Racing editor Aidan Rodley assesses the form for Sunday's twilight meeting at Ellerslie.
Kicking off one of New Zealand's best meetings is a strong 2100m special conditions maiden, a race with surprising depth. Leading the charge is last-start Dunstan Feeds Championship Final winner GRANDE BELLEZZA, who ran second in this race last year as a maiden and was still a maiden right up to the end of November, when she defeated VALDEDICTION (second) and JUGGERNAUT ROCK (third) at Matamata. However, she has since run two smart second placings in good fields before her breakthrough win at Ellerslie on New Year's Day. The Graeme and Debbie Rogerson stable has two key chances. SOLAR ECLIPSE stuck on well for third in the Gr II Championship Stakes last start and though that was a race run to favour those on pace, it was still a creditable effort in stakes company. DUELISTA was a matter-of-fact winner at Ellerslie in a similar conditions race on New Year's Day, closing off nicely from worse than midfield to beat Valediction (third) and BEAUTY PERCEPTION (fifth). Duelista won her maiden at Awapuni last month, then failed in the Gr II Eight Carat Classic before her win. She has since run fourth in another 2100m special conditions maiden, at Awapuni, chasing home SKYTOWER (winner) and BELLAZEEL (fourth). Skytower chases a hat-trick of wins here after dashing home for an impressive victory at Awapuni, while Bellazeel fought well for second. Bellazeel had claimed her maiden win at Tauranga two back and draws to advantage here, while Skytower, Duelista and Solar Eclipse all need to overcome wide barriers. Valediction fought on well for his last-start placing here after hitting the front too soon in the straight, while Beauty Perception found traffic problems in the straight and lost ground before running on well late once clear. ANDRASSY burst into contention with an easy win at Te Rapa on Wednesday, having run an encouraging second resuming the start before, splitting EVEN BETTER (winner), Juggernaut Rock (fourth) and I'VE GOT FAITH (11th). It was an improved effort from Even Better but again he faces a tough draw for this, though the form has stacked up well with Andrassy, Juggernaut Rock, I've Got Faith and one other all winning since. Juggernaut Rock won an easier Tauranga race last start, while I've Got Faith scored at Avondale last week, beating SMUCKERS (fifth). BALLY DUFF finally got a maiden win last start as a six-year-old, having run second in stakes company at his second start then being sold to Hong Kong, while KAAP'S PRINCESS has ability and should get the solid pace she needs to be competitive here.
The chances in the 1400m special conditions maiden look fewer but there's again plenty of depth to the race. SACRED POINT has won well in two soft Tauranga races but it's still form that should see her competitive here. She draws to advantage and has as good a formline as any in the race so rates as the one to beat. ANTONINE impressed in winning at Ellerslie on Boxing Day in a useful maiden race, beating RIGHTEO (second) and FLAMBOYANT (sixth). Righteo had to work hard from a wide gate but fought gamely for that placing and has since run out a runaway 6-1/2 length winner at Ruakaka after leading. He looks a contender here. Flamboyant has since finished a creditable second at Ellerslie and has claims too. WALSBURGS FLIGHT scored in Rating 65 grade at Matamata last start, while EWENIGHT followed a Te Rapa maiden win with a last-start Ellerslie Rating 65 second, beating home NOTHING TRIVIAL (sixth), after overcoming a wide draw and getting back in running. Nothing Trivial had looked well above average with a debut win and fast-finishing Hastings second leading in. SOPHIE'S GEM has been racing well in handy Rating 65 fields and has claims, while VOLKSBELLE was a determined winner on debut and WATT ALIGN and EDITION, who beat FLAMING AMY (ninth), were last-start maiden winners in easier fields.
