By Nicholas Godfrey
Australia: Chris Waller, the trainer whose name will forever be associated with the legendary Winx, reckons favourite Nature Strip is “certainly the one to beat” in a star-studded field for Saturday’s TJ Smith Stakes (6.35am BST) on Day One of The Championships at Randwick.
The 6f contest is one of four G1s in Sydney, where racing continues behind closed doors in spite of the coronavirus crisis. Both days of the Star-sponsored Championships, which conclude on Saturday week headed by the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, will be shown live in Britain on Sky Sports Racing.
Anyone expecting to see Tom Marquand on such a glittering card will be disappointed, however, as the British rider is ruled out after picking up a careless riding ban at Warwick Farm a week ago. He’ll be back in time for Day Two, when he rides Addeybb and Young Rascal for William Haggas.
In the meantime, eight G1 winners are set to line up in a 13-runner field for the TJ Smith, Sydney’s premier sprint in which bookmakers William Hill have installed Nature Strip – drawn one under James McDonald – as their market leader at 5-2 over 4-1 chance Bivouac, Godolphin’s Newmarket Handicap-winning three-year-old. Last year’s winner Santa Ana Lane and star filly Loving Gaby also feature in a cracking field for the A$1.25 million (£615,000) event.
“The horse is very well,” Waller said. “We gave him a maintenance trial last Friday just to ensure he’s not too fresh.
“It’s a great field which is what you’d expect and no doubt it will create a lot of interest,” added Waller, speaking to AAP Racing.
After a below-par effort in the Lightning Stakes at Flemington, Nature Strip produced a brilliant effort to beat dual Everest winner Redzel by three lengths in G2 company a month ago. He won three G1s in 2019, headed by the Darley Sprint Classic at Flemington; a trip to Royal Ascot had been on the cards before the pandemic threw all such plans up in the air.
Waller added: “The best sprinters in the country are there but if he repeats his domination in the Darley Sprint up the straight during Cup week he’s certainly the one to beat. He showed last start he’s back to his best form.”
Sydney’s leading trainer Waller is certainly not messing about when it comes to the time-honoured Doncaster Mile (7.15am BST), the afternoon’s most valuable contest. Looking for a record seventh victory, he is set to saddle eight of the 20 runners.
However, the uneasy ante-post favourite is New Zealand’s star mare Melody Belle, joint-topweight on 57kg alongside the Waller-trained Kolding.
Melody Belle is out to emulate her Kiwi predecessor Sunline as the great New Zealand mare was the last horse to win the A$1.5m Doncaster under topweight with her second victory in 2002.
“It is a tough ask for her to carry that much weight,” said trainer Jamie Richards.
“I think you could argue she deserves it, particularly in a handicap, but Sunline won GI races all over the world and Melody Belle has mainly won them in New Zealand and one at Flemington in the spring,” added Richards, speaking to Racenet.
“I don’t think we’re in her league yet but I think the weight is a reflection of the weight itself, it’s probably an even race with a few new three-year-olds down the bottom with not a lot of weight.”
Nature Strip’s rider, the in-form James McDonald, will also have high hopes of success with Rosehill Guineas winner Castelvecchio in the Australian Derby (5.55am BST), the nation’s senior race for the Classic generation.
Rivals include Warning and Sherwood Forest, respective winners of the Victoria and New Zealand Derbys, plus Randwick Guineas victor Shadow Hero.
Golden Slipper third Mamaragan is favourite after connections stumped up for a supplementary entry to the G1 Sires’ Produce (5.15am BST) for two-year-olds. The ground at Randwick is currently described as soft.
• For Australian cards and coverage visit racingandsports.com