Mat on Saturday runners

MATHEW de Kock is upbeat about lightly weighted Nother Russia’s chance in the R4-million Premier’s Champions Challenge (Grade 1) over 2000m at Turffontein this Saturday, and spoke to NICCI GARNER of Racing Express.

The race is the biggest of nine features on Champions Day, which also include three other Grade 1s – the SA Derby, the Computaform Sprint and the SA Nursery.

De Kock believes Nother Russia (headline photo) has improvement still to come following her first win at the highest level, the Empress Club Stakes over 1600m on 22 April.

“Obviously she’s got Legal Eagle to beat,” he said, “but she is the third best-weighted horse in the field (behind Legal Eagle and French Navy) and must have a big chance.”

The Champions Challenge comes hard on the heels of her victory over Bella Sonata in the Empress Club Stakes, but De Kock said: “Everything’s been good in between and she’s taken the race well.

“We took the view that it’s more than likely she will not run during the Durban season, so she might as well take her chances here and then have another rest.”

The Mike de Kock stable will be pinning its SA Derby hopes on Heavenly Blue, the top-rated runner in the R2-million race over 2450m. “He’s just got to stay,” confirmed De Kock. “But every horse high in the betting is in the same boat, so we’re all in the dark. On his last run he is obviously the one to beat.”

Heavenly Blue was impressive in winning the SA Classic over 1800m, slicing past Al Sahem to win going away by 2.90 lengths.

“Everything’s gone well in between and we’re happy with him,” De Kock confirmed.

On paper the R1-million Computaform Sprint over 1000m is their weakest Grade 1 race but De Kock cautioned punters not to discard Rafeef, who is only the seventh best-weighted runner in the race.

This will be his first start over 1000m, with his form over further yielding five wins and three places from only nine starts. He was last seen out in the 1600m Horse Chestnut Stakes in which he finished fourth behind Legal Eagle. The stable will fit blinkers this time in a bid to sharpen him up.

“He is very well,” said De Kock. “We tried to stretch him to a ‘mile’, but have decided to pull him right back. He definitely shows enough speed at home and I wouldn’t leave him out of anything.”

De Kock hinted the stable thought Rafeef would probably do better than their other Computaform Sprint runner, Moofeed, who finished third behind Brutal Force following a layoff last month but meets his conqueror on 1.5kg worse terms, the equivalent of about 0.75 lengths.

“I thought that was a very nice race but will be very happy if he can sneak into the places.”

He said he thought the stable was “very lucky to have two very smart colts” in the 1160m SA Nursery – Mustaaqeem and Naafer. “I can’t split them on their work and in my opinion they should both go very close.”

Mustaaqeem has run only once and that 1160m race yielded a 7.50-length success over reopposing Coastal Torrent, while his stablemate ran second in his debut, 4.75 lengths behind Wonderwall, before winning over 1200m at the Vaal next time, downing Phllydelphia by 5.25 lengths.

The De Kock stable has runners in three of the four Grade 2 races on the card, including Belle Rose and Orchid Island in the R1-million SA Oaks over 2450m.

Orchid Island won the SA Fillies Classic last time out, beating Safe Harbour by a neck, with Bi Pot third and Belle Rose fourth. The first five horses home finished within 0.75 lengths of each other and De Kock is understandably cautious.

“It’s hard to tell who will make most improvement over the distance,” he said. “But our two are well and fit. I’m happy with the way their preparations have gone, they will both enjoy the distance and run big races.”

Fish River and Silver Thursday will represent the stable in the R400,000 SA Fillies Nursery. Silver Thursday won her debut, beating her stablemate by 2.50 lengths over 1200m at the Vaal, and De Kock said she had improved with the experience. However, he added: “Fish River needed that run and I can’t split them. I’m happy with their preparations but can only hope for the best in a competitive race.”

Both Al Hawraa and The Centenary ran in the Empress Club Stakes and renew rivalry in the R400,000 Gerald Rosenberg Stakes over 2000m. Al Hawraa did best in finishing only 4.30 lengths behind Nother Russia in eighth place. “She ran a good race from the widest draw,” De Kock mused. “She ran on all the way to the line and should enjoy the 2000m of Saturday’s race.”

He believes The Centenary should run a better race this time and gives both fillies place chances.

Their only other runner at the meeting is disappointing Smart Mart in the R500,000 Gold Bowl (Grade 3) over 3200m. He finished fourth in this race last year. “We’ve tried doing one or two things differently because he went off the boil and hopefully they’ll bring him back to his best – if he does get back to his old form he must be a factor.”