By Ray Hickson
Trainer Kris Lees admits the bar was never set too high too early for classy import Mugatoo but his deeds in 2020 have set him up for the ultimate challenge during The Star Championships.
Arguably one of the nation’s best horses yet to win a Group 1, the six-year-old starts his quest for glory at the top level in Saturday’s Group 2 $250,000 Yulong Apollo Stakes (1400m) at Randwick.
It’s a far cry from the Benchmark 76 race he won around this time last year at his second Australian start.
Lees naturally warmed to Mugatoo as he charged through the grades, culminating in a game fourth in the Cox Plate, last year and is looking forward to seeing if he can parlay that into something special in the autumn.
“He’s had a bit of hype on him because he put a couple of wins together early but I was always a touch guarded,’’ Lees said.
“He’s surprised me somewhat in how he just kept taking that next step. You’re often disappointed but he’s gone the other way for mine.
“It would have been good to win a Group 1 with him in the Metropolitan but it wasn’t to be but he acquitted himself well in the Cox Plate without a lot of luck in the race.”
Mugatoo was due to contest the Mackinnon Stakes in November, eventually won by Arcadia Queen, but was a race day scratching due to a mishap on the way to the track.
The Newcastle Cup winner is up and going a little earlier than Lees’ original plan of a Chipping Norton Stakes kick off and has had just the one trial leading into the Apollo where he’s $7.50 with TAB.
He's yet to contest a race as short as 1400m, and any rain would help his cause on Saturday, but is unbeaten at 2000m and below.
He’s on the $15 line in the Group 1 $4m Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2000m) on April 10 – his main aim this campaign – with the likes of defending champ Addeybb, Verry Elleegant, Japanese star Salios, Russian Camelot, Arcadia Queen and Sir Dragonet sitting above him.
“It looks like it is going to be a pretty hot year,’’ Lees said.
“He’s coming up well though 1400m at weight-for-age is new territory for him.
“He’s won two short races, a benchmark at a mile and a winter Listed at 1500m so this is certainly his toughest first-up assignment.
“The barrier draw (10) suggests he’ll be giving away a start. He won’t run a bad race but he is vulnerable at 1400m.”
The long awaited return of the Gem Song is due to happen in the Group 3 $160,000 Cellarbrations Southern Cross Stakes (1200m) and lees is unsurprisingly cautious after a 15 month absence.
He suffered a suspensory injury in the inaugural Golden Eagle in 2019 and has been gelded. Lees has given him three trials and hopes he performs well fresh.
Mugatoo's trial at Wyong on February 4
“He’s had a long break, you would expect that he will take a run albeit he has a good fresh record,’’ he said.
“It’s just good to see him back at the races. If he’s anywhere near his best he’s in for a good preparation but you’re always a bit guarded coming off a long break.”
Kris Lees on Never Talk (Light Fingers): “It’s not a great draw but she gets back and she is a horse that attacks the line. Late in the day it mightn’t be the worst draw, there’s forecast for some rain and if that happens it might be a perfect draw.”
On Polytrack Provincial Championships contender Cristal Breeze (Race 9): “I thought it was a really good run first-up and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him run a bold race. I wouldn’t have minded a soft draw because it’s a pretty smart race on paper so he will need an ounce of luck.”