Levante has drawn first blood as the speed machines of New Zealand racing take aim for what could be the race of the season.
The Matamata mare returned to racing with an emphatic victory in the Counties Bowl at Te Rapa yesterday, defending the title she won under vastly different circumstances at Pukekohe last year.
Both performances were brilliant, but this time, Levante was able to stay handier than usual, just beyond midfield, then defy the pattern for the early part of the day to win going away over the 1100m.
Co-trainer Ken Kelso has the $240,000 Railway at Ellerslie on January 1 as the next main target for Levante and that could mean a glamour girls clash with Entriviere, Babylon Berlin and Sakura Blossom, who resumes next Saturday, as well as yesterday's runner-up Roch 'N' Horse and Vamos Bebe.
Yesterday's win saw Levante shorten to $3.50 second favourite for the sprint, with Entriviere, who has returned to work, the $3 favourite.
Another class mare back to her best was Showoroses, who overcame a wide draw to control the Breeders Stakes and go one better than last season when she finished second to Media Sensation when the race was also run at the usual Counties venue of Pukekohe.
Showoroses went on to win the Cal Stakes over 1600m last year, and being weight-for-age for the mares, that looks the perfect race for her at Te Rapa again in three weeks.
Trainer David Greene not only took advantage of the Counties Cup being held at Te Rapa to capture the $110,000 handicap with Justamaiz but quinellaed the Group 3 with Judy's Song.
The win sets up Justamaiz well for the summer as he has an array of major Cups available at Te Rapa and Ellerslie now that he is back to his Waikato Cup-winning form of 2019.
Other stars were trainer Darryn Weatherley and his jockey son, Sam, who combined for a 2653-1 treble on the programme, Sam winning the Jockey Challenge.
For all the proven talent in the three major race winners, it was a debutante early in the day who stung the bookies and got tongues wagging when Bright Blue Sky bolted away with the Listed 2-year-old race.
Champion jockey Opie Bosson set his sights on riding her at 54.5kg, his lowest riding weight in two years.
That was one reason for his fist bump as the prohibitive $1.40 favourite cruised to the line and the question for her connections now will be whether to chase the Magic Millions dream all the way to the A$2 million 2-year-old event on the Gold Coast on January 15.