Steven McRae couldn't have felt better about Franco Nelson's chances in today's $180,000 Sires' Stakes Final - until last Wednesday afternoon.
McRae started last week content that he had won the battle to get Franco Nelson back to his best for today's 3-year-old super sprint after a niggly few weeks.
The Canterbury trainer has been walking the tightrope of keeping Franco Nelson in work after the rigours of racing in the Australasian Breeders Crown over the winter but trying to give him enough rest to allow him to develop and grow as young horses need to.
Complicating matters was the fact Franco Nelson was being troubled by niggling chest problems, which have since been attributed to dust in his feed.
"Once we worked that out we now meticulously screen his feed to take the dust out and his chest has settled right down," McRae told the Herald.
Windpipes cleaned, Franco Nelson has been able to open up his turbos to something like their screaming best in his last two starts.
Fresh-up he all but ran down race rival today Classiesistar then last start produced one of the fastest final 400m sectionals officially recorded in this country to win.
There is no doubt he is the fastest pacer in today's 1950m group one and from barrier two he deserves favouritism.
So what is bothering McRae?
His name is Five Card Draw and what he did at last week's Cup trials meeting at Addington.
He produced a stunner, coming from near last to easily loop his older rivals before only going down to one-time New Zealand Cup entry Easy On The Eye.
"That was as good a trial as I have ever seen from a 3-year-old," says McRae.
"Before that I was going into the race sure we had the measure of most of our rivals and were at least as good as Five Card Draw.
"But I am not that sure any more. He is explosive and he has won three group ones, which takes some real doing."
The trials performance may also put some doubt in the mind of Franco Nelson's driver Craig Thornley.
The big colt showed enough gate speed at the Breeders Crown to suggest he will lead early today and being the favourite he could be expected to stay in front.
However, Five Card Draw comes equipped with an aggressive driver in Brent Mangos and a reputation so huge that if he comes knocking for the lead, Thornley might have to open that door.
That would effectively turn the final into a two-horse sprint up the straight and while Franco Nelson may be faster, can he make up nearly two lengths on Five Card Draw in the space of 15 seconds? "I'll leave that decision up to Craig because he is the only one who will know how the horse feels at the time.
"One part of me says we should use the good draw because they are so hard to get and stay in front.
"But I also think he has the most speed in the race and that he would be hard to beat up the passing lane."
As electrifying as Franco Nelson is, Five Card Draw is a natural-born winner.
He is not the type to gap his rivals but finds a way to win at the highest level and the respect gained by doing that could prove a hugely potent weapon today.
Stand-in driver Zac Butcher was in raptures about that trials run last Wednesday and even if Franco Nelson can run past Five Card Draw, it is hard to imagine many others will.
The intriguing horse in the race is the unbeaten Classiesistar.
He was unbelievably good overcoming a wide draw last start and had he drawn to lead today could have snared favouritism.
But he has drawn one on the second line, which means if and when he does get off the marker pegs the other two favourites are going to be in front of him.
He may still be good enough to win but he will need to be a very special three-year-old to do so.
The best value in the race looks to be Cyamach, who is drawn to either trail Franco Nelson or sit three back on the markers, either ideal before launching a home-straight bid which may not be good enough to claim victory but should pay dividends on the place tote.
Sires' stakes final
Most of New Zealand's best three-year-olds clash in the $180,000 Sires' Final.
Franco Nelson has the best of the draws.
Five Card Draw was last season's undisputed champion juvenile.By Michael Guerin Email Michael