By Ray Hickson
There’s a quiet confidence among the Anthony Freedman camp that star sprinter Santa Ana Lane can repeat his feat from 12 months ago and go back-to-back in the Group 1 $1.25m TAB TJ Smith Stakes (1200m) at Randwick.
And there’s a plan afoot, according to assistant trainer Sam Freedman - that also requires a bit of luck go their way, to ensure the seven-year-old is within striking range of warm favourite Nature Strip.
“He's drawn well and this time around, though we might not necessarily use the barrier, we’d like to be midfield or just a touch worse,’’ Freedman said.
“We’d like to have him a bit more touch with the field that we have previously.
“Like we saw in the VRC Sprint we don't want to let Nature Strip do his own thing because he will keep running, especially around a bend. That's part of the reason we want to be somewhat in touch.’’
Freedman said he doesn’t expect the TJ to be run as frantically as The Everest last October where Nature Strip set up a track record time, and Santa Ana Lane charged into second place, before fading to run fourth.
But it’s an example of how he’s hoping the TJ will pan out now they meet again over the Randwick 1200m.
While Santa Ana Lane was beaten nearly five lengths by Nature Strip first-up in the Challenge Stakes (1000m) he wasn’t able to tack onto the field early there but he still ran home in a slick 33.15 for his last 600m (Punter's Intelligence).
“Nature Strip is not the sort of horse you can give a huge start to and run down,’’ he said.
“It won't be run at a crawl we are just hoping something might press him early and soften him up a bit.’’
Santa Ana Lane hasn’t won since last year’s TJ, which he won second-up, but he recorded that slashing second in The Everest at his second run back from a spell and that’s the scenario he faces again on Saturday.
Since the Challenge, and following an identical pattern to 2019, Santa Ana Lane trialled at Randwick last week, once again chasing Nature Strip home, and that trial, with Tim Clark in the saddle, showed Freedman he’s on track.
“We've given him the same preparation except we gave him a 1000m run first-up,’’ he said.
“He seems to be going very well and he tends to perform best when he flies under the radar a bit.
“He got a great ride from Mark (Zahra) last year and everything worked out nicely for him. If he is near that level you'd think they will struggle to hold him out.”
Nature Strip downs Santa Ana Lane in a Randwick trial on March 27
Santa Ana Lane is on the third line of betting with TAB at $6.00 with Nature Strip on top at $3.50 and his trainer Chris Waller said the last start Challenge Stakes winner is entitled to be regarded as the benchmark.
The five-year-old has proven to be both brilliant and inconsistent at times but Waller said he’s seen nothing in the past week to suggest he won’t produce his best.
“The horse is really well, he was given a maintenance trial last Friday to make sure he’s not too fresh and everything is well with him,’’ he said.
“I haven’t got too much to be concerned about, it’s a great field which is what you’d expect.
“The best sprinters in the country are there but if he repeats his domination of the (VRC Sprint) up the straight he’s certainly the one to beat.”