Heavyweights to collide in Moruya qualifier

We arrive at the halfway mark of the 2024 Country Championships at Moruya on Sunday, and the $150,000 South East qualifier is set to be the strongest heat thus far. 

On a massive day for the South East, the best of the best will do battle for a place in the $1 million final at Royal Randwick on April 6. 

NSW Country and Picnic Racing Editor Jeff Hanson has run his eye over the eight-race showcase program and South East qualifier, listing his major players and key contenders. 

South East Qualifier 

Date: March 3

Location: Moruya

Major player: There’s no denying that the Danny Williams-trained Bandi’s Boy (Jay Ford, $2.80) is the horse to beat on Sunday.

The four-year-old is a three-time winner from eight starts, boasting multiple city wins under his belt. 

Late last year, he won a 1200m Class Three Highway Handicap at Royal Randwick before running third to I’ve Bean Tryin’ in the $250,000 Barn Dance (1300m) when beaten a length at Royal Randwick.

He resumed from a 10-week let-up, again at Royal Randwick, in late January and was a good winner in a 1200m Benchmark 78 Handicap at Royal Randwick.

Late last month, he took on an 1100m Benchmark 78 Handicap, finishing an eye-catching third to Shadows of Love. 

He’s won nearly $300,000 in prizemoney, and from his first start, which was in the Group 3 Kindergarten for the two-year-olds, where he finished fifth to Semillion, he’s raced in town and around good horses.

The Goulburn galloper has raced well up to 1300m but hasn’t won past 1200m, so that is a big question mark, but if he runs seven furlongs, he’s the class galloper and the one to beat. 

Key contenders: The Barbara Joseph, Paul and Matt Jones-trained Zouatica ($4.80) was my top pick for the series, and along with Rainbow Connection, was one of two bets I placed on the Country Championships before any heat was run and won. 

The four-year-old has been in flying form this preparation. 

First-up from a 23-week spell, the Zoustar gelding won the 1400m Class Three Highway Handicap at Kembla Grange on a heavy eight. 

Two starts later and following a solid sixth in a 1400m Benchmark 72 Handicap at Royal Randwick, he was freshened before leading throughout in last month’s $75,000 Moruya Cup.

On that day, he was allowed to go through his gears and roll to the front for Quayde Krogh, and connections will be expecting a similar run on Sunday. 

Boasting five wins from nine starts, Zouatica has won on a good and soft track, but his best form is on anything heavy. 

Still, he’s racing well; he handles the track, loves the distance, and will be prepared to the minute for this event, with the stable earmarking this race for Zouatica a long time ago. 

There’s been a lot of money ($9.50 to $5.50) for Atmospheric Rock (Jason Collett), the stablemate of Bandi’s Boy. 

A winner in the 1200m Class Three Highway Handicap at Royal Randwick last month, he backed that effort up with a fifth-place finish in the 1400m Class Three Highway Handicap at Rosehill Gardens on February 24. 

The Your Song gelding draws better than his more-fancied rivals, but he does get back and will need some luck in the running. 

Still, if he finds daylight in the final two furlongs, watch out for a blistering finish.

If there is any bias towards leaders on the day, the Danielle Seib Sir Ming (Danny Beasley, $23) could be the value play. 

The Goulburn galloper draws well with gate two and will be leading or thereabouts.

Two starts back, the four-year-old won the 1300m Class Four preview at Goulburn in late January before stepping up to Benchmark 66 grade at Goulburn last month.

In that race, he was beaten by Own Them in a head-bobbing finish over 1300m.

Keith Dryden brings three chances to the races, and he could be in the finish with Missile Leader (Billy Owen, $8.50). 

A four-time winner from nine starts, the four-year-old won a 1400m Class Two Handicap at Wagga three starts back, and last time out triumphed in a 1600m Benchmark 65 Handicap at Canberra. 

Splitting those runs was a very good third in town, where he finished just over a length off Lensman in the 1500m Class Three Highway Handicap. 

A runner at odds i like is Bon Frankie (Richard Bensley, $21).

Trained by Aaron Clarke, the five-year-old is consistent and two starts back landed a well-deserved Class Three Highway Handicap win over 1400m at Rosehill Gardens in late January.

Last time out, he was flashing late when finishing third to Rouge Lune in a 1300m TAB Federal, and the Braidwood galloper will be primed for this race.

Tips: 1-8-7-2

Why get to Moruya? Moruya Jockey Club kick off a big couple of days with a Country Championships Calcutta on Saturday night at the Adelaide Hotel. 

On the day, ambassadors Tommy Berry and Jarrod Croker will be on course for the eight-race program, while there are fashions on the field, pop-up bars, a great assortment of food, and terrific South East racing hospitality. 

For more on the meeting, click here

For more on the 2024 Country Championships, click here.