Mitch Stapleford excited for Country Championships opportunity

Scone-based apprentice Mitch Stapleford will ride Russley Crown in Sunday’s $150,000 Country Championships qualifier at Tamworth. Image: Bradley Photos.

Mitch Stapleford will embark on the biggest ride of his young career when making his Country Championships debut at Tamworth on Sunday.

Riding for his boss, Scott Singleton, the 21-year-old will be aboard one of the leading contenders in the $150,000 Hunter-North West qualifier, Russley Crown ($11).   

Stapleford, who’s been riding well, picked up his first provincial win at Newcastle last month before a winning double at Quirindi.

The youngster is excited by the prospect of going up against some of the best jockeys in country NSW. 

“I didn’t expect to get the ride; I’ve still got a two-kilogram claim, and I am very inexperienced, having only been riding for seven months,” Stapleford told NSW Country and Picnic Racing

“There is a lot on the line in terms of prize money and a lot of prestige, so everyone wants to be in the race and win it.

“It’s a great opportunity, and I’m really thankful for the chance.”

Only 21 victories into his career, which kicked off with a maiden win at Muswellbrook in August, Stapleford admitted it was a surprise when he found out the news.

“I found out a month ago, just before the horse trialled,” Stapleford said. 

“I was going through a steady period where I couldn’t ride a winner, and I wasn’t riding that well, and I guess Scott tried to find a way of boosting me up, and he told me it was my ride one morning.

“He was riding the horse at the time and told me I would be riding him in the qualifier. “At first, I thought he was kidding around, but he said it was mine if I wanted it, so I trialled on him twice, and Scott said I suit the horse.”

While it is a big race, with the young jockey set to be thrust into the spotlight, he feels confident and supported. 

“The good thing about it is that Scott isn’t putting any pressure on me,” Stapleford said. 

“I do feel pressure, only because I want to do well, but Scott has been terrific all the way through. 

“I don’t think many bosses would put their apprentice on in such an important race, so he is showing a lot of faith in me by giving me the ride, and I just want to do my best for him.

“He’s been a great boss, and he tries to instil a lot of confidence in me, and for him to book this ride and be happy for me to take the ride with a good horse in a big race speaks volumes of him as a mentor and boss.”

When asked about Sunday’s qualifier and their awkward draw (16), Stapleford is confident Russley Crown can find the front and run the field along over the 1400m journey.

“He likes to lead, but he’s not always that quick away, so the way I see it, it’s better to draw wide than one, two or three,” Stapleford said. 

“He gets into stride relatively fast, and being out wide means he’ll have a chance to work to the front. 

“Don’t get me wrong; it would have been better to be in a couple more, but from watching his replays and knowing the horse, he’ll be in front, or at worst, in the top two.

“From that barrier, I’ll label him urgent and be positive from the outset, and hopefully, we can set the race up in the first 150m. 

“If he can control the race and get going when we decide to, I think he got a good chance.”

Describing Russley Crown as a ‘’determined horse’, Stapleford believes it will take a couple of really good horses to stop them from qualifying for the $1 million final at Royal Randwick on April 6. 

The Scone galloper is a four-time winner, which won the 2023 Jungle Juice Cup.

He also finished second to Talbragar in the 2023 Northern Wildcard Country Championships qualifier and second to Rhythm Is A Dancer in the 2023 Country Cup.

The five-year-old will be first-up from a spell but has trialled twice, finishing second to Remember Jack over 1000m at Scone on February 14 and second to Detonator Jack over 1200m at Newcastle on February 28.

“Even when he won the Jungle Juice Cup, he was ridden hard and looked gone, but he ended up winning; he’s got a great desire to win,” Stapleford said.

“It is almost like he thrives on tough runs, and the harder he has it, the harder he tries, and the pressure of the qualifier will suit him.”

For more on the 2024 Country Championships, click here.