By Ray Hickson
Trainer Matt Dunn knows as well as anyone there are no guarantees when it comes to the Country Championships.
The Murwillumbah trainer has easily won the past two Northern Rivers Qualifiers with Perfect Dare in 2017 and Snitz last year but both horses struck bad luck when they made it to Randwick.
And, with most expecting early favourite La Scopa to give him a threepeat, he’s sat back over the past six weeks and watched quality horses like Noble Boy, Awesome Pluck and Suncraze fail to qualify in their regions.
Dunn has no trouble putting La Scopa on top of the pecking order among his quartet in Sunday’s $150,000 NRRA Country Championships Qualifier (1400m) at Grafton but isn’t taking the result for granted.
“I really want to get one into the final because everything seems to be getting bashed up, all the favourites are disappearing,’’ Dunn said.
In 2017 Perfect Dare won the Grafton race in a canter but didn’t handle the wet track at Randwick and was well beaten by Free Standing, who’d finished six lengths behind him in the Qualifier.
Last year Snitz was similarly dominant but drew wide and travelled four deep before running fifth.
La Scopa was identified by Dunn as his leading Country Championships horse early in the season and he’s seen nothing in her four runs back to change his mind.
While the four-year-old, the $2.80 favourite with TAB, has only raced once since an easy Highway win back on January 5, and is six weeks between runs, Dunn said that’s been the plan.
“She brought herself up a bit faster than I anticipated so she’s ended up with a few more runs and a trip to Sydney,’’ he said.
“That’s good because she’s experienced it and it’s always been in mind to have a good space between her last run and this race.
“She had her last gallop on Tuesday and worked as good as I’ve seen her go.’’
La Scopa appears to have beaten the conditions of the race given she’s won three races, including the Highway with 59kg, was competitive in Class 6 company at her last run and carries just 54kg.
Dunn said aside from if the forecast rain caused a very heavy track – which would be an unknown for La Scopa - there’s little that concerns him about the mare.
“The barrier doesn’t worry me that much, I’d rather be out there than buried away on the fence because she’s going to be in the second half of the field,’’ he said.
A win on Sunday would likely see La Scopa move to a clear second favourite for the $500,000 Newhaven Park Country Championships Final (1400m) given she’s already at $11 with only Noble Boy ($5), who heads to Muswellbrook next week, in single figures.
Dunn said while La Scopa is his major chance if certain factors change – like the track conditions or the way the race is run – he’s not ruling out Wallander, Ten Taubada’s and Cinnamon Missile being competitive.
La Scopa wins a Highway at Randwick in January
The equation for last start Ballina winner Wallander ($9) is a simple one – he needs to find the lead.
“He’s not a very good chaser, he needs to be either in front or making midrace moves to get to the front,’’ Dunn said.
Ten Taubada’s ($17) is another front-running type who is desperate for a wet track.
“His form looks sub standard but it’s not, he won’t go on hard tracks,’’ he said.
“It’s one of those situations with him, we need to find him a wet track but he needs to go to the races and if I don’t keep racing him and he finds a wet track he’s not fit.’’
Cinnamon Missile ($6.50) is the emerging horse, he might be a next year horse, but Dunn said he proved at Doomben last start, when narrowly beaten by Seahampton, he should be in the race.
“By this time next year he would have won a Saturday race in town but he’s a good candidate,’’ he said.