Gold Coast trainer Michael Costa never expected too much from La Pulga earlier in his career, but now thinks the promising stayer is capable of upstaging two of Australia's most powerful stables in Thursday's $200,000 Iron Jack Grafton Cup (2350m).
A half-brother to the former Group 1-winning sprinter Under The Louvre, La Pulga has proved more of a staying type and heads to Grafton with three wins from his past six starts as well as a last-start second at Group 3 level behind Another Dollar in the Premier's Cup (2200m) at Doomben on June 27.
La Pulga is on the fourth line of TAB betting for the Grafton Cup at $8 in a race where the Chris Waller and Kris Lees stables will provide five of the main hopes.
Waller has the $5.50 equal second favourite Carzoff, The Lord Mayor ($8.50) and Satono Rasen ($12).
Lees has the $4.20 favourite Sixties Groove and $12 hope Big Duke. His other acceptor, Frankely Awesome, is unlikely to run.
Costa said he never imagined earlier on that La Pulga would develop into a Grafton Cup contender.
"In his first prep he was struggling to win a maiden in country NSW and the owners and I never dreamed at that stage that he would reach this level," said Costa.
"We also thought he'd be a sprinter when we bought him, but has shown he's a staying type. He has certainly proved to be a pleasant surprise for all of us.
"He's an unassuming type, but his times on the track have just continued to improve. He's really been racing well this year and was probably unlucky not to win the two Group Threes he's tackled in Brisbane recently.
"He blew the start at Eagle Farm two runs back but ran home his last 600m in about 33.5 seconds, then last start at Doomben he was jumping from 1600m to 2200m and just peaked on his run behind Another Dollar.
"He'll be spot-on at Grafton on Thursday and I'm confident he'll handle the step up to the 2350m."
Costa gave La Pulga a let-up after he backed up four weeks in row through March and April, with the Grafton Cup as his main goal. He returned to win over 1600m at Doomben on May 30, then missed the kick when an eye-catching sixth behind Gaulois in the Group Three Eagle Farm Mile on June 13.
He then showed he was on track for a Grafton Cup start when a good second to Another Dollar last time out.
"The Grafton Cup has always been his grand final and although the race is a bit stronger than I thought it would be this year - with Chris Waller and Kris Lees having several leading chances - I expect La Pulga to run very well."
Jockey Ben Looker will partner La Pulga for the first time on Thursday and is looking to go back-to-back in the Grafton Cup after landing the prize last year on New Zealand stayer Sacred Day.
"Ben's in great form, knows the Grafton track as well as anyone and is the right man for the job," said Costa.
Looker won four of the seven races at the South Grafton Cup meeting last Sunday and looks to have an excellent book of rides over the next two days, including the Chris Munce-trained Boomsara ($11) in the $200,000 Ramornie Handicap (1200m).
Looker also teams up again with Costa with Willo Titto ($2.50 fav) in Wednesday's Class 2 Hcp (1600m) and with Aceplay ($4 eq fav) in Thursday's Benchmark 66 Hcp (1000m).
Willo Titto looks hard to beat stepping up to the 1600m at her third run of this campaign, while Aceplay has won his past three starts at Toowoomba (twice) and Murwillumbah.
Costa also has Reus (Andrew Gibbons, $5) lining up in Wednesday's $80,000 Grafton Guineas (1600m) and Firebox (Matt McGuren, $2.70 fav-Weds; $5-Thurs), a dual acceptor for the Wednesday and Thursday meetings.
"In his first two starts for me, Aceplay just wasn't finishing off his races, but we added a tongue-tie and tried a different bit and he's now put three wins together on the trot," said Costa.
"He's meeting stronger opposition on Thursday, but there's no reason why he can't win again. Reus meets a good field in the Guineas, but his last run at Doomben was terrific and he is definitely looking for the 1600m now."