Exciting two-year-old Whiskey Neat cemented his claim for the favourite's tag for the rich Listed Karaka Million 2YO (1200m) later this month when he led all the way to take out the Gr.3 Barneswood Farm Eclipse Stakes (1200m) at Ellerslie yesterday.
The Tony Pike-trained gelding had set tongues wagging when he won by 10 lengths on debut at Otaki last month.
That victory left pundits wondering if he could replicate that sort of effort against a far stronger field in yesterday's Group Three feature.
Those questions were answered in emphatic fashion as the strapping Denman youngster dominated from the front throughout the contest before coasting home to down the previously unbeaten Aotea Lad and Exuberant in a slick 1.10.66 for the 1200m journey.
Despite getting a little wayward over the last 100m, Pike was pleased with Whiskey Neat's debut outing at the Ellerslie track under race-day conditions as he looks forward to the Karaka Million later this month.
"He got quite lost today off the bridle," he said. "It's obviously a lot stronger race today.
"Leith (Innes) rode him well, cuddled him up around the corner, but when he went for him it took him a while to work it out.
"He changed legs a couple of times and had a good look at the winning post, so he will obviously improve off that." The $42,000 first prize from the race will more than qualify Whiskey Neat for the Karaka Million with Pike happy to go into the $1 million juvenile feature on January 26 without another run for his charge. "He needed to win today to think you were a chance of winning the Karaka Million," he said.
"He has beaten some nice two-year-olds behind him.
"He'll improve a lot so we're looking forward to three and a half weeks from today.
"We'll just keep him ticking over and maybe come back for a gallop if they open the course before that meeting."
Rider Leith Innes was satisfied by the effort and believes there is more to come for the youngster.
"He got softened up the whole race and they all had their chance to get past him," he said. "He's a big, gross horse who I don't think Tony (Pike) has got to the bottom of yet."
Runner-up Aotea Lad lost no admirers with a barn-storming finish from near last on the turn while third-placed Exuberant also closed off stylishly to suggest both will be serious contenders for the Karaka Million.
● Meanwhile, Pike may have unveiled a major player in New Zealand's three-year-old ranks after Surely Scared showed a devastating turn of foot to take out the Gr.2 Jamieson Park Auckland Guineas (1600m) at Ellerslie yesterday.
The Rock 'n' Pop gelding travelled towards the rear of the field throughout, until jockey Leith Innes found some clear racing room at the 200m mark where he was able to unleash his charge and account for the rest of the field to win by three-quarters of a length over pacemaker Cantstopthefeeling. "With the outside gate we were always going back," Pike said. "The favourite (More Wonder) had a tough trip and he tried to follow that and he wasn't taking him anywhere.
"Once he got into the clear, he has got a great turn of foot. He is still learning as well, this is only his third start, so he is an exciting horse going forward."
The three-year-old will now likely head towards the Listed Karaka Million 3YO Classic (1600m) at the end of the month, before a possible tilt at the Gr.1 Vodafone NZ Derby (2400m).