Derby preparations ramp up with the running of the NZB Insurance 3yo Mile in a year when contenders for the March Classic are rather thin on the ground. CHOICE BRO looks well capable here, even accounting for the step up from 1200m to 1600m. He was fourth in the Karaka Million this night last year and went on to win the Gr I Manawatu Sires' Produce Stakes. He resumed as a three-year-old with a smart Rating 85 sprint win last start against hardened older sprinters well-verse in racing in the grade one below open class. He draws well and won second-up at Ellerslie last preparation. SPINNING DANCER is a progressive youngster. He was outclassed in the Gr I Zabeel Classic last start but wasn't too far away and will relish the drop in grade. Prior, he ran a game second when only caught on the line by the star filly Habibi, when beating home SWIPER THE FOX (fifth). A winner at Tauranga at his next start, Swiper Of The Fox chased home Habibi again when third in the Gr II Great Northern Guineas at Ellerslie on Boxing Day, beating home KIDWELLY (fifth), before he was unsuited by a frontrunners' bias to the Gr II Championship Stakes on New Year's Day. With a genuine tempo, he can be a factor here. KIdwelly made good improvement backing up in the Gr II Royal Stakes to finish second to Fix, beating home RAY'S GIRL (fourth) and TWILIGHT GRANITA (eighth). She has claims again. Ray's Girl continues to race well. She was second in the Listed Soliloquy Stakes here in the spring, beating Twilight Granita (seventh), won a Listed race at Riccarton before finishing eighth in the Gr I 1000 Guineas and fourth in the Gr III Eulogy Stakes at Awapuni, beating home LA VITESSE (sixth). Twilight Granita was fourth in the Gr II Eight Carat Classic at Ellerslie on Boxing Day and is an honest filly drawn barrier one with Opie Bosson booked at the lightweight but she may need to improve to be a factor here. La Vitesse looks a promising filly but she was well beaten in Rating 65 company last start and this looks too rich, even with the favourable draw. SINGLE ACT has won two of his three starts this preparation and looks progressive, though this is an undoubted step up, while CORPORAL LINCOLN scored in a far easier maiden race here last start, beating DUBAI SHUFFLE (fifth), and KING ZEUS has shown enough ability, so both have bolters' claims.
LITTLE WONDER has gone from strength to strength in his three races this preparation. He was second resuming at Avondale and has followed that up with two strong wins at Ellerslie, scoring a decisive three-length maiden win over PACIFIC CHOICE (second) and LA VALETA (third) last month before a narrower but even more meritorious win in a similar race on New Year's Day. He drops from 1400m to 1200m for this but looks well-placed to extend his winning streak from barrier one. Pacific Choice has been consistent this preparation, following a luckless fourth here four back with placings in each of his last three, chasing home LA VALETA (winner) before another solid second a fortnight ago. La Valeta has been freshened since that win, when she did a little wrong. An outside draw does little to aid her chances, though her form is hard to fault. SHE'S SAMASHING was soundly beaten in the Gr II Eight Carat Classic at Ellerslie on Boxing Day, though she had been in good form prior beating subsequent winner Urban Angel at Ellerslie last month, having placed behind Wannabe and Moneytree the start before at Te Rapa. REBOUND won well on debut, having impressed at the trials prior, and has claims here along with fellow debut winner VOLKSBELLE and last-start Thames winner TOLARNO, who beat HOT IN PINK (second), who has run well for third at Te Rapa the start before. SEDGWICK and LITTLE ROCKET have both had the benefit of Rating 65 runs and are worth considering.
