28 August 2017 | Michael Howard
The winning connections of King Of Swing.
A typically thrilling Super Sunday saw the trots stars of the 2016-17 season reign supreme in its gripping grand final, the TAB Breeders Crown.
Amid chilling winds and a few bouts of hail, the kingpins of Australasian racing left an indelible mark and none were more prominent than driver Chris Alford.
The Puppet's dominance in the season’s crescendo was fitting given his brilliant season that has seen him become the first Southern Hemisphere driver to amass 6000 wins and the winner of the Victorian state and metropolitan premierships.
Team Alford struck early with the one they wanted most – Wobelee in the two-year-old trotting colts and geldings – and then Alford took the reins to deliver Emma Stewart a double with brilliant Nostra Villa and stoic Our Little General.
One of the more fragile $1.04 favourites, Wobelee’s dominant season was capped with a 10th straight win, an unprecedented achievement for an Australian two-year-old trotter.
The Aldebaran Park Breeders Crown final couldn’t have come soon enough for Alison Alford’s Down Under Muscles trotter, whose long season at work had left him fractious for the $90,000 Group 1 and again he gave Chris Alford more than a few reasons for concern despite being clearly a class above.
"They have long years these horses and he was probably on his worst behaviour today, he wouldn't even warm up,” Chris Alford said. “When he got to the first turn he just slammed the brakes on like he was going to pull up again. I think Anthony's horse (Smashthemcalder) may have run into the back of him for a few strides, thankfully he didn't gallop.
"Then he sort of got his mind on the job. I had to keep yelling at him just to keep him thinking.”
Alford had to handle him with care and that meant the Colin Murphy-owned trotter was given a loose rein to construct 29.9 and 28.5 second and third quarters that would see him street 15m clear of the field by the turn.
"I didn't want to be out in front by myself, I had to yell at him to keep him concentrating.”
That advantage remained to about the 100m when La Grange started to chomp into the lead, ultimately crossing the line just 4.3m in arears for Anton Golino and Zac Phillips. Wobelee stopped the clock in 2:00.01, a record equalling 10th win of the season, a record equalling fifth listed race win of the season and $180,330 in stakes, just $2585 shy of a two-year-old trotting record.
“He was good, good run today,” Alford said. “He'll have a nice rest now and hopefully come back better next year.”
More joy was forthcoming for the champion reinsman in races six and seven, but rather than having the short-priced favourite Alford would team with Stewart to overcome well-drawn New Zealand favourites.
In the case of Nostra Villa, her status as the season’s leading two-year-old filly was restored when she produced a brilliant run to avenge her semi-final defeat to Our Bettor Joy, the first of her then eight-race career.
Come the final, Cran Dalgety’s filly’s gate two draw gifted her the lead while Anthony Butt placed Our Angel Of Harlem on her back to give Ray Ward’s hope a cushy run in the race.
Conversely, Nostra Villa would do it the hard way, advancing to the breeze with 1400m to travel and from there the stage was set.
Nostra Villa always appeared strong and well before the final straight she put her nose in front of the leader, a 29.0 third quarter keeping the pace honest and when she opened up after the last turn Our Bettor Joy’s tilt was soon over.
Alford grabbed two lengths on Our Angel Of Harlem and, in a 27.1 final quarter, the finish line come soon enough for the Victorian, with the filly boosting her debut season stakes winning to $269,590 for owner Anthony Caruana.
"She's a super filly, she just doesn't know how to lie down,” Alford said post-race. “Apart from being strong she's fast as well, it was a shame she lost last week by a nose, but to come back today and win was just a super effort.
"She settled really nice early, there was a little bit of speed out of the gate. She travelled around really good and always felt really strong. When we decided to get going off the back she just put the other one (Our Better Joy) away. (Our Angel Of Harlem) nearly run her down, but thankfully she stuck her head out and was too good."
Tandem Alford-Stewart then made it a running double when giant killer Our Little General again showed he was a little colt made for the big occasion by capturing the IRT Breeders Crown for three-year-old colts and geldings.
While Alford’s former drive, Stars Align, loomed as the most likely challenger to favourite The More The Better, Our Little General again snuck somewhat under the radar, having been fourth on the betting line despite mowing down the favourite in their semi-final.
