Caulfield Guineas Day was D-Day for Sunline. The scheduled grand final for the grand dame of Australian racing was an attempt to win a third W.S. Cox Plate (Aust-I) 14 days later, but a less than stellar performance would see her fabulous career ended early, if that can be a said of a mare still galloping about professionally at seven.
In a potentially exciting prelude to the $3 million (Australian funds) Cox Plate, Sunline met Lonhro in the Caulfield Stakes ($400,000, 2,000 meters, Aust-I). The 4-year-old Octagonal son has headed ante-post markets for the Cox since they opened in July.
The Sydney colt had been to Caulfield just once before and while this left-handed oval can be foreign to northern horses raised on right-handed tracks, Lonhro came from last to blow his Caulfield Guineas (Aust-I) rivals away 12 months ago. There were no thoughts then of tackling the Cox at three, at which age his dad had won the race. "Next year," his handler John Hawkes said.
Much has been made of Sunline's career longevity and that warrior instincts dominate her biological clock. Senior part-owner and trainer Trevor McKee wasn't about to agree that the winner of $13 million and 32 races from 46 starts was past her best. But he told reporters that now the mare was fully fit, so if she had an off day that would be it.
"We have always believed that she would tell us when it is time," he said, the 'we' including his son Stephen, the mare's co-trainer.
Sunline pinged from the gates for Greg Childs, breaking on top from the other six. Darren Beadman laid up in third on Lonhro, trailing Ustinov, the Seeking the Gold colt who ran second to him in the Caulfield Guineas last October.
Childs believed he'd rated the mare too slowly at her second run this campaign, when third to Dehere gelding Defier, with Lonhro fourth, in the George Main (1,600 meters, Aust-I) on Sept. 28.
This time he asked Sunline to set solid although not sensational fractions. She led Lonhro by three lengths into the stretch and still held a tw0-length advantage into the final 200 meters.
The near black colt would get her in the end, but it was a slow process taking most of the remaining ground to eventuate. Lonhro's progress seemed almost imperceptible at first after Beadman was first to resort to the whip. At the wire he defeated Sunline by a long neck. The gross of 2:00.60 was two-tenths outside the track mark. Ustinov headed the others 5 1/2 lengths away.
As the heat of battle subsided it was clear that this is perhaps as memorable a finish between two great Thoroughbreds at Caulfield in a long, long time.
Its value as a guide to the Cox Plate at 2,040 meters of the tighter Moonee Valley was obvious. Sunline, as a two-time winner before her close second to Northerly last year, could be harder for Lonhro to catch, her Caulfield run bringing her close to perfect pitch. He too, can improve. They must contend with Grandera, Defier, and probably Northerly.
Lonhro remains the favorite at 9-4 with Grandera and Northerly at 4-1 and Sunline at 9-2.