Racing: Ritchie seeks to kick early goal

By Michael Guerin

Classy mare Artistic (left) is pleasing trainer Shaune Ritchie. Photo /  Natalie Slade
Classy mare Artistic (left) is pleasing trainer Shaune Ritchie. Photo / Natalie Slade

The comeback race trainer Shaune Ritchie has found for his stable stars this Saturday perfectly sums up one of the great problems facing New Zealand's domestic spring features.

Ritchie will launch his outstanding mares Miss Artistic and Zurella on their 4-year-old careers at Flemington on Saturday, campaigns he hopes could lead to the Caulfield Cup.

But the glamour of that target aside, Ritchie's pair meet moderate all-mare opposition on Saturday in the A$220,000 Let's Elope Stakes.

Which means the group two races, containing hardly anything of star quality, is worth more than the richest mile in New Zealand in coming months, the Windsor Park Plate on September 22, and almost as much as the $300,000 Spring Classic two weeks later.

Considering the class of opposition Ritchie's mares face this Saturday compared with what they would have met in those races, the Cambridge trainer looks to have backed a winner before their campaigns even begin.

"The form judges over here tell me it is not a strong race so it looks a decent chance for us," he told the Herald.

"And we are hoping that is the story of their spring. We are here to give them as many cracks as we can at the group races without having to take on the best weight-for-age horses or the Europeans."

The European raiders for the Cups, which are being touted as just about every horse in Europe to win a staying race in the past year, should pretty much keep out of Ritchie's way.

"We all now know how good those horses are but the good thing is they target the same races.

"They are all going to aim at the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, with some going to the Geelong Cup in between.

"Whereas, while both my mares are nominated for the Melbourne Cup, our only really big cup is likely to be Caulfield."

Ritchie believes the Zabeel factor could help make Zurella his better chance in that great race.

"We all know the Zabeels can improve a lot between three and four and if she does that then maybe she can be a player in the Caulfield Cup with a light weight."

While Miss Artistic beat Zurella in the New Zealand Oaks in March, Ritchie believes she may be best suited to 2000m, which gives her plenty of options in the next two months.

She looks the better of the two stablemates for Saturday as well, even though she will have to concede Zurella 2.5kg.

"Miss Artistic has that residual fitness from having raced in Queensland over winter and she races handier, so the 1400m on Saturday suits her better.

"With Zurella, I am training her up for the Naturalism Stakes in two weeks' because if she wins that she gets guaranteed entry into the Caulfield Cup, so she might be a little dour for the 1400m fresh-up on Saturday."

Damien Oliver has been engaged to ride Miss Artistic, while Craig Newitt will partner Zurella, with a view to him being her Caulfield Cup jockey since he can ride at lighter weights.

The chances of anything but a heavy track for Saturday's Great Northern meeting at Ellerslie have taken a major hit.

The track received 34mms of rain in the 24 hours until yesterday morning, seeing it revert to heavy.

"It got to the cusp of dead last week with the drying winds," said Auckland Racing Club chief executive Andrew Castles.

"But it is back to heavy now. I think it will dry before the weekend but it wouldn't need much more rain to stay at heavy for Saturday."

The fields for the two feature events - the Great Northern Steeples and Hurdles - are drawn today.

- NZ Herald

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