The enigmatic five-year-old returned from a spell in the Hunter-North West Country Championships qualifier at Tamworth on February 26, finishing strongly to run fifth, beaten 2.08 lengths by Akasawa.
Second-up, the Scone galloper came from last to finish fourth in the Northern Wild Card qualifier at Scone on March 20, beaten just 2.39 lengths by Talbragar.
At Muswellbrook, the country horse took on a Group class field and many city-performed gallopers.
Under the guidance of apprentice Reece Jones, Commando Hunt ($23) finished hard and fast in the 1500m event, winning by 0.6 of a length from the Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott-trained Journalism (Winona Costin, $6), while in third was the Anthony Cummings-trained Caesars Palace (Jeff Penza, $15).
Crockett was the first to admit that the result surprised connections.
“The update I gave to the owners the night before was that he was absolutely spot on and that he was ready to run us a big race, but that it was a very, very hard race,” Crockett said.
“I would’ve been happy for him to finish within two lengths of the winner considering he was stepping up to a good race and he was up in distance, and I was not shocked that he ran well, but I was a bit shocked to see him win in that field.”
Commando Hunt stepped nicely from the starting gates for Jones, and the pair travelled just shy of midfield before peeling wide and finishing off strongly to win the $150,000 event.
“I didn’t want to overcomplicate things for Reece, and since we were racing over 1500m, I just told him to settle him, as we didn’t want to get too far out of position,” Crockett said.
“He is a big finisher, and we didn’t want to take that away from him, and he dropped him into a beautiful spot, and for the first time, we got to see him race so kindly.
“I think it was a combination of Reece with good hands and that steadying tempo at the 1500m, and he was able to finish better and win.”
It was a consolation win for connections, with Commando Hunt missing the 2023 Country Championships final – won on Saturday by the Brett Robb-trained Sizzle Minizzle – after finishing runner-up in 2022 behind Another One.
Crockett conceded it was disappointing to miss Saturday’s country-only final at Royal Randwick. Still, connections are thrilled to be eligible for either the $2 million Big Dance or the $500,000 Little Dance at Royal Randwick on November 7.
“We wanted to qualify him. We had him peaking for the final, and as everyone saw there on Friday, he was ready to go,” Crockett said.
“We were worried coming out of the Country Champs because his rating was getting relatively high for a Class Three horse, but I need to thank the owners, and now we have won the Muswellbrook Cup, and we can focus on the Big Dance, and it gives us a big goal to work towards.
“It’s a good win for Des Kennedy too, who is the breeder and one of the owners. Many of his horses went to dad, and he sent me Are You Sure, the first horse I ever trained, and he’s been a good supporter, and it was nice to win a good race for people who have backed me all the way.”
The five-year-old raced up to his ability at Muswellbrook, and Crockett believes it all comes back to Commando Hunt successfully recovering from necessary surgery.
“He had Kissing Spine surgery between his Kosciuszko prep and this prep, and he had three weeks off, but he has returned a lot better horse,” Crockett said.
“It took a couple of runs to get his confidence up, and he is now starting to realise it’s not hurting him, and he’s a lot more laid back, he is quiet, and he has paraded like a kitten.
“During the Kosciuszko, he was very uptight, and he knew his back would hurt, and he’s the kind of horse that will let you know if he is not right, but he’s settled back into it.”
Regarding his path to the Big Dance, Crockett is considering some local Country Cups before sending the Time For War gelding for a spell.
“If the rain sticks around, we might run him in the Tamworth Cup and Scone Cup and then turn him out, but if it looks like it will dry up, we’ll put him out straight away,” Crockett said.
“I don’t love older geldings having too long in the paddock, especially when they have a lot of injury niggles, so ideally, we can give him another run or two, test him at the mile, and then give him a short three-week break and bring him back and getting him going again ahead of the Big Dance.”
While Commando Hunt’s win in Friday’s Muswellbrook Cup headlined the eight-race showcase meeting, in the second of the features on the program, the Cody Morgan-trained Ice In Vancouver (Koby Jennings, $3.70) won the $75,000 Skellatar Sprint.
Over the 1000m trip, the Tamworth galloper proved too speedy for the Stephen Jones-trained Tucson Valley (Aaron Bullock, $3.20) in second and the Justin Bowen-trained Upside (Darryl McLellan, $19) in third.
For results, click here.