Paul Court was in for a sleepless night Thursday.
In Auckland for Friday night’s premier meeting at Alexandra Park, the Christchurch horseman is in two minds about how to attack the Group 1 $100,000 Messenger Championship with his stable star, Hail Christian.
On the one hand, he wants to take advantage of a draw that sees his charge start inside the hotly-favoured stablemates, Turn It Up and Spankem.
He says he has become disenchanted and “extremely frustrated” with the driving tactics of the country’s leading stable and wants to make a statement of sorts this week.
But on the other hand, Mach Shard is drawn inside Hail Christian at gate one and the Barry Purdon-trained pacer showed enough gate speed from the same alley in last week’s Taylor Mile to hold the lead in to the first bend, before handing up to the eventual winner, Spankem.
So, Court is in two minds about what to tell driver Blair Orange.
“Everyone is thinking Spankem will lead and win, including the stable.
“The biggest problem I’ve got is that we ran last last week and if we hunt out for the lead, we may not get it.
“So as much I want to run the gate and gun for the top, the respect may not be there and we may be forced to take a nice sit in the running line.”
Hail Christian did run last in the Taylor Mile, but he also ran the fastest last half in the race – 54.4 seconds.
The problem is, Spankem ran 54.5 from the front so he never had any chance to get in to the race.
With stablemate Turn It Up sitting parked, there was no mid-race pressure whatsoever and that took the back-markers out of play.
You can’t blame Natalie Rasmussen for taking the lead on the Miracle Mile winner from a good draw last week or for holding it despite having her stablemate outside her.
As well as that, she and partner Mark Purdon told media pre-race that it would be happening, too.
But for Court, the ‘blue army’ dominating the key positions in feature races has become all too common in New Zealand’s feature racing as a rule, and he’s well and truly over it.
“In my view it’s screwing our racing up.
“We’ve been too ‘PC for too long, and I’m not afraid to say it.”
Hail Christian won four races on an extended Sydney campaign over the summer, as well as placing in the Group 1 Chariots Of Fire, won by Poster Boy, in 1.49.1.
Since returning to his homeland, he’s gone four starts without a win, draws, and ‘shuffle ups’ effecting him in three of the four starts.
And Court has a theory.
“The problem is, when you’re in Sydney, you get a good tempo and it brings you in to the race regardless of the draw, generally.
“They’re run at a decent clip – how they should be run – and he becomes a big contender.
“He showed that by beating Ashley Locaz and Chase Auckland and many other nice horses.
“But here is a different story.
“Mark and Natalie have so many runners that they can control the race.
“It’s not uncommon for them to be in lead, trail and parked and that means no one is going to challenge them because they know they’ll get posted three-wide.”
Court just wants more horses and more aggressive, or at least confident drivers, to take the bull by the horns and make a real race of it.
“This is racing, you know, it’s what the industry is all about.”
Court is quick to say he’s not trying to take anything away from the horses themselves – they are all elite athletes and there is a reason they are feared.
Why wouldn’t Mach Shard want to hold out Hail Christian and wait for Spankem? Especially after doing the same thing last week secured him third place?
But trying to justify the racing pattern in New Zealand to his owners, especially the Australian-based ones in Hail Christian, is getting harder and harder.
“They’re blowing up wondering what’s going on.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I lose more of horses to Australia because they are sick of it.
“It’s just happening time and time again and eventually they’ll say what’s the point?”
Court, who trained three-time New Zealand Cup winner Terror To Love, knows his horse is good enough to match it with the best in the country, and he hopes to prove it with a New Zealand Cup campaign in the spring.
So, Hail Christian will be shut down for the season after this week and, realistically, a placing would be a good result.
“My horse is fit and well and ready to run a good race.
“He’s probably starting to show the effects of a long season, but we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think he was up to it.”
One thing in Hail Christian’s favour is the services of the country’s leading driver, Blair Orange, who is making firm strides towards another 200-win season, having 161 on the books as of Thursday afternoon.
Turn It Up was a $1.70 favourite as of Thursday night, Spankem in to $2.60 after opening at $3.60 while Hail Christian was friendless at a quote of $35.