Peter McKay is restricting his participation to the elite level on Saturday.
The Matamata trainer has two runners engaged, both in Group One races – New Zealand Derby winner Puccini in the A$500,000 Rosehill Guineas (2000m) and Hero I Am in the $200,000 The Oaks Stud Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) at Awapuni.
McKay has had several close calls, but never won the Manawatu two-year-old feature, while Puccini will be just McKay’s second runner in Australia after Travino was unplaced in the A$2 million Magic Million 2YO Classic from an outside draw.
“Travino was really only coming over here on a wing and a prayer, but he drew wide and was never really in it from there. But he’s not the horse this horse is,” McKay said from Sydney.
In the wake of his Derby win at Ellerslie earlier this month, McKay rated Puccini as a superior horse to his multiple Group One-winning star Alamosa and he is anxious that the Paul and Cushla Smithies-bred and raced Encosta De Lago colt would take his best form to Australia.
McKay said Puccini had settled in well at his stabling at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse, but he was wary the colt won’t have raced for four weeks leading up to the Rosehill feature.
“He has been really good and eating everything,” McKay said. “He seems pretty fresh and well to me. He’s relaxed in his box, but he’s pretty keen in his work. I found some scales today (Thursday) and put him on and he was similar to what weight he was when he left home, so he’s on track.”
Puccini has won five of his 14 starts, with his last five runs producing a Gr.2 Great Northern Guineas (1600m) win at Ellerslie, fourth placing in the Gr.1 Levin Classic (1600m) at Trentham, then wins in the Gr.2 Waikato Guineas (2000m) at Te Rapa, the Gr.2 Avondale Guineas (2100m) at Ellerslie and the Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) at the same track.
“He’s very fit and well and he’s thrived with the racing,” McKay said. “He’s had a good month between races now and lightly built up to this. You never know how long they can stay up for but to me he’s going as well as he was a month ago in the Derby.”
Despite his faith in the ability of Puccini, McKay was under no illusions of the task that confronted him on Saturday.
“It would be about the best three-year-old field he could have come up against,” he said. “It will be a good guide as to how well he’s going, that’s for sure. As long as he knuckles down and concentrates and there’s good speed in the race, I won’t have any excuses. If he can run in the first three or four, I’ll be pretty happy that he’s right on target for the Derby which is his main goal.”
Safely through Saturday’s Guineas, Puccini will tackle the Gr.1 A$2 million Australian Derby (2400m) at Randwick on April 12, with jockey Michael Walker set to ride in both races.
Walker is unbeaten in three rides on the colt, each time producing immensely confident displays in the saddle.
Puccini this week drew barrier two, though McKay said he would have preferred a midfield draw in order to be able to roll forward rather than having to hold a position on the inside.
“The inside draw would only be a problem if he dwelt jumping out at the start, but generally he’s been able to jump away,” McKay said.
“Going through the field, I didn’t think he’d be in front anyway. There’s a couple of the better horses that do race on the speed. Michael is going to have to judge it on how he jumps and what they do up front. If they slacken off he’ll have to roll forward because with the month between races he’s going to race a little keenly anyway.”
McKay’s only other concern was the prospect of a slow track at Rosehill. Puccini has handled dead footing in the past, but has never raced on slow going.
“It’s always a concern first time on a wet track. That’s an unknown. It’s drizzling here at the moment and it’s pretty muggy but it’s meant to come right so we’re hoping,” he said.
McKay’s son and co-trainer Jacob has the responsibility of supervising the stable’s other Group One contender Hero I Am.
The Hussonet colt improved from a sixth placing in the Listed Matamata Slipper on debut to run out a determined maiden winner at Matamata last start. Craig Grylls takes the reins on Saturday.
“He’s improved since that win too,” McKay said. “He galloped on Saturday when I was over there and Craig was rapt with him. Apparently he worked just as good on Tuesday as well. The only thing against him is the lack of raceday experience, but he did everything right at his second start – put himself right there and finished it off well
“We’ve got a good track and a good draw and the 1400m should suit him so he’ll go a good race hopefully.”
McKay produced Antonio Lombardo to finish second to Anabandana, beaten a nose in 2011, while Alamosa was third in the Manawatu feature, Joey Massino fourth and Vincent Mangano eighth.
“Potentially he could be as good as Antonio Lombardo, but he’s only had those couple of runs under his belt so it’s a bit early to say,” McKay said. – Aidan Rodley, NZ Racing Desk