IT’S that time of the Darwin Cup Carnival when you start focusing on the bet365 Palmerston Sprint and the Carlton Mid Darwin Cup.
And the picture is starting to evolve after a great day’s racing at Fannie Bay on Saturday – Day 4 of the Darwin Cup Carnival.
The $135,000 bet365 Palmerston Sprint (1200m) is up for decision on August 5.
That will be followed two days later by the $200,000 Carlton Mid Darwin Cup (2000m) on the first Monday in August.
LADBROKES NT DERBY (2000m)
South Australian raider Billet Doux rocketed into Darwin Cup calculations with an emphatic victory in the $135,000 Ladbrokes NT Derby (2000m).
It was the second leg of the Darwin Turf Club’s Triple Crown – a $100,000 bonus for any horse that can win the Hot 100 Darwin Guineas, Derby and Cup.
Victory by the Sheila Arnold-trained three-year-old gelding in the Derby denied the Stephen Brown-trained Krusty from securing the Triple Crown after winning the Guineas.
It was Arnold’s second Derby following the win by The Ruffian in 2011.
Formerly based in Alice Springs, Arnold was a prominent trainer in the Northern Territory before relocating to Kyneton in Victoria.
Billet Doux arrived in the Top End boasting respectable Melbourne and Adelaide form, and had plenty of experience over 2000m.
He too was considered a strong chance of becoming only the third horse to win the Triple Crown – Brinney (1989) and Ventilago (1996) – before suffering complications in the Guineas on July 8.
Following an impressive first up win over 1600m on his Fannie Bay debut, Billet Doux was cramped for room mid-race in the Guineas and it basically cost him victory.
Like Billet Doux, Krusty, a winner over 1300m in June on debut in Darwin, rattled home in the Guineas to pip the Richard Laming-trained So Poysed and fellow Victorian galloper on the post by a head.
The Kerry Petrick-trained Inwood from Darwin trailed Inwood across the line by a half neck.
To indicate how unlucky Billet Doux was he ended up running fourth – a short head behind Inwood in one of the best finishes ever seen at Fannie Bay.
The Arnold camp was gutted, but it was a different story on Saturday when Billet Doux ($2.70 fav) annihilated his rivals by four lengths to take out the Derby.
Perhaps he was a good thing beaten in the Guineas?
Billet Doux is French for “love letter” and there was plenty of affection on the lawns of Fannie Bay when jockey Paul Shiers guided his mount to victory.
It was a fifth Derby win for Shiers, a rider who battles to maintain his weight and who only rides from March to November.
Billet Doux was towards the rear in the eight-horse field with Krusty (Paul Denton) once everything settled down and Shiers was happy to bide his time.
Danny Penna’s Threepeat (Jarrod Todd), Gary Clarke’s pair Cha Chang (Brendon Davis) and Helstar (Richie Oakford), Inwood (Feliicia Bergstrand) and So Poysed (Jason Lyon) were running the show out in front.
Billet Doux made his winning move at the 500m and once turning home he hit the turbo button.
Cha Chang ($18) capped off a good race to finish second with stablemate Helstar ($21) hanging on for third.
“He was wonderful today and was unlucky in the Guineas when caught on the fence, but that’s racing,” Arnold said.
“A long striding horse he needed more room, but full credit to Krusty.
“The Derby was our main aim as he is proven over 2000m, but we’ll wait and see how he pulls up before we consider the Cup.
“He has been nominated for the Cup and the owners are keen to run him in the Cup, but right now I’d like to celebrate the Derby win.”
Among those owners is Terry Lillis, one of Australia’s leading corporate bookmakers, who was once based in Alice Springs.
Based on his performance yesterday, Shiers, who rode the The Ruffian in 2011, is adamant Billet Doux could be a serious Cup contender.
“He was terrific today and after switching off during transit he went on to win as if he was the best horse in the race,” he said.
“I wasn’t going to get cramped up like I did in the Guineas and once he found his rhythm at the 600m he just kicked away.
“Krusty, So Poysed and Inwood were impressive in the Guineas, but based on his (Billet Doux) Derby effort getting bottled up at a crucial stage a fortnight ago didn’t help at all.
“It was an awesome win today – along the back straight I got on the back of Helstar who was running three deep before working my way into the race.”
