Chris Waller’s $16 million earner Nature Strip will look to further cement his spot in the history books out to emulate Chautauqua and complete a three-peat in Saturday’s Group 1 $2.5 million TJ Smith Stakes (1200m).
The dual defending champion gets to join the ‘Grey Flash’ as a three-time TJ Smith Stakes champion, Chautauqua having done so in 2015-18.
Things haven’t quite gone to plan for the Nicconi seven-year-old this autumn.
Nature Strip was beaten first-up when missing the kick and suffering no luck in the run before flashing late behind his young stablemate Home Affairs in the Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning (1000m).
He was last seen running third behind regular rival Eduardo and the autumn’s surprise package Shelby Sixtysix in the Group 2 Challenge Stakes (1000m) after beginning awkwardly, his first time out of the top two since a seventh in the 2022 The Everest.
Winner of last year’s $15 million The Everest (1200m), he returns to the six furlongs on Saturday fit third-up and looking to atone.
The punters are suggesting he can do just that from barrier 11 of 11 with James McDonald aboard again on a predicted Heavy (10) Randwick track on Day 1 of The Championships.
The latest TJ Smith Stakes odds at Ladbrokes.com.au have the top-rated sprinter at $2.80 to return to winning form.
He meets a similar field as in the Challenge Stakes including the Joe Pride-trained Eduardo who has also been kept fresh since and is tipped as the danger at $3.70.
Eduardo and Nature Strip have faced off on nine occasions with the record standing 5-4 in favour of Nature Strip.
This weekend Eduardo is out to even the score from barrier three with Nash Rawiller aboard, the ultra-consistent Host eight-year-old still showing plenty of zest for racing.
A proven mudlark with three wins from four previous runs on Heavy going, Eduardo was third in last year’s TJ Smith Stakes trifecta on the back of a win in The Galaxy and looks to be going even better this season.
This year’s The Galaxy winner Shelby Sixtysix is back again, Danny Williams’ airborne country galloper chasing a third win on the trot.
It’s been a fairy-tale preparation from the previously unknown gelding who came off a Highway win at Randwick on February 26 for that flashing Challenge Stakes at any old price.
He has franked the form winning his next two stars in the mud at Rosehill, the latest carrying 52.5kg in The Galaxy on March 19, to become something of a cult hero.
This is a step-up again over the 1200m at Randwick with 58.5kg, but the bookies are keeping him safe in the markets as the firming $5.50 third elect to complete The Galaxy – TJ Smith Stakes double for the first time since La Baraka (1998).
Connections decided to pay the late $55,000 entry fee last week to get Shelby Sixtysix into the TJ Smith field and Williams is confident the horse can repay them.
“The rain keeps coming and they are forecasting 50 to 100mm through the week so we will be doing a rain dancing throughout the week,” Williams told the Herald Sun.
“The Galaxy is the best he has ever come through a race in fact, especially the past four weeks.
“The whole time we have had him, I don’t think he has come through it in such a sprightly, positive way.
“His run after the Challenge he laid down for two days, the win after the Maurice McCarten he knew he had gone around.
“After the Galaxy the other day he was ready to go again. Normally it takes him most of the week to come through.”
The other single-figure fancy is last year’s runner-up Masked Crusader ($9.50), second also to Nature Strip in The Everest by a narrow margin, who only needs to handle the going to surprise at a price.
A Randwick specialist (9:3-4-0), the Hawkes Racing-trained five-year-old will relish his return to the track for the first time since the brave effort in the world’s richest handicap.
He has had two runs this time in, both at Flemington, when fifth fresh in the Lightning and then seventh behind 100/1 winner Roch ‘N’ Horse in the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap (1200m).
Roch ‘N’ Horse also goes round in the TJ Smith Stakes looking to complete the interstate double last achieved by Lankan Rupee (2014), Michael Moroney’s mare at $14 to do so.
The 2022 TJ Smith Stakes is scheduled as Race 8 at 4:35pm (AEDT) on Saturday’s 10-race Randwick card.