By David Nagel
A late-winter’s day at Sandown may be remembered as a perfect guide to some classic group races this spring after the James Cummings-trained Alcyone finished off Wednesday’s card with an impressive reminder of his potential staying ability.
The one-time 2020 Victoria Derby favourite looks set for a great spring campaign after the four-year-old gelding returned to form with a stunning come-from-behind victory in the $50,000 BenchMark 78 Handicap (1300m).
The son of Teofilo/Purple was a promising two-year-old and rounded out an impressive debut season with a strong win in the $100,000 Byerley Handicap (1800m) at Flemington in July 2020.
Alcyone was expected to be an exciting colt, with a promising future as a stayer, but failed to come up during a lacklustre spring preparation last year.
The Cummings stable obviously has a high opinion of the horse, starting Alcyone’s three-year-old prep in the Group-2 Stutt Stakes, followed by listed-race runs in the Super Impose and Geelong Classic.
But Alcyone’s lack of enthusiasm as a three-year-old colt has seen him gelded, and spelled for 43 weeks, before being presented for last Wednesday’s winning return to the track.
Alcyone, renowned for having a strong finishing burst, was given time to settle by jockey Craig Newitt, settling well back and relaxing nicely off a hot tempo.
Newitt rode for luck, sticking to the fence in the straight, and exploded clear at the 150-metre mark to bound clear for an impressive victory.
The Ben and JD Hayes-trained Excelida ($12) finished powerfully into second place, a length and a half behind the winner, while Craig Williams piloted Minyinga ($9.50) home for third.
Newitt was super-impressed, but not surprised, with Alcyone’s return to the track.
“He’s a really nice horse, obviously he’s shown good quality in the past and he looked like he jumped out really good leading into today,” Newitt told Racing.com after the race.
“There was nice speed on paper so it was always going to set up good for him and he was really strong through the line.”
Newitt said Alcyone gave every indication that his past potential as a stayer will soon come to fruition.
“Absolutely, the further he goes the better he’ll get,” he said.
“And he was a little bit fresh behind the gates today, but as all the Godolphin horses are, they’re the ultimate professionals, he jumped, he dropped his head and he was really strong late.”
Godolphin stable representative Sean Keogh said Wednesday’s win was great reward for a patient attitude with the horse.
“Yes, he was excellent today and patience has really paid off for the team,” Keogh said.
“He was an exciting horse as he was coming along, and he was prepping up for a Derby in that second preparation, but it never looked likely.
“The decision was made to finish that preparation and have him gelded, and allow him time to grow into himself.”
Keogh said the team in royal blue would just take things as they come after Alcyone’s impressive return to the track.
“Getting him back to the track, after such a long time off, and getting him into his preparation, that’s the key, just to get some runs under his belt,” Keogh explained.
“But to come out today, his first start this prep, over 1300 metres, it’s looking up and up. He’s rated nicely, we saw him come in with a light weight today, and we’re very happy with his return.”
Leading trainers Ciaron Maher and David Eustace took top honours on Wednesday, teaming up with gun-jockey John Allen for a winning double on the Hillside track.
The Maher-Eustace team started their winning run when their four-year-old mare Rapid Achiever kept her unbeaten record intact with a grinding win in the $50,000 BenchMark 64 Fillies and Mares Handicap (1600m).
The daughter of Wootton Bassett/Diavola produced a dominant first-start maiden win at Donald on August 1 over the unusual 1354-metre trip.
And while her most recent win at Sandown wasn’t as dominant, it was equally impressive with Rapid Achiever having to dig deep after Allen gave her good dig at the 300-metre mark.
The mare was headed in the straight, but did by far her best work late, holding a half-length margin on the line.
“I think the whole race sort of summed her up a little bit,” Eustace said after the race.
“She’s still quite raw and she travelled strong down the back, and if anything, you would like to see her come back a quarter-of-a-stride, and then off the bridle she was still quite green.
“She got an excellent ride from Johnny (Allen), he nursed her throughout the whole race and then when he really needed to dig in and find her reserves, he did, so I think there’s a bit more to come from her.”
Eustace said patience would be the key to getting the best out of the undefeated mare.
”Pre-race I told the owners that we didn’t have grand plans, and she’ll have a nice rating now and just tick through the grades for now,” he said.
“She’s obviously a mare, and at some stage we’d love to get black type, but I don’t think we need to get carried away.
“She can probably stay at that trip (1600m) for now, she will obviously stay further, but for now it’s about getting her racing and confident and she’ll improve again with a nice spell under her belt.”
The Maher-Eustace camp completed their winning double when Allen piloted Nikau Spur to a soft victory in race seven on the program, the $50,000 BenchMark 70 Handicap (1300m).
The five-year-old gelding settled midfield on the fence before joining the party at the 200 and racing away for a comfortable victory.
Nikau Spur has had an impressive start to his racing with Wednesday’s win his fourth from just nine career starts.
Racing returns to Sandown this Wednesday, 25 August.