By Ray Hickson
He’s the nation’s, and arguably the world's, best sprinter and a leading contender for Horse Of The Year and Nature Strip’s managing owner Rod Lyons is daring to dream that this will be the year he finally conquers The Everest.
Nature Strip, brilliant last start winner of the Group 1 TJ Smith Stakes, has been snapped up by slot holder TAB and is the first horse secured to run in Australia’s richest race in 2020.
For connections of the rising six-year-old it’s shaping as third time lucky when it comes to The Everest – he was selected by the ATC in 2018 but didn’t line up while he finished a gallant fourth last year after setting up a course record time in the lead.
“Nature and life has setbacks and at the time you wonder why,’’ Lyons said.
“The first year he would have been nowhere near ready, last year was a fantastic run. He was improving all the time and if we’d have drawn a barrier we’d have been very hard to beat.
“He’s become bigger and stronger and more settled, maturity has improved him a heap this season.”
In the 2019-20 season Nature Strip really came of age.
Sure, he still had the occasional head scratching run but he won four of his seven starts including three Group 1s.
Lyons said it’s a real buzz to have his horse locked away for The Everest and hopes the crowds are back come October 17 after he watched the gelding’s supreme performance in the TJ Smith from his loungeroom.
“I watched it at home with my wife and I don’t think I’ve been as emotional over a win,’’ he said.
“I do try to keep calm but I lost it, it was such a wonderful field and to win as impressively as he did I got very emotional.
“He’s always shown exceptional talent. As we know there’s a chink in his armour sometimes for one reason or another.
“But I was thinking if he could win that race and win it impressively he is going to silence all the doubters and really stamp himself. It was a relief.”
Nature Strip is the $4 favourite with TAB ahead of classy soon to be four-year-olds Alligator Blood and Bivouac at $8, Godolphin’s international star Pinatubo at $11 along with 2019 runner-up Santa Ana Lane and Golden Slipper winner Farnan.
In the three runnings of The Everest so far TAB has partnered with the Gai Waterhouse-trained English (2017), In Her Time and Kris Lees in 2018 and last year with Anthony Freedman’s Santa Ana Lane.
“We are thrilled to have secured Nature Strip for the 2020 TAB Everest,” Adam Rytenskild, Tabcorp’s Managing Director of Wagering and Media, said.
“Each year the race continues to grow in popularity and we are proud to have been involved from the beginning.
“We went so close with our slot when Santa Ana Lane ran a great second last year and we are confident Nature Strip is the horse to beat this year. We look forward to involving our customers along the journey to race day.”
Nature Strip wins the TJ Smith Stakes at Randwick
Of course Nature Strip’s trainer Chris Waller won his first Everest in 2019 with three-year-old colt Yes Yes Yes, who ran in the slot owned by Waller and his syndicate, and he was a last minute inclusion in the race.
The owners were hoping to tackle Royal Ascot this year but that's off the table with international travel difficult at the moment.
So Lyons said having the slot locked away now allows Waller the perfect opportunity to target The Everest and, as you would expect, revealed the trainer is already well advanced with those plans.
“It gives him a clear platform, he’s already picked some races out for him leading up to the Everest,’’ he said.
“We know where we are going and we know what we’re doing. Chris is fantastic at managing them. Look what he did with Winx, he knows how to manage the horses.
“We still have hurdles to jump, we have to make sure he stays in one piece and comes back in the form he was before he went out.
"I think he will be a powerhouse, if all the stars align he will take a heap of beating.”