By Ray Hickson
Trainer Jenny Graham has long thought 2019 would be the year Awesome Pluck could win a Country Championships and she’s seen nothing to change her mind.
He was the understudy, and runner-up, a year ago to stablemate Victorem but has graduated to Graham’s top seed for Sunday’s $150,000 MNCRA Country Championships Qualifier (1200m) at Port Macquarie.
“I always had it in my mind to have a go this year,’’ Graham, who will also run Let’s Rebelle on Sunday, said.
“I knew when he didn’t make it to the final he would get another chance to have a crack at it. And he’s a much better horse now.’’
A lower respiratory issue prevented the gelding from taking his place in the 2018 Final, won by Victorem, and in the 12 months since then Awesome Pluck has started to come of age, finishing third in the inaugural The Kosciuszko and posting successive Brisbane city wins.
He was a three-year-old with just five starts under his belt heading into last year’s Qualifier, he's now run 11 times, and Graham said there’s still plenty of improvement to come.
“He has a little bit to go yet, I don’t think we are at the bottom of him at all. It’s going to be experience and time,’’ she said.
“He’s still a big baby and still has a bit to go, but he’s progressing better and better all the time.
“I think he has come through everything well, he came back from Brisbane and had a few weeks off and has been back in trot and cantering and doing pace work.
“I’ve been happy with his gallops and I was happy with the trial.’’
Robert Thompson put Awesome Pluck through his paces in a trial at Taree on Sunday and he’ll be having his second race ride on the gelding – they combined for a win two weeks prior to last year’s Qualifier.
Graham’s niece Cejay will partner stablemate Let’s Rebelle, who has won three of her last four starts.
The trainer said Let’s Rebelle isn’t just making up the numbers but does face a task after winning at 1500m on January 25.
“She puts herself in the race, it’s just whether she has the speed coming back from the 1500m to put herself there because I think there will be a bit of pace,’’ Graham said.
“I’m not worried if she is a couple of pairs back because she is adapable. She has to lift a little, yes, but she has been racing well so she has to be a chance.’’
Awesome Pluck runs third in a Taree trial on February 11
Graham provided the trifecta – with Victorem beating Awesome Pluck and the now retired Portatorio – a year ago at Port Macquarie in a huge moment for the popular local trainer.
Although Awesome Pluck will be the nominal favourite to give her successive Qualifier wins she says she’s feeling considerably more relaxed in 2019.
“It’s a little easier this year but I haven’t had quite as much pressure,’’ she said.
“I felt last year like I was expected to win so I put a bit of pressure on myself.
“The horse has been racing well and if it pans out right for him on the day so be it.’’
Reigning Country Championships winner Victorem returned to the stable on Monday ahead of a preparation likely to be aimed at the Brisbane Winter Carnival.
Graham said Victorem could have one or two Sydney starts before heading north.
“He’s pulled up well from the break and he’s a happy pony, he likes stable life so he’s happy to be back in,’’ she said.
First and second from the Port Macquarie Qualifier earn a spot in the $500,000 Newhaven Park Country Championships Final (1400m) at Royal Randwick on April 6.