Darwin’s Phil Cole, who has kept champion trainer Gary Clarke honest in the Top End and Country premiership in recent years, dominates Friday’s feature race at Fannie Bay.
Cole has six starters in the 10-horse field – a $24,500 1200m open handicap – with the Clarke stable having three representatives.
The in-form Mighty Murt from the Garry Lefoe yard completes the line up, but Cole’s eight-year-old gelding Saccharo – the son of Magnus – returns from injury and was the early $3.20 favourite with horse racing bookmakers in a very open race.
Cole’s other starters include Cielo D’Oro, Star Magnum, Vunivalu, Surreal Image and 2023 Darwin Guineas winner Tubthumper.
Clarke’s chargers include last start winner Autocratic, Strategic Phil, and 2022 Palmerston Sprint (1200m) winner Syncline.
Cole admitted that having half a dozen horses in the same race wasn’t planned, but was based purely on circumstance.
“A lot of these horses are high in the ratings,” he said.
“There hasn’t been a suitable race for them for the last couple of weeks.
“So they’ve all got to race against each other on Friday, which is unfortunate.
“That’s what happens in the Territory as we’re limited with what races we have available.”
Red-hot apprentice Emma Lines will partner the top weight Saccharo, who will carry 60.5kg courtesy of Lines’ 2kg claim, and jumps from gate nine.
Saccharo, a star in Darwin, Katherine and Queensland last year, won two straight at Fannie Bay at the start of the year before sealing the Chief Ministers Cup (1600m) in Alice Springs.
He then finished third in the Alice Springs Cup (2000m) on April 30, but wasn’t sighted during the Darwin Cup Carnival in July-August due to a crack in his splint bone.
“Yeah, it’s unfortunate Saccharo missed the Darwin Carnival – nothing major, he just wasn’t right,” Cole said.
“It took a bit of going over to find out eventually what was wrong with him.”
Cole then ran the rule over Saccharo’s stablemates.
“Cielo D’Oro has a very impressive first up record – he was a last start fourth in the Palmerston Sprint,” he said.
“Tubthumper has been a bit of a surprise package since returning from her a spell.
“Definitely matured a lot and her work has been far better than what it was in the past, so we’re very happy with her.
“Star Magnum is getting to the end of his preparation, but it’s hard to knock his form since the Darwin Carnival.
“Vunivalu won a couple of races last preparation – he won on Derby Day and then won the sprint at Birdsville.
“He was just a bit unlucky last start, he should have just rolled forward and sat outside the lead.”
Surreal Image held the fence and shared the lead with Strategic Phil, sitting on his girth, and Tayarn Halter’s City Regal, sitting three deep, in open company over 1300m on Melbourne Cup Day.
Leaving the back straight at the 700m, Surreal Image was impeded when City Regal, who would go on and win the race, crossed to settle on the rails with Logan incurring a one-week suspension for careless riding.
Surreal Image finished a long last in the four-horse field and can only improve.
Cole will also have two runners – Turnstar and Courageous Hearts – feature in Heat 2 of the Lightning Wet Season Series over 1100m at 0-58 level.
Turnstar returned from a three month spell to overcome 0-58 opposition over 1100m in late October.
“Turnstar had a massive campaign last preparation – 18 runs with one little let up in the middle,” Cole said.
“We really liked him first up, but I didn’t expect him to get backed into favourite ($4.40).
“He ran an exceptional time – give him a nice rest between runs and hopefully he can do it again.
“Courageous Hearts went really good first up, but I’m stuck to find an ideal race for him.
“Didn’t really want to run him against Turnstar, but there’s a nicer race for him in a fortnight and that’s where we’re heading with him.”
Fly Nice and Lord Fenrir complete Cole’s team on the five-event program – they will appear over 1200m at Class 2 level.
Cole isn’t really a fan of the Lightning series, however he couldn’t help but notice that the field sizes in Darwin during the build up period have been good.
“You look at the last couple of meetings here and a lot of quality horses have been going around,” he said.
“It makes it very exciting for the punters that try and find a winner.
“Looking at the fields on Friday there should be no short-priced favourites.”
Sitting second behind Clarke (20) with 10 wins this season, Cole is happy with how the stable is performing since the loss of veteran jockey Wayne Davis to WA in September.
“I think the stable is actually going quite well at the moment and Emma is doing a great job,” he said.
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