By Mark Brassel
Tamworth trainer Mark Mason believes the cards are finally starting to fall the right way for his in-form galloper De La Hoya as he tackles Sunday’s $150,000 Country Championships Qualifier (1400m) at Scone.
De La Hoya is highly promising and naturally, is named after the former champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya, a gold medal Olympian and winner of 39 of his 45 career fights.
The horse, De La Hoya, had seven months off after an aborted campaign between March and May last year when he had three unplaced runs.
Left: De La Hoya (Mitchell Bell) heading to the barriers in town – the chestnut is one of the prime candidates for the Country Championships Qualifier at Scone this weekend. Image by - Bradley Photographers
This followed his previous campaign where he won two of his only three appearances with the other run being a nose defeat at Scone behind the unbeaten Jonny Ge. That horse franked the form by winning again at Tuncurry-Forster making it three wins from just as many starts.
“It was just one of those preparations that nothing went right for him,” Mason recalled. “He kept drawing bad barriers (gate 10 twice and 11) and everything that could go wrong did.
“We pulled up stumps and sent him for a winter spell where he spent time in a paddock at Leon Cummins’s property in Barraba (75 minutes’ drive from Tamworth),” he said.
Cummins, a stock and station agent, is one of Mason’s main owners and doubles as having been president of Barraba Jockey Club for the past 22 years.
“I think the break did him the world of good. He was a little immature and needed time.”
De La Hoya has been a revelation this campaign, finishing second at Gunnedah (1000m) when first-up for 31 weeks before stringing together impressive back-to-back victories at Tamworth over 1000m and 1200m. Last time out De La Hoya sizzled home with Robert Thompson aboard to defeat three-time winner Dan Roy by just under a length carrying the steadier of 59.5kg.
“My only query is the 1400m but Robert (Thompson) seems to think he’ll run the distance without a problem,” Mason said.
Mason will also be represented in Sunday’s Qualifier by seven-year-old Strictly Concert, a Sydney winner, and racing for the first time since last October. The trainer had to tread a fine line with the horse due to eligibility rules: “He is close to being ineligible with 19 starts (maximum 20) so we’ve trialled him twice.
“He’s good when fresh and has won twice when first-up,” Mason said. “Has a very good finish and is strong on the line having won in the city over 1550m, so the 1400m will present no problems.”
Strictly Concert’s first trial at Tamworth over 1000m had to be seen to be believed. The gelding was giving the leader (Akeelah) a huge start coming to the bend and was still four lengths off the lead at the 200m before unwinding a big run to score.
He then ran sixth (of 8) in a Scone barrier trial (900m) but Mason said to overlook that effort: “It was a rainy day and he got well back in the field; they ran the last 600m in 32.67 seconds so he was never going to pick them up. We were still happy with his performance.”
There is plenty of depth in the Scone Country Championships Qualifier with city winners Invienna, Three Sheets, All Summer Long and Sassaby. Further strengthening the race will be the appearance of unbeaten duo Caerless Choice and Art D’amour.