Reece Jones knows what it takes to win a Country Championships Hunter Northwest qualifier, having guided the Rod Northam-trained Spiranac to victory in 2021, winning the $150,000 race before finishing seventh in the $500,000 final at Royal Randwick.
On Sunday, the apprentice jockey will again team up with Northam, this time jumping aboard Steplee, which has gained a start as third emergency in the Hunter North West qualifier at Tamworth.
“He got a run yesterday, which is really good and there is a bit of confidence,” Jones said.
The four-year-old is a winner of two races from six starts, but last time out, the lightly raced Sidestep gelding finished down the track to the Stirling Osland-trained Golden Point in the 1400m Class Three TAB Highway Handicap.
Despite the last-start result, Jones believes the Scone galloper is good enough to win the race if he puts everything together on the day.
“He was disappointing in the Highway last start, but we have freshened him right up and hopefully he can perform and qualify,” Jones said.
“He is a nice horse with an athletic build, but mentally, he still does a few things wrong.
“He has got a lot of upside, and he is developing into a really nice horse and the way he is finishing off races – he is running super sectionals and is a very capable.”
In his two wins to date at Scone and Muswellbrook, Steplee flashed late to win on both occasions, and Jones believes a fast and furious Hunter North West qualifier could play into his hands.
“In these qualifiers, there is normally a good genuine tempo, and it will suit him as he will get back and rocket home,” Jones said.
“Given some luck, he is every chance.”
Jones admitted it would be tough though, with the Tamworth qualifier shaping as the hardest to win out of the rich country-only series in 2022.
“It always is one of the toughest qualifiers,” Jones said.
“We have the likes of Cody (Morgan), and those good Scone trainers, who all have quality horses, so it is always tough.”
Jones has already qualified one runner into the 2022 Country Championships final, guiding the Gayna Williams-trained Tags to a good second at Mudgee last Sunday in the Central Districts qualifier behind stablemate Zoo Station, and he will be hoping for a similar result on Steplee at Tamworth.
It does read as a terrific Hunter North West qualifier field, and the Lyle Chandler-trained Banju, which will be ridden by Jean Van Overmeire, has been well-supported into $3.60 favourite.
The Scone galloper is coming off back-to-back Highway Handicap wins and draws gate 12.
Another Scone trainer in the form of Cam Crockett has two major players with Mr Hussill (Mitchell Bell) and Commando Hunt (Brooke Stower) going around, with Mr Hussill resuming after finishing sixth to Art Cadeau in The Kosciuszko late last year.
Local trainer Cody Morgan also has three, and potentially four major players, with Wren’s Day (Dylan Gibbons), Anethole (Tom Sherry) and Ezekeil (Will Pike) all in the market, while Macleay is the fourth emergency and is relying on one more scratching to gain a start.