By Julieanne Horsman
Murwillumbah trainer Matthew Dunn’s outstanding record in TAB highway races has earned him the nickname “Highway Hogg,” but he could become the “Country Championships Chief” if luck is on his side this Monday.
He has nominated a record eight promising horses in the Northern Rivers Racing Association heat at Grafton and while only two go onto the final at Royal Randwick, he believes they all have a fighting chance.
Leading the charge is 2017 Magic Millions Cup runner-up Perfect Dare, who was just beaten by Testashadow in a photo finish.
“He did everything but win,” Dunn said.
“He ran the best race of his life against a very good field and was unlucky not to walk away with the trophy.”
The Country Championships qualifier is a Class 5 race with set weights.
Despite having won more than $350,000 in prizemoney Perfect Dare is only a Class 3 horse and will carry 56kg – just 2kg more than in his Magic Millions run.
“He gets in well at the weights and I think 1400m is the best distance for him,” Dunn said.
“If he turns up and does what he did in the Magic Millions Cup they won’t get near him.
“He had a gallop at Murwillumbah the other day and managed to run the 1000m in under a minute which is a good enough time to win a class 3 at that track.”
Perfect Dare will have his last gallop before the Country Championships qualifier on Wednesday.
Dual TAB Highway winner Delightful Feeling is also up to the challenge according to Dunn.
The gelding was originally sent to Hong Kong to race but didn’t settle in and was returned to Australia where he has been thriving.
He won three of his last four starts and finished 3rd in a BM75 race over 1200m on the Gold Coast on 28 January.
“He needed that run for fitness as he was a bit underdone but he still performed well,” Dunn said.
“I was happy to see him effective in the final 100m which is what he has to do in the heat.”
Sunny Fame is another one of Dunn’s TAB Highway victors and he says there isn’t much between this gelding and Perfect Dare.
“He has a great turn of foot and can accelerate quicker than any other horse in my stable.”
“If he draws a decent gate and there’s some speed in the race, expect him to be there at the finish.”
Madame De Ban is a last start TAB Highway winner and boasts a record of four wins from 13 starts.
“She did well to a win that race with five weeks between starts,” he said.
“She is a consistent, versatile mare and slots in wherever she needs to go.”
Café Terrace is another consistent galloper, finishing outside the top 3 only twice in his ten start career.
In a class 2 race over 1350m at Doomben on 1 Feb he copped a big bump at the 300m mark and still managed to run 3rd.
“He deserves his nomination in this race,” Dunn said.
“He needs to settle not too far off the speed and be within striking distance at the finish.”
Bronzed Venom is one of three queries and has been nominated for two other races this week as well.
Dunn isn’t sure if he will make the field and hasn’t decided whether he will run if he does.
He only joined the stable a couple of months ago but won his first start for Dunn on 27 December carrying 59kgs.
“He has only had five starts all up so he might be better saved for next year,” Dunn said.
Dia De Reyes will start if he gets the chance, but given the large number of nominations and the fact he is only a class 1 horse, he looks unlikely to make the cut.
Queen Charlotte most probably won’t accept either.
“She is a horse with plenty of talent but I think 1400m might just be a bit far for her,” Dunn said.
Matthew Dunn has never had a runner in the Country Championships final at Royal Randwick but came heartbreakingly close last year.
His entries Legendary Luke, Quatronic and Carton ran 3rd, 4th and 5th in the qualifier where only the first two progress to the final.
“That hurt,” he laughed.
“We’ve approached it differently this year.
“Last time we just nominated the horses who were ready but these horses were aimed at the Country Championships months ago.
“It’s excited to have everything fall into place and get all of the horses here.
“I have a fantastic, skilled, hardworking team and would be lost without my wife Keira.”
Jeff Lloyd, Corey Brown, Matthew McGuren, Jim Byrne, Glen Colless and Daniel Griffin are Dunn’s preferred jockeys for the Country Championships qualifier but the exact partnerships are yet to be finalised.