The Karaka Million has fast become one of the most fascinating races of the season. It's the richest race in New Zealand and consequently one of the most sought-after prizes on the turf calendar. There has already been much drama with the controversy over the rider of favourite RUUD AWAKENING, with last year's winning jockey Craig Williams replacing Jason Waddell, who has been aboard the Stephen Marsh-trained filly in all four of her starts to date, for three wins and a second. She wasn't dazzling in winning here a fortnight ago but she did enough and she drops 4.5kg for this win and meets impressive runner-up TOUCHE 4kg better off. In behind that pair GATEWAY fought well for third with DANCER'S TALE fourth and KEEPHERHOT benefiting from a first Ellerslie outing in fifth. Earlier in the season, Ruud Awakening won the Listed Wellesley Stakes at Trentham, beating PRECIOUS SOPHIA (second), Dancer's Tale (third), Touche (fourth) and CHARLESTOWN (sixth), and ran second to the smart filly Bounding in the Listed Murdoch Newell Stakes, beating EASTERN DRAGON (fourth). Ruud Awakening draws well enough in barrier seven and rates the horse to beat, though this is a race in which favourites haven't always done so well and there will be plenty with her in their sights. Touche took several lengths off Ruud Awakening last time and will only have progressed with that first outing at Ellerslie, though whether he can turn the tables on Ruud Awakening with such a weight disadvantage is yet to be seen. Gateway has been solid so far and has to rate as a contender, after she followed an easy debut win at Pukekohe with a gallant second to CATALONIA in the Listed Wentwood Grange Stakes at Te Rapa, beating home Eastern Dragon, leading up to her Ellerslie run. Dancer's Tale went on from her Wellesley placing to win the Listed Welcome Stakes at Riccarton, beating Charlestown (fifth) and Precious Sophia (sixth), though she still needs to improve on her last-start Ellerslie effort to figure here meeting Ruud Awakening 2kg worse at the weights. Keepherhot defeated Touche (second) and GREY HERO (third) at Awapuni two back and draws to advantage, so has upset claims. Precious Sophia has been freshened since the Welcome Stakes but did win a trial at Te Awamutu nicely last week and she draws well in barrier two. She may need luck from back in the field but she looms as the real smokie in the race. Charlestown has since run second in the Gr II Wakefield Challenge Stakes at Trentham with a fighting effort, though that hasn't been a great form leadup race to past Karaka Millions and even accounting for his easy Woodville win two back in weaker company, he needs marked improvement to figure here. GOBI RANGER represents another key form runner. He impressed winning twice at the trials and won nicely at Ellerslie last month before stepping up in grade and repeating the dose in the Gr III Eclipse Stakes here on New Year's Day, when he beat FANTASTIC HONOUR (second), Eastern Dragon (third), Catalonia (fourth), Grey Hero (fifth) and A BEAUTIFUL KNIGHT (sixth). Gobi Ranger was solid after leading throughout and gets the services of James McDonald here, though he has barrier 14 to overcome. Fantastic Honour did things wrong in her first Ellerslie outing and she will be better for that experience as she rattled home for second in a compelling Karaka Million trial. She draws the inside gate here, which may not be the best place for her, but her chances cannot be underestimated. She had won well at Otaki at her first two outings, both times beating Keepherhot into third, and she looks progressive. Easter Dragon's effort was his best to date, though he needs to improve further because so far he hasn't looked superior at any stage to his rivals. Catalonia is a different story. He was the star early triallist and his reputation only suffered a minor dent when Bounding lowered his colours here on debut in October. He bounced back with his Wentwood Grange Stakes win before a disappointing fourth at Ellerslie in the Eclipse. He is far better than that and if he can return to his best form, he looks a definite winning chance for crack rider Opie Bosson. Grey Hero needs massive improvement to figure here, though he should get an economical run from barrier three, while A Beautiful Knight looks held from barrier 13 despite showing ability in his early runs. AL STRADA has a tough draw to overcome but he showed gears in winning hands and heels on debut at Paeroa earlier this month by 5 1/2 lengths. This is a big step up in class but that was no ordinary performance and he has legitimate claims.
COSTUME looks a leading chance with the scratching of Casino in the last. She has been freshened since her fifth placing in the Gr II Eight Carat Classic on Boxing Day but looks promising and has the services of Opie Bosson, who has ridden OTTO THE GREAT to two wins from his past three starts but opted to desert the ship. Otto The Great draws well and has claims despite the big weight. ATACAMA has claims after her last-start fourth at Te Rapa last month, when beating home SING HANG STAR (sixth). GARDEZ LA FOI found the line well for third at Tauranga last start and had raced well prior so has upset claims, along with the widely-drawn SKY HI BABY, a winner of two of her last three starts, impressive last-start winner REMINISCING and the in-form PHOENIX TYCOON. Consider GOOD WILL along with last-start winners EMMA'S CHOICE and DUKE ELLINGTON.
r1: Grande Bellezza, Solar Eclipse, Duelista, Bellazeel.
r2: Sacred Point, Antonine, Righteo, Nothing Trivial.
r3: Choice Bro, Spinning Dancer, Swiper The Fox, Ray's Girl.
r4: Little Wonder, She's Samashing, Rebound, La Valeta.
r5: Ruud Awakening, Fantastic Honour, Gobi Ranger, Catalonia.
r6: Costume, Reminiscing, Otto The Great, Gardez La Foi.
bb: Little Wonder, r4
ls: Catalonia, r5