By Julieanne Horsman
The Scone heat of the Country Championships has earned itself a reputation as one of the strongest in the series.
The winner of both the 2015 and 2016 finals qualified at Scone and there’s a genuine chance of a “three-peat” in 2017.
Caerless Choice has been installed as the third favourite for the final on TAB Fixed Odds, after winning today’s $150,000 Scone heat by the narrowest of margins.
It was a thrilling finish to the race, with Caerless Choice (Mitchell Bell), Nic’s Vendetta (Aaron Bullock) and All Summer Long (Greg Ryan) separated by less than a head. After All That, Mapmaker and Sassaby were all less than half a length behind them.
Only the first two progress to the $400,000 final at Royal Randwick on Saturday 1, April.
“It was a very competitive race and was always going to be with so many good horses in it,” winning trainer Paul Messara said.
“I would have been happy to come second just to secure the place in the final but he handled the wet better than I expected.”
Horses and jockeys battled deteriorating conditions all day and by the time the Country Championships heat rolled around, the track had been downgraded to a Heavy 8.
“I was pretty worried about him before the race but he seemed to handle it without enjoying it,” Messara said.
“Mitchell (Bell, jockey) said the horse didn’t love the conditions but his confidence increased as the race progressed.”
Trainer Todd Howlett was equally impressed with his second place-getter, Nic’s Vendetta.
“It was a great run,” he said. “He’s such an honest horse.”
“I thought we were coming here a genuine hope and while the wet conditions aren’t ideal for him, he tried his heart out.”
Nic’s Vendetta is the first horse Howlett has ever nominated for the Country Championships.
“I’m thrilled,” he said. “I’ve got a big group of owners here and they’re already planning their trip to Randwick. It’s great!”
“He’s very fit, we don’t have to run him again before the final but we’ll see how he pulls up.”
Messara hasn’t decided whether to run Caerless Choice again either.
“He is generally a horse that doesn’t do that well coming out of races so we have to be a bit soft on him,” he said.
The close finish to the Scone heat has set the scene for a mouth-watering line up in the wildcard qualifier at Muswellbrook on Sunday, 26 March.
Greg Bennett has already indicated all three of his horses – All Summer Long, Invienna and Sassaby – will contest the wildcard.
They’ll join Ever So Natural, who came 3rd in the final last year, but just missed out in qualifying at Taree this time around.
The next Country Championships heat will be run at Wellington on Sunday.