By Julieanne Horsman
The $400,000 Country Championships Final at Royal Randwick was always going to be Greg Bennett’s last hoorah. He’s handing back his trainer’s license the day after and moving to Queensland to take up a role with prominent breeding facility, Aquis Farm.
The veteran trainer aimed to qualify at least one horse for the Country Championships in the Scone heat at his home track, but in a thrillingly close finish where six horses crossed the line within half a length, he missed out.
"Unfortunately we ran 3rd, 6th and 9th," he said. "It was a strong race on paper and I expected a tight finish."
Bennett won the 2016 Country Championships final with Clearly Innocent and lucky for him, he has one more shot at qualifying a runner to defend his title in the wildcard at Muswellbrook.
"Obviously I was a tad disappointed by the result at Scone and the wet weather played a part but immediately our attention shifted to the wildcard and that what we have been focusing on since," he said.
"I am very determined to get at least one into the final," he said. "Derby Day is my last chance at training a winner anywhere, let alone a Country Championships winner. I want to finish on a high."
All three of Bennett's Scone runners will have another crack at Country Championships qualification at Muswellbrook. Two have been involved in the series before. Invienna ran 5th in the wildcard in 2016 and All Summer Long finished 2nd behind Clearly Innocent in the Scone heat last year but was scratched from the final due to a stone bruise.
Sassaby hasn't had a tilt at the Country Championships before but unfortunately for him, will be most disadvantaged by the drop back in distance. All the regional heats are 1400m but the wildcard is run over 1280m.
"I was very impressed with Sassaby’s efforts in the Scone heat, Bennett said. “Once he realised he could handle the soft going he was great. He pulled up perfectly after the run.”
In contrast, the shortened race will better suit Invienna. The greatest distance she has won over is 1300m and most of her wins and placings have come over 1100m or less. “She pulled up well after Scone but was obviously the worst affected by the wet track," Bennett said. "She found herself in the undesirable position of getting going too well too early and had the task of carting the field along. Obviously we will be hoping for a dry track at Muswellbrook for her.”
All Summer Long again appears to be the best of Bennett’s three. He stormed home from the back in the Scone heat, making up more distance than any other horse in the field. “That was a huge run,” Bennett said. He was very unlucky to miss out in that photo finish. He can do varied distances so I am not too worried about that. My main concern for all three is barriers. I don’t want any of mine outside barrier 7.”
All three horses had their last gallop in preparation for the wildcard today and Bennett is confident they could all back up for the final on 1 April should they qualify.
“They’re all fit. It’s just a case of keeping them mentally and physically happy. Obviously their recovery will depend on how tough a run they have but I have them fit enough to cope with the quick turnaround if we are lucky enough to find ourselves in that position.”