Chris Nash, representing the Brown stable, said: “Even if Krusty jumped well, Billet Doux still wins the race.
“Everything was fine with the horse during the week, so the fact there was no early speed may have been a factor.
“It’s disappointing, but the winner was too good.”
Nash was in charge of operations in Darwin on behalf of the stable as the Brown family were celebrating two birthdays in Melbourne this weekend.
MILLION DOLLAR FISH BUNTINE HANDICAP (1900m)
The Kerry Petrick-trained Moon Devil, an eight-year-old gelding from Port Lincoln in South Australia, rocketed into Darwin Cup calculations after taking out the $45,000 Million Dollar Fish Buntine Handicap (1900m).
The victory was nothing short of pure relief for Kerry Petrick and owner Angela Forster.
For Darwin trainer Petrick it was her first win of the 2017 Darwin Cup Carnival and for Port Lincoln-based Forster it was just the tonic after a turbulent few months.
Forster is currently serving a six month suspension imposed by Thoroughbred Racing SA for cobalt use.
Her stayer Montalto, winner of the 2016 Alice Springs Cup, returned a high cobalt reading in the Port Lincoln Cup on March 3.
Montalto ran last, but a post-race blood sample showed a cobalt level of 31 micrograms per litre – the threshold is 25.
Subsequently, the emotions were running high when Moon Devil ($8) – ninth in the Darwin Cup last year – led from start to finish in one of the major races leading up to the Cup.
After a last start third behind Folk Tales over 1600m on July 8, Moon Devil (Paul Denton) went into the Buntine as a genuine chance and has now qualified automatically for the Darwin Cup.
In an exciting finish, Moon Devil held on to edge out Jason Manning’s Saturday Sorcerer (Vanessa Arnott), who was disqualified after winning the 2014 Darwin Cup, Michael Hickmott’s Lieder (Jarrod Todd) and John Peacock’s Flying Tormenta (Wayne Davis).
Richard Laming’s Folk Tales (Jason Lyon), the $2.30 favourite, settled mid-field for most of the race and despite a spirited burst in the home straight could only manage fifth.
It was a brilliant tactical ride by Denton and as the field swung out of the straight Danny Penna’s outsider Supercoach (Brendon Davis) and Saturday Sorcerer ($13) challenged for the lead.
Denton wouldn’t have a bar of it and after slowing the pace down in the back straight he livened things up at the 400m as Lieder ($3.50) and 2015 NT Derby winner Flying Tormenta ($51) entered the equation.
In the end, Moon Devil, who was fourth behind stablemate Montalto in the 2016 Alice Springs Cup, showed a clean pair of heels.
Petrick and Forster have developed a good friendship, and Petrick agreed to train Moon Devil during his Darwin campaign.
Together they posed with winning rider Paul Denton for a photo in the mounting yard, a clear indication that the pressure valve had been released.
“I’m just happy, it’s pretty good to get the monkey off the back,” Petrick said.
“It’s a buzz to win for Angela and it’s great to win a race like the Buntine.
“Moon Devil has settled well in Darwin and all is going well, and it was a brilliant ride by Paul.”
Forster, who battled to control her emotions on the podium during the presentation, said: “I’m very excited and couldn’t be happier.
“Moon Devil was disappointing in the Cup last year, but he’s better this year and he’s a much settled horse.
“I thought he was a chance today and with Montalto back home recovering from injury it’s great to see Moon Devil win a race in Darwin.
“I’ve had to overcome a few hurdles in recent months, but thankfully life is now on the way up.”
As far as Denton was concerned Moon Devil had improved following his last start.
“It was a good win and a good Cup trial, but the Cup is a step up from today’s race,” he said.
“He did what he had to do today and he seemed to enjoy it out in front.
“I was able to control the race and the pace, and there was no early pressure.
“I think he can show further improvement in the Cup.”
Looking ahead to the Darwin Cup, the likes of Pretty Blonde, Royal Request, Abu Dhabi and Whistle Stop are rightfully the ones to beat.
At this stage, it’s hard to see Buntine Handicap form standing up come Cup Day.
And as impressive as Billet Doux was in the Derby, he will have to run two seconds quicker to have any chance – that’s if he gets a start.