Much work was done by form analysts to break down what for many was the most anticipated of the day’s Group 1s, most prominent was the question could Stars Align (gate 8) pass The More The Better (gate 1) from their likely leader and leader’s back placements?
Speed maps were scrapped when Gavin Lang shot Cruz to the lead from gate seven, parking The More The Better who then reclaimed the lead. Butt hustled Stars Align out to the one-one to avoid being buried on the pegs, with Our Little General in the breeze.
And then The More The Better galloped, and the favourite’s race was shot. Our Little General would slide to the lead, Stars Align to the pegs on his back until Jilliby Kung Fu took advantage to climb forward three-wide and cover Our Little General. “Plenty happening in the first lap,” offered caller Dan Mielicki.
By the time they had reached the final straight off 28.9 and 27.8 second and third quarters, the line of three was Jilliby Kung Fu inside Motu Meteor inside three-wide Stars Align, but it was sprint lane opportunist Our Little General who would stump them all.
The General added the three-year-old win to his two-year-old Breeders Crown triumph (when favourite Tingira Beach broke) and Victoria Derby win (when favourite Vincent suffered a flat tyre), a credit to Alford’s ability to capitalise on his opportunities in the run and Stewart’s ability to have him ready for the big occasions.
"I'm just rapt for this little fella,” Alford said. “He was just struggling away a little bit a couple of months ago with some issues, but Clayton (Tonkin) and Emma (Stewart) have done a great job to get him back to his old self.
"He had a little bit of luck with the leader galloping and being able to get to the front, but he still had to go pretty fast to win and he's a great little horse. He's got a heart as big as himself and it just shows size doesn't mean everything."
The Hollywood scripts extended to the three-year-old fillies, where Mick Stanley’s Petacular landed a winning blow against Oaks winners Miss Graceland and Partyon, two major rivals who had stood between her and earlier Group 1 crowns.
Though she was drawn to advantage, Petacular had to keep taking the punches of her lead rivals during the race before being declared champion, her 27.5 third quarter seeing off Partyon and her 27.9 final quarter holding off Miss Graceland.
"Whether or not she's a superstar in other people's eyes she is in ours,” Stanley said post-race. “She's been at the top of these races all year, to cap off the season with a win like that in the Breeders Crown, which is the best of the best in Australasia, is just unbelievable.”
Group 1 potential was also confirmed in the case of trotters Dance Craze (Anton Golino/Nathan Jack) and War Spirit (Andy Gath/Kate Gath), who claimed the three-year-old girls’ and boys’ titles respectively.
Dance Craze has long been cherished in her camp but upstaged when it’s counted by stablemate Une Belle Allure, but the advantageous draw helped her get that elusive Group 1 with a comfortable romp.
"For this mare to finally get a Group 1 is really special and I'm sure the gang at Yabby Dam will cherish it,” Jack said.
And Kate Gath’s delight was also noticeable when War Spirit raced up to his reputation with a win by a neck over favourite Jilliby Babavska.
"(Owner) Norm (Jenkin's) been really good to us, he's just bought quite a few horses from New Zealand the last 12 months,” Gath said. “He gets a huge thrill out of it and we're extremely lucky that he keeps buying these horses and as a result we're able to win good races."
The Kiwis didn’t leave empty-handed, with Our Renezmae crushing her rivals in the two-year-old trotting fillies, winning by 11.2m from Aleppo Jewel with third-placed Amour De Frere a further 6m back. It was an enormous result for young trainer Jack Harrington.
"It's great to be here,” he said. “I couldn't have imagined being here 12 months ago. (A trainer of three years), it's been pretty hard going, but having a horse like her makes it all worthwhile. I've had good people teach me what it is all about. Great mentors along the way and I couldn't be more grateful.”
And it was a Kiwi who’s seen a few more winters who captured the second Group 1, with Ray Green combining with David Butcher to hold out outstanding two-year-olds Poster Boy, Colt Thirty One and Sicario to secure the bulk of the $285,000 prize.
“He was always travelling, they kept coming and kept having a look at him, and we kept going and I'm glad we got there first,” Butcher said.
The Breeders Crown joy continues at Geelong on Wednesday night when six silver races will be staged.