Comment by Ray Hickson
You could forgive Jenny Graham for feeling like she trained Winx for the past week, such has been the interest in her Country Championships runners.
And the popular Port Macquarie trainer handled it with class.
She’d had countless enquiries from all forms of media and didn’t refuse any despite knowing she was likely going to be answering the same questions.
No, Graham doesn’t train Winx but she did prepare the hot favourite Victorem – a very talented three-year-old with limitless potential – along with second elect Awesome Pluck (another promising young horse) and one of the stable mainstays in Portatorio.
So the pressure was on, she knew it and the interest in her horses only amplified it.
“It’s so awesome. I just wanted them to run well and they all did,’’ Graham said post-race, doing her best not to let emotion overcome her.
But she was more than entitled to let the relief out once Victorem and Awesome Pluck booked their place in the $500,000 final in April while stablemate Portatorio was right there with them.
Graham called it her biggest moment in racing. Watching Victorem, at just his fifth start, steam past a quality field you’d have to add ‘so far’ to that sentence.
Pure elation from @JGrahamRace after securing two slots in #TheChampionships Final at @royalrandwick, with Victorem and Awesome Pluck. You won't find a happier trainer around!! pic.twitter.com/hGXCexGmwp
— Sky Racing (@SkyRacingAU) February 18, 2018
Now in its fourth year, the Country Championships is bringing out the best in country racing.
Along with the weekly Highway races, the Championships is putting the spotlight firmly on the grass roots (a term that is probably a little stereotyped) and the heart of racing in New South Wales.
Sure that’s a little romantic, but it’s hard to win a race anywhere let alone take on the power of the metropolitan stables.
That’s why the Highways and the Country Championships have been embraced so readily. They are a stepping stone and they are getting harder to win because their very existence is raising the bar for a “horse from the bush’’.
Nowhere else in the nation can a country based trainer, and owner, race in restricted company for $150,000, plus the opportunity at the $500,000 Final, in races that serve as platforms for progressive horses to be exposed to the big time before they take on open company.
Not to mention the 40-odd $60,000 Highway races a year.
Think Artlee (Todd Willan) and Clearly Innocent (Greg Bennett) for starters. And following last year’s final, the runner-up After All That (Rod Northam) managed to beat Suncraze (Melanie O’Gorman) in the $200,000 Anniversary Highway on Everest Day.
These trainers weren’t household names. So we’re getting great insight into the hard work that trainers across the state put in and with their weekly presence punters can bet on races with more confidence.
It’d be a stretch to call them unsung heroes but these initiatives recognise they deserve their big moments.
And it’s not just about the trainers. Check out the three jockeys that led in Jenny Graham’s trifecta – Ben Looker, Aaron Bullock and Robert Thompson.
As the winningest jockey in Australia, Thompson will have plenty of opportunities to find a Country Championships mount (he did run second in the final in 2017).
But you’d need a blow torch to get Looker off Victorem’s back and the way Bullock handled the usually manic Awesome Pluck surely nobody else gets on his back either.
Make no mistake, all this attention on country trainers, jockeys and their horses is fantastic for racing.
The focus now shifts to a double header with Qualifiers at Goulburn (Saturday) and Mudgee (Sunday) where four more horses will secure places in the Randwick final.
Expect Danny Williams to feel like he’s taken over training Winx this week as he takes a Chris Waller-like number of calls and it’s no surprise why.
He trains the warm Country Championships Final favourite Don’t Give A Damn, $2.80 after winning a Benchmark race first-up at Rosehill earlier in the month.
Williams will have a huge team headed into the South East District Qualifier (1400m) but it’s the favourite that will be centre of most of the talk.
Then on Sunday, Mudgee trainer Cameron Crockett takes centre stage as he’s expected to dominate the Central Districts Qualifier (1400m) on his home track though perhaps there won’t be enough time for Winx to walk into his stable.