be the Chariots of Fire in Sydney.
7 MISTER WICKHAM – Lee Evison
A competent open class horse but he, too will find this one tough. It’s highly likely a roughie will make the top three or four but from his wide gate, taking hold and jumping onto the pegs could be his best go. Early speed will be his best friend.
8 LENNYTHESHARK – David Aiken
Lenny’s preparation for this race has been less than ideal and gate eight will not suit him, particularly with Heaven Rocks’s unpredictability at the start.
He’s tough and an undoubted champion but Lenny will need to draw from all of his championship qualities to win this one. He’s a fan-favourite so he may shorten on race day but unless he defies his poor prep and a clear downshift in performance throughout the Inter Dominion, Lenny will be hoping to run a place and move toward the Hunter Cup and Miracle Mile with fitness under his belt.
9 IT IS BILLY – Mick Barby
Fifth in the Hamilton Cup, fourth in the Geelong Cup and last in the Sokyola Sprint is hardly a formula for winning a Group 1 but he has a nice trailing draw and can follow through for as long as he likes.
Speed upfront will be his best friend but nothing short of a miracle will be required for him to collect the cup.
1 Heaven Rocks
2 Shadow Sax
4 Mister Wickham
It would be remiss of me not to mention the Victoria Derby heats with an elite class of three-year-olds assembled for the first Derby of the season.
Emma Stewart gears up 11 combatants, headed by Poster Boy, Konan and Maratei whilst Mark Purdon has brought The Devils Own and Spankem across the ditch.
All eyes however will be on unbeaten boom horse Lumineer who has returned somewhere near his brilliant best but will need to be even better to win this final at Melton in a week’s time.
Here are my best bets for the night – have fun with it but be responsible.
Race 1: Boxed First Four – Colt Thirty One (2), Poster Boy (8), Konan (9), The Devils Own (10)
Race 5: Sparkling Success (3) win
Race 6: Exacta – Yankee Roller (8) from Spankem (1)
Race 7: Boxed First Four – Heaven Rocks (1), Shadow Sax (2), Mister Wickham (7), Lennytheshark (8)
Race 8: First Four – Lumineer (4) from Tam Major (2), Little Peanut (9), Maratei (10)
Enjoy your weekend of pacing!