JOHN JENKINS
Little known Taranaki thoroughbred breeder Jeff Bliss will no doubt be taking a keen interest in the running of tomorrow's $60,000 Grand National Hurdles at Riccarton.
Bliss stands the stallion Yachtie at his Sentry Hill Farm, not far from New Plymouth.
Yachtie, whilst hardly commercial as a thoroughbred sire, will be represented by two of the favourites in tomorrow's 4200-metre hurdle feature in Blakes Boy and Van Winkle.
Both horses are trained in the central districts of the North Island and have been two of the hurdling finds this winter.
Blakes Boy, trained at Gisborne by Joanne Moss, has a record of four wins and three placings from eight hurdle starts and produced a game win in last Saturday's traditional lead-up to the Grand National, the Sydenham Hurdles (3200m).
The six-year-old looked likely to only finish second when giving Midnight Opal a good head-start jumping the last fence in the Riccarton event but rallied strongly for rider Isaac Lupton to snatch a half-neck victory.
That win followed Blake's Boy's easy success in the Paeroa Hurdles (2900m) on July 27, while earlier this winter he was an easy winner of the Waikato Hurdles (3200m).
Van Winkle, from the Wanganui stable of Evan and Jay Rayner, has only had four hurdle starts for three wins and a placing. He hasn't had a jumping start since his 6 1/2 length success in the Awapuni Hurdles (2900m) on June 18 but has been kept up to the mark with two testing races on the flat since then.
He won the Winter Oats (2000m) at Trentham on July 9 and then finished a good third behind Danzaman and Mr Hefner in the Taumarunui Cup (2100m).
While Blakes Boy and Van Winkle are expected to dominate the betting in tomorrow's Grand National, there are several other likely chances in the race.
Last year's winner Just A Swagger has been struggling to regain the same form this winter but Hastings trainer Paul Nelson is a master at preparing his jumpers for the big occasion and the Just A Dancer eight-year-old has to be considered again.
Topweight Drizzle is another who has been struggling to regain the sort of form that won him six races in the space of just eight starts last winter. However he is a member of the powerful Ken and Ann Browne stable and should be improved by his last-start effort for fourth in the Paeroa Hurdles.
North Island stables look to have a mortgage on tomorrow's race with two-thirds of the 12-horse field trained north of Cook Strait.
The best chance of a South Island victory could be Rigo Flight, who has filled a place five times from seven starts over hurdles and was a winner over the Riccarton fences three starts back.