New Year's Day in Hawke's Bay, today, sees one of the biggest crowds of the year descend on Hastings Racecourse for a brilliant day of sunshine and outstanding racing action.
Its timing, so close to the big Wellington Cup carnival, makes it an ideal stop-off for horses making their way to Trentham. Five of the seven runners in the feature race, the $15,000 Russell Roads City of Hastings Cup, have rich Trentham features squarely in their sights.
This is a race that has proven to be an excellent springboard to Wellington in the past.
Last year, the Hastings Gold Cup quinella, Baby Guinness and Eight Schillings, went on to run terrific races in the Telegraph - finishing seventh and fourth, respectively.
In 2008, the underrated Maximum Star went to Trentham after a convincing win in this race and ran a mighty third behind the great Seachange and perennial Group 1 bridesmaid Kay's Awake in one of the strongest Telegraph fields of the decade - as shown by the incredible time of 1:06.66.
This year's Hastings Gold Cup field is headed by underrated sprinter Kaptain Kirkup. The Matamata 6-year-old wouldn't be out of his depth in the Group 1 Railway Stakes in Auckland, which is also run today, but has been sent to Hawke's Bay instead for his final tune-up before the Group 1 Telegraph at Trentham on January 19.
He'll have to carry 59kg here, but the winner of five races and more than $175,000 in stakes is still going to take some beating. Troy Harris, who rose to stardom at this track four years ago with victories in the Hawke's Bay Guineas and GR Kelt Memorial within the space of about an hour, is making a comeback from a long time on the sidelines. Kaptain Kirkup could be the one to give him the first win of his recently revived riding career.
Gunsmoke has shown plenty of ability in his brief career to date, winning four of his 13 starts, and he ran a terrific sixth in a strong stakes race at Te Rapa last start. His connections rate him so highly that they've nominated him for the Group 1 Thorndon Mile at Trentham. That's a lofty goal, but he's proven himself to be a talented galloper and clearly heading quickly in the right direction.
Oak Park is another who's shown plenty in a short amount of time. She's racked up four wins, five placings and over $66,000 in stakes from just 18 trips to the races. The Baker-Forsman team are setting her for the Telegraph, and you rarely see a horse carrying their colours out of their depth in a big race. She was third in a strong race at Ellerslie on Boxing Day, and better track conditions at Hastings should suit.
Glad was one of the big improvers through the latter stages of last summer, and her campaign culminated in an excellent third in the Group 3 Manawatu Classic. She kicked off her 2012-13 season with a promising third placing at Ellerslie, and she wouldn't need to improve much on that to be a major player in this. She holds a Thorndon Mile nomination, and a strong performance here could see her head to Trentham as a real lightweight chance in that Group 1 feature.
In other words, this is a supremely talented field. What it lacks in numbers is more than made up for in quality. And when you add to that all the off-track bells and whistles of the Interislander Summer Festival, this is a day at the races not to be missed.
But racing fans' primary focus for today will be Ellerslie, where seven feature-race trophies will be awarded at the Auckland track. And there'll be plenty of Hawke's Bay interest in the main race, with The Hombre lining up in the Group 1 Railway Stakes. Fresh from his Newmarket Handicap tour de force on Boxing Day, the enigmatic star is looking to go one better than his superb second to Atomic Force 12 months ago.