With another year of racing up there sleeve the Bob Richard-trained Spartan Eagle looks even more ready to go the distance in the 2014 Darwin Cup as they did before the race was called off last year.
The Niello gelding was a five-year-old last Darwin Cup Carnival when travelling up to the Top End from their Morphettville base in Adelaide for a shot at the $200,000 Carlton Mid Darwin Cup (2000m).
They had four Cup lead-ups at Fannie Bay and caught the attention of local form gurus right from the get go with a two and a half length win in their Darwin debut over 1200m when ridden by local hoop Scott Hillebrand.
They remained undefeated there with three more victories all by impressive margins as they stepped up in distance, including their brilliant six length effort in the Sky Racing Metric Mile (1600m) last July.
A tragic race fall on Darwin Cup Day however saw the event cancelled and Richard left wondering if indeed his horse could have won in their first look at 2000m.
He’d had a few niggling doubts about the distance in the back of his mind 12 months ago, but this year he’s more confidence the metres won’t be an issue for Spartan Eagle.
“I was a little apprehensive that he would get the 2000m last year as a five-year-old and I was under a lot of pressure to start him in the Cup, but I’m a lot more confident this year now that he is a six-year-old,” Richard told NT News last week.
What could be an issue for this time in however is their form, the horse not having won a race since last year’s Metric Mile.
Their lead-up was perfect last winter but this time things have gone amiss a little.
“He had plenty of momentum last year and that’s why he was one of the favourites for the Darwin Cup,” Richard said.
“Everything fell into place on our last visit, but unfortunately not all has gone to plan on this occasion.”
Spartan Eagle has had the same four runs going into the Cup but kicked things off very poorly when a distant eighth beating home just one other runner in the QBE Cup (1200m) in mid-June.
Richard has since put that down to a virus they likely picked up before arriving in the Northern Territory, their form since on the improve.
“He then developed a cough that wouldn’t go away and by my estimation it put the horse back eight days,” Richard explained.
“He also injured his nose in an accident at the Fannie Bay stables and we couldn’t stop the bleeding as he kept rubbing his nose up against the brick wall.
“In the end, we had to put him in a paddock in order to stop the bleeding and allow the injury to heel.
“It has been a disruptive preparation and we were clearly behind the eight-ball, but I’m more than happy now with his progress as he has finished off his last two races well.”
They’ve finished in the money at their next three runs, and did well in Richard’s eyes especially when third to fellow Darwin Cup hope The Ruffian in the Buntine Handicap (1900m) two back.
“It was his first time over 1900m and based on that run he should have no trouble getting the 2000m in the Darwin Cup,” Richard said.
Seeing further than 1600m for the first time in that July 19 showdown they over-raced a little mid-run but held on for a minor place before backing up in the Metric Mile last Saturday.
While unable to defend their title in the open handicap they did run second to Saturday Sorcerer, also backing up in Monday’s major, in an effort that leaves room for improvement.
The official Darwin Cup field and weights are out, barriers to follow shortly, and Spartan Eagle gets in on the 54kg minimum.
Their last start conqueror Saturday Sorcerer meanwhile goes up from 54kg to 55kg with their Metric Mile penalty.
Richard is looking to finally score a Darwin Cup win and atone for his loss two decades ago when Tranter ran second to the winner Lothaway County back in the 1994 edition.
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