COATES HIRE WEIGHT-FOR-AGE (1200m)
Leading Darwin trainer Gary Clarke, who will once again celebrate winning the Top End trainers premiership on July 31, is set to have four starters in the Palmerston Sprint.
They include Captain Punch, King’s Pardon, Boomwaa and Ticket To Toorak, who won the $34,000 Coates Weight-For-Age (1200m).
Ticket To Toorak ($1.75 fav), who has never been unplaced in Darwin, made it six wins from eight starts, but in the home straight he was made to work for his win.
Will Savage’s Super Bryan (Barry Huppatz) from Alice Springs matched it with Ticket To Toorak out in front before Neil Dyer’s Gracious Prospect (Jarrod Todd) entered the fray.
Ticket To Toorak chewed up some petrol at the start of the race and when the whips were really cracking in the closing stages of the race Gracious Prospect ($12) arrived on the scene.
Ticket To Toorak finally prevailed by three quarters of a length and for Gracious Prospect it was an excellent Palmerston Sprint trial.
Super Bryan ($8) was in a hurry at the start of the race as well and although he finished third he was six lengths behind the first two.
Dick Leech’s $13 chance Gallant Express (Stephen Ridler) and Stephen Brown’s Harbour Grey (Paul Denton), a $3.60 hope who was making his Fannie Bay debut, were never in the hunt and would be at long odds should they get a start in the Palmerston.
There were no other runners in the race.
Since arriving in the Top End from Victoria last July, Ticket To Toorak – regardless if it has been in Darwin or Alice Springs – has had 10 starts for sevens wins, a second, a third and a sixth.
That’s includes a stretch where he won five straight.
The six-year-old gelding’s only mishap occurred in the Pioneer Sprint (1200m) in late April during the Alice Springs Cup Carnival when he was sixth behind Greg Connor’s Le Commandant.
Clarke won’t acknowledge the fact and he has always maintained that Le Commandant won fair and square, but after the race it was discovered that Ticket To Toorak was suffering from a virus.
“I was a little concerned at the 200m, but he seemed to be running on the wrong leg turning for home and Brendon said he didn’t feel right,” Clarke said after Saturday’s win.
“In saying that I was pleased with the win and I’m sure he’ll be at his best come the Palmerston.
“I’m happy with the other three horses as well, and I’m fairly confident, but it’s a hard race to win.
“There are a lot of good horses and good trainers here in Darwin at the moment, and it should be a terrific race.”
Winning jockey Brendon Davis is on the verge of defending his Top End jockeys premiership, but faces a tough decision come the Palmerston Sprint.
Who will he ride?
Davis is the No.1 rider for Clarke and has first choice when it comes to his Palmerston mount.
“I just hope that I end up picking the right horse,” Davis said.
“My horse wasn’t comfortable early and Super Bryan raced quickly at the start, but in the end it was a good win and he finished well.”
Unfortunately, Handsome Tycoon will not feature in the Palmerston for the Clarke stable.
Clarke has confirmed that the six-year-old gelding had retired because of injury.
Handsome Tycoon took out the NT sprint double last year when he won the Pioneer Sprint (1200m) in Alice Springs and Palmerston Sprint (1200m) in Darwin.
In his second last start, he ran was fourth in this year’s Pioneer Sprint.
On June 24, Handsome Tycoon finished second in the Bernborough Club Cup (1000m) behind leading Top End horse of the year candidate Ticket To Toorak.
“He has had his injuries and it’s a shame, but it was the right decision to retire him to ensure that he can enjoy a happy and healthy life,” Clarke said.
Ticket Of Toorak is clearly on a roll and his winning time of 1:09.26 for 1200m proves he is cherry ripe leading into the Palmerston.
PAST THE POST
$135,000 LADBROKES NT DERBY (2000m) – Fannie Bay
1 BILLET DOUX 3g (Sheila Arnold) Paul Shiers 58kg $2.70 fav
2 Cha Chang 3g (Gary Clarke) Brendon Davis 58kg $18
3 Helstar 3g (Gary Clarke) Richie Oakford 58kg $21
5 Krusty 3g (Stephen Brown) Paul Denton 58kg $2.90
Margins: 4 Lens x 3-1/4 lens
Last 600m: 35.13