Port Macquarie trainer Tas Morton suffered a double blow with the barrier draw but still expects his Country Championships contender Better Not Fly to prove hard to beat when he resumes at Taree on Sunday.
Morton accepted with Better Not Fly in both the Class 3 Handicap (1250m) and the Benchmark 66 Hcp (1250m) on Sunday, planning to weigh up his options after the draw. Unfortunately, that plan fell flat when Better Not Fly drew gate 11 in both races. Morton said the four-year-old would run in the Class 3 Hcp where he carries topweight of 58.5kg.
"I thought I'd accept in the two races and he'd run in whichever race he drew best in, but he drew the same in both, so he'll be running in the Class 3," said Morton.
Better Not Fly, only a $9000 purchase despite impressive bloodlines, is proving to be a real bargain for Morton, already winning three of his eight starts and almost $43,000 in prizemoney.
The gelding is by Snippetson out of the former multiple Group-winning mare Will Fly (by Will Dancer). Trained in Adelaide by Leon Macdonald, Will Fly won nine races, including five at Group Three level. Her racing highlights included victories in the 1997 Hardy Brothers Prelude (1417m) at Flemington and the 1997 Tristarc Stakes (1400m) at Caulfield.
Better Not Fly is a half-brother to the former talented Melbourne two-year-old Sanziro (by Danzero) and Group Three winner Flying Object (by Peintre Celebre).
The Lee Freedman-trained Sanziro won the 2003 Group Two Maribyrnong Plate (1000m) at Flemington and a 2004 Group Three Blue Diamond Preview (1000m) at Caulfield during his two-year-old season, before later being sold to Hong Kong where he won all of his three starts there spread out over a two-year period. He finished his 11-start career with a third to Aussie sprinters Takeover Target and Magnus in the 2008 Group One Krisflyer (1200m) in Singapore.
"He (Better Not Fly) certainly comes from a good family. His mother was a multiple Group Three winner and his two half-brothers also had plenty of talent," said Morton. "He's a nice horse, too. He had a few issues early on - he wanted to hang in and do a few other things wrong - but we got him sorted out and he really started to put it all together last prep.
"He won three races from his past five starts before his spell. He had probably had enough at his last start before a spell when I took him to Scone and stepped him up to 1400m. He's come back in great shape and was impressive in his trial win at Taree the other day.
"Despite his awkward draw on Sunday, I think he'll still be hard to beat. He'll go forward and hopefully take a nice sit behind the leaders."
Better Not Fly progressed nicely during his last preparation. He won his a Maiden at Kempsey on July 30, then won a Class 1 at Taree on August 9. He was beaten by an outside gate in a Benchmark 67 at his next start at Taree on August 19 then bounced back to win a Benchmark 66 at Tuncurry on September 7. He was turned out after his unplaced run at Scone on September 21.
Better Not Fly was ridden out over the final stages to beat Arise Augusta in a 1000m barrier trial at Taree on December 17: "I wanted to give him a solid hit out in his trial to have him ready for the 1250m first-up on Sunday," said Morton.
Belinda Hodder, who rode him in the trial, has her first race ride on Better Not Fly on Sunday, taking over from recent rider Ben Looker who is on his honeymoon. Better Not Fly is one of three horses Morton is aiming towards the $150,000 Mid North Coast Country Championships Qualifier (1200m) at Port Macquarie on February 17.
The Port Macquarie race is the second of seven regional Country Championships qualifying races, each worth $150,000. There is also a $50,000 'wild card' race (at Muswellbrook on March 24) for horses who have already contested a previous qualifier. The winner and runner-up of each qualifier earns a berth in the $500,000 Country Championships Final over 1400m at Randwick on April 6.
"I hope to have three runners in the qualifier here at my home track at Port Macquarie - Better Not Fly, Acoustix and Mister Smartee," said Morton. "Acoustix is a nice three-year-old colt by Snitzel who will run at Coffs Harbour next week. "
Morton will be out to emulate fellow Port Macquarie trainer Jenny Graham in the 2019 Country Championships after she saddled up the 2018 winner Victorem. Victorem won his Port Macquarie Qualifier in February before landing the major prize at Randwick a few weeks later.
Graham, who has already had an amazing month with her team, is chasing a winning hat-trick with Let's Rebelle who lines up as one of Better Not Fly's main rivals in Sunday's Class 3 Hcp.
Graham's best two horses - Victorem and Awesome Pluck - have flown the stable flag up in Queensland in recent weeks. Victorem followed a couple of luckless runs in the north with a last-start win in the Listed $150,000 Lough Neagh (1350m) at Doomben on December 15.
Awesome Pluck was a dominant winner of a $75,000 NMW Hcp (1200m) at Doomben on December 8 and is sent to run in Brisbane again this Saturday when racing returns to Eagle Farm. Let's Rebelle, a four-year-old son of Rebel Raider, has won both his starts this time in, scoring first-up in a Benchmark 58 (1000m) at Port Macquarie on November 15 then landing another Benchmark 58 (1000m) at Grafton on December 2.