By Ray Hickson
Trainer Aiden St Vincent is hopeful new acquisition Fantini can prove to be a worthy substitute for stable star Hellenism and develop into a Country Championships contender.
The four-year-old mare takes the first step on that path when she makes her debut for St Vincent in the Sawtell Hotel Handicap (1012m) at Coffs Harbour on Wednesday.
Fantini and lightly raced six-year-old So Shy are the two horses the local trainer is aiming at the Northern Rivers Qualifier on February 13 after revealing Hellenism is set for surgery on an injured knee and will once again miss the Country Championships series.
Hellenism was the early favourite for her Qualifer in 2020 after a first-up win at the corresponding Coffs meeting last year and a brilliant TAB Highway win in January but was ruled out of the series with a hoof issue and hasn't raced since two Highway placings in April and May.
“We went through a saga trying to figure out what the problem with her knee was,” St Vincent said.
“She had a CT scan done the other day and there’s a minor problem in the back of her knee that needs minor surgery.
“We’re all very relieved we found out what the problem was because we gave her time off to recover and it should have settled down if it was a normal situation.
“It was an underlying problem normal scans and X-rays couldn’t identify so we had to up the ante.”
If she returns from the surgery in good order St Vincent said he’d like to aim her at the $1.3m The Kosciuszko but for the time being the focus is on Fantini and So Shy.
Fantini was formerly trained by Natalie Jarvis and broke her maiden status on Country Championships Qualifier day at Moruya back in February.
Her part-owner John Mullins elected to send her north and St Vincent said he had his work cut out when she arrived but feels he’s winning the battle.
“She was a quirky filly that had a reputation of doing a few things wrong and being hot-headed,” he said.
“When I first laid eyes on her I was a bit bold in telling John she needed to go back to the paddock so I sent her to dad (Paul) for another five weeks and she put on some good condition.
“She’s been a bit of a work in progress and thrown a few curve balls at me. But she’s developed I think a mental capacity that is going to turn her into a better racehorse.
“I’m happy with her progress, she’s become a bit more user friendly.”
A narrow trial win on a heavy track at Moree on December 19 gave St Vincent confidence that Fantini is ready to produce first-up over the short course.
He said the trial win didn’t surprise him but it was the manner in which she won, by leading, that was most encouraging given her racing style to date has been largely off the pace.
“I expect her to run a bold race if she puts her best foot forward and going off the trial I don’t see why she can’t,’’ he said.
“From what she’s shown on the track I think she is ready to produce the standard that you need to win a race like this.
“If she can get a nice run just behind the leaders that’d be great but she can get back and finish off well and the trial showed she’s matured a bit.”
Fantini wins a trial at Moree on December 19
Meanwhile, So Shy may have an exhibition gallop between races on Wednesday as St Vincent is keen for regular jockey Rachael Murray to have a look at him as he prepares for a trial then one run into the Qualifier.
The gelding hasn’t started since winning at Taree in January, making it four wins from nine starts, and if he doesn't gallop at Coffs he'll have a jump out on Thursday morning.
He’s likely to resume in the Country Championship Preview (1200m) at Grafton on January 24.
“If he wins and becomes a Class 5 he’ll get penalised (for the Qualifier) but after the horse has been away for 12 months if I win a race with him I won’t be too disappointed,’’ St Vincent said.