By Ray Hickson
Jockey Tommy Berry says he won’t know until the gates open whether barrier 12 is the negative everyone sees it as for exciting sprinter Masked Crusader in Saturday’s Group 1 $600,000 Schweppes All Aged Stakes (1400m) at Randwick.
The last Group 1 of the Sydney autumn shapes as a crucial TAB Everest audition for the Hawkes Racing four-year-old, last start second to Everest favourite Masked Crusader in the TJ Smith Stakes, who has spent most of his career with a boom on him.
Berry said Masked Crusader himself will be the ultimate decision maker on how he plays the race and it would be not a lot different if he’d drawn close to the fence.
“From that barrier it’s a bit awkward but it all depends how he steps away,’’ Berry said.
“If he steps away slow then he’ll be ridden quiet more than likely and if he steps away fast then he could be ridden forward.
“The big plus about drawing in is you can hold a place one or two positions closer even if you are slow away. But if you’re slow away drawing wide you know you’re going to be back at the tail of the field.”
Masked Crusader was slightly slowly out in the TJ Smith and that saw him settle near the back of the field, he also ran into some traffic between the 400m and 200m before cutting the margin to two lengths behind Nature Strip.
Not surprisingly, he clocked the race’s fastest last 600m of 34.20 (Punter's Intelligence) while his last 200m of 11.78 was over three lengths faster than what Nature Strip produced.
He was unplaced as a $1.55 favourite at his only start at 1400m to date, in a Benchmark 88 back in September, but Berry said the gelding is a lot more seasoned now and realising his potential evidenced by his Group 1 win in Melbourne and Group 1 placings either side of that win.
Berry rode Libertini in the TJ, with a suspension costing him the Masked Crusader gig, and he felt the gelding’s performance was every bit as good as it looked.
“Since he’s come in this preparation everyone has noticed a difference in him, in his attitude and the way he went about his business,’’ he said.
“He got held up a little bit half way down the straight, Nature Strip was probably just too good on the occasion, but he was very good.
“He’s a very smart sprinter and he steps out to 1400m which I think is his pet distance.”
Nature Strip holds TAB Everest favouritism, he was locked in by Chris Waller Racing earlier this week, at $4.50 with Classique Legend at $6 and Masked Crusader third elect at $8.
While the barrier draw made Berry’s job on Masked Crusader trickier, it has done him a favour with promising colt Hilal in the Group 1 $500,000 Moet & Chandon Champagne Stakes (1600m).
Berry rode Hilal in his first three starts, suspension cost him the mount in the Group 1 Inglis Sires’ (1400m) two weeks ago where he was the best of the chasers behind Anamoe.
It’ll be the first time the colt has jumped from the first half of the field, he's drawn four of 14, and Berry said it’s a huge advantage.
“He can settle a lot closer than what he has in the past due to bad barriers,’’ he said.
“Barriers win you races, especially at this level, and it’s a perfect barrier for him.
Masked Crusader runs second in the TJ Smith at Randwick on April 10
“If Anamoe was there it’s probably a field of eight but he’s not there and it opens it right up. We’re no good thing in the race but I think he is a deserved favourite especially from that barrier.”
Hilal was $3.50 favourite in the Champagne with TAB on Wednesday.
In the Sires’, Hilal clocked an identical last 600m to the winner Anamoe (35.93) after turning for home in last place.
“He was very good in the Sires’ and take out the winner he was the run of the race,’’ Berry said.
“He’s improved off that, he’s going to be a better horse as a three-year-old I believe and he hasn’t run a bad race since he started his career off.”