A now Heavy-rated Randwick track for Day 1 of ‘The Championships’ in Sydney on Saturday has boosted the chances of Chris Waller’s reigning champion Nature Strip to return to his best with a successful title defence in the Group 1 $2.5 million TJ Smith Stakes (1200m).
The Australian Horse of the Year was excellent fresh last autumn saluting by two lengths on a Heavy (8) to take out the time-honoured sprint.
The now six-year-old son of Nicconi returns chasing back-to-back TJ Smith Stakes wins for the first time since the Chautauqua three-peat (2015-17), and is favourite to do so.
Current TJ Smith Stakes markets at Ladbrokes.com.au have the gun gelding at $3.50 and firming after 24mm of rain fell on the track overnight taking it to a Heavy (9).
Nature Strip is unbeaten on Heavy going, but hasn’t faced a wet track since his TJ Smith victory 12 months’ ago.
He has had six subsequent starts all on Good-rated courses including his first-up Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning (1000m) triumph at Flemington in mid-February.
His last start at Randwick on March 6 saw him narrowly beaten in a shock upset going down as the odds-on favourite to Eduard in the Group 2 Challenge Stakes (1000m).
Kept fresh since, he saluted in a recent trial at Rosehill and should appreciate going up to 1200m here on a mud track as he looks to turn the tables on his last start conqueror.
“I don’t think he (Nature Strip) can go much better. He is going really, really well,” jockey James McDonald told Racenet this week.
“It will be a good race and our horse is in great form.
“He went super in the Challenge Stakes when obviously he jumped from the widest barrier and was off the track the majority of the race.
“Eduardo had every conceivable chance to win that and ended up winning it on the line but our fella will improve off that as well.”
The airborne Joe Pride-trained Host seven-year-old Eduardo presents as a danger again having franked the Challenge Stakes form with his Group 1 The Galaxy (1100m) victory at Rosehill on March 27.
Eduardo won that in runaway fashion with three and a half lengths to spare over the next best on the line and is now at $4.20 in TJ Smith Stakes betting to make it a hat-trick.
It shapes up as a hugely intriguing and close edition of the weight-for-age feature with the third elect Bivouac hot on their heels at $4.40.
The James Cummings-trained star is the big market mover backed right in from $6 to win third-up with Hugh Bowman aboard from barrier two.
The Exceed and Excel stallion was runner-up in last year’s $15 million The Everest (1200m) in Sydney before finishing over three lengths ahead of Nature Strip when winning the Group 1 VRC Classic (1200m) down the straight at Flemington.
Bivouac comes off two unplaced runs this campaign when fifth in the Black Caviar and fourth in the Group 1 Canterbury Stakes (1300m), but looks a danger third-up with a better run here.
The TJ Smith Stakes field is down to just 10 runners with the early withdrawal of the Waller-trained Haut Brion Her (4) on vet’s advice.
Along with the well-supported Nature Strip, Waller also still saddles-up his Group 1 Coolmore Stud Stakes winning filly September Run from the outside barrier as a $10 chance.
The in-form Hawkes Racing-trained Masked Crusader ($7.50) coming off a Group 1 William Reid Stakes (1200m) win at The Valley and the rails-drawn Libertini ($9.50) – third in the same lead-up – for Anthony Cummings are the other notable hopefuls.
The Heineken TJ Smith Stakes is set to run as Randwick Race 8 at 3:55pm (AEST) on Saturday.