The Horse of the Year in Australia last year was the brilliant miler Weekend Hussler. The champion sprinter tag that same night went to Apache Cat who collected six group I wins in the year. He then took his sizeable talents to Hong Kong in December last year and finished third at group I level -- just reinforcing his talent.
And the pair clashed first up on Jan. 31 in Melbourne under a blazing sun over five furlongs in the $500,000 Lightning Stakes (Aus-I) down the Flemington straight course.
With the heat passing the 102-degree mark, both superstars dominated the betting in a field that included three other group I winners, a visiting South African stakes winner and plenty of former group I placegetters.
Both stars jumped well enough, although Weekend Hussler, who last started in October in the 12 furlongs group I Caulfield Cup, was pushed along to keep up with the break neck pace set by Sheikh Mohammad’s exciting 3-year-old Wilander.
Then when Weekend Hussler was called upon for his effort, he met with bother, later described by his trainer Ross McDonald as “pilot error.”
Meanwhile the big white head of Apache Cat was bobbing along nicely just behind the speed in fifth spot. This was until they all accelerated over the final two furlongs for the run home. He was about the only one in the field of 11 who didn’t turn it on.
“He just raced like a seven furlong horse,” explained his rider Corey Brown after the ever popular ‘Cat’ failed to pounce and wound up a well beaten, but close up ninth.
With him beaten off mid-race, everyone turned to look at what Weekend Hussler was doing. And his checkered run home is what they saw. He was fourth -- a hard finishing, luckless fourth in the end -- just two lengths behind the winner which was visiting West Australian star sprinter Scenic Blast.
He is in Melbourne for a crack at the group I Oakleigh Plate over 5 1/2 furlongs next month then the big one, the group I Newmarket Handicap over six furlongs down the Flemington straight and worth Aus$1 million.
His trainer Daniel Morton, therefore, wasn’t really expecting a forward showing here - especially as he was up against the champs.
He said after the race that the Lightning Stakes was supposed to be a hard hit-out to get his strong-finishing star fit enough for big showings in the upcoming plums. “I honestly thought he would be a run short today, especially against this field,” he said. “He’s over here for the handicap sprints, the Oakleigh Plate and the Newmarket so this is definitely a bonus win.”
As a 3-year-old of 2008, Scenic Blast came across country to race in two group I races - and both times he was beaten into a place by the king of 3-year-olds -- Weekend Hussler. A year later though and he exacts revenge.
Scenic Blast settled near last in the crack field and was going so sweetly at the half way point that jockey Steven Arnold actually took hold of him so he didn’t go up to the leaders too early. Arnold summed up the situation in front of him perfectly and when he looked over and saw the two favorites Weekend Hussler and Apache Cat locked away in traffic, he went to work sooling his mount down the outside. He had clear acreage all the way home and Scenic Blast really stretched his neck out to grab Wilander, who was also grabbed near home by Sydney speedster Typhoon Zed who landed second spot on the line.
Typhoon Zed is already a Sydney group I winner and his first up run was outstanding too. As was the consistent Grand Duels who punched away gallantly in third spot after racing with the leaders throughout - a nose clear of the Weekend Hussler and Wilander.
“My horse was just going so easily in the run, I only had to get him out and he had them covered, he let down brilliantly,” claimed an excited Arnold after the race.
Of the others, merit could be found everywhere. “He’ll be much better around a bend but his run was very good,” said Kerrin McEvoy, who rode the youngster in the field, the flashy Wilander, while Brad Rawiller, on Weekend Hussler said, “once he got shut out, it was always going to be hard for him to pick up in time. So his run was excellent.”
It was West Australian trainer Morton’s first ever group I winner and was Scenic Blast’s sixth win from 15 starts. He cost just $85,000 as a yearling and has now amassed just over Aus$1 million in earnings.