The race to the Lather Up Victoria Derby is tantalisingly poised after a memorable heats night in which the lead threats survived but proceedings initially defied expectations.
While Emma Stewart’s stablemates Major Moth and Act Now were predictably dominant in heats two and three at Bendigo, the appetite for next Saturday’s $200,000 final was well and truly whet with a stunning first stanza.
American Dealer and Bondi Lockdown softened each other up and Blitzern pounced when opportunity knocked, bringing great satisfaction to trainer Allan McDonough and driver Bailey McDonough.
It was an emotional victory for the recently reunited father-and-son combination, secured after Blitzern emerged from leader’s back behind Soho Bollinger, circled pre-race favourites American Dealer and Bondi Lockdown and claimed the opening heat.
“This is beyond words,” Allan told TrotsVision post-race, having only physically reconnected with Bailey after the WA reinswoman moved east in July this year.
“(Bailey) hasn’t been a lot in my life, I’ve always had a bit of contact with him on and off. Probably go back six months ago and he asked me to come over. (Met) him for the first time since when he was a baby, (this win’s) a pretty special one.”
And so, it seems, is the horse they’ll take into Saturday’s final, with Blitzern able to lay in wait before impressively pouncing for a two-metre win ahead of Nathan Purdon’s highly rated Queensland Derby winner, American Dealer.
“The emotions are definitely flooding through right now,” Bailey said. “That’s just awesome to get one of those wins, nevermind any win for dad.
“(Blitzern’s) still a colt and he’s just absolutely full of himself. We knew he’d love the long trip. He loves doing it the tough way, he just keeps going all day. Dad was confident tonight that he would eat up the long distance and he’s proved right.”
Also advancing to the final were American Dealer, Bondi Lockdown and Tuppence, which would have been great relief in particular for trainer-driver Aaron Dunn after an adventure-filled race on the second favourite.
Bondi Lockdown was checked by a galloping Go Dancing early which ruined Dunn’s attempts to keep the early edge over American Dealer, enabling the latter’s reinsman Anthony Butt to coolly glide to the breeze.
From there Butt was able to dictate and the pair played mid-race cat and mouse for which Bondi Lockdown in particular would pay a price in the closing stages. Still he boxed on for third, good enough to keep alive a shot at a second Group 1.
“I was thinking we’re gone here, so I was just happy to make it through,” Dunn said. “It didn’t work out … bit disappointing the way the race went.”
Butt said he had driven “to beat Bondi Lockdown really and it left us open to that other one late, but the winner went great – he’s come out and showed some speed”.
“Happy with our guy, he had to sprint a couple of times and put Bondi Lockdown away pretty easily turning for home,” Butt said. “All going well for next week. A little bit of a blow (afterwards), but that will top him up beautifully. It’s going to come down to luck, there are a few chances, so luck in the running will play a big part.”
Their focus will now turn to Monday night’s draws, which will be streamed live on TrotsVision at 7pm.
Most critical may be which numbers Stewart’s pair Major Moth and Act Now draw, with both impressive in respectively winning heats two and three.
Major Moth was able to work to the front and draw away comfortably in his heat, a 26.6-second final quarter keeping second-placed Kimble at bay and gapping fellow qualifiers Ideal Dan and Yambukian.
“(Major Moth) was a lot sharper tonight,” reinsman Damian Wilson said. “We weren’t 100 per cent happy with him last week, Emma’s changed a couple of things – his shoeing and his gear. He was a lot better horse tonight.”
Act Now on the other hand was brilliant last week and just as impressive on Saturday night, dominating his heat from the lead with a 55.5-second last half snaring an 11-metre victory ahead of fellow qualifiers Better Eclipse, Rock N Roll Doo and Longfellow.
It was a performance that has reinswoman Jodi Quinlan dreaming of big things.
“Emma and Clayton have just been rapt with him this time in,” she said. “They said that he trained on from his last win and I’ve got to say I didn’t turn the stick last start and nor did I tonight. I didn’t even pull the plugs tonight.
“Every time a horse came around and sat outside him he wanted to get rolling and I was trying just to cuddle him and steady him instead, because you don’t want him pulling. But he felt awesome tonight.”