With scratchings, it’s set to be a small field of five runners contesting Thursday’s Rodney Parsons OAM Benchmark 82 Handicap at Wagga.
While all the talk concerns the return of popular Wagga galloper Rocket Tiger, who’s first-up for the Scott Spackman yard ahead of the 2024 Country Championships, Craig Widdison is flying under the radar with the ever-consistent Banger.
The Wodonga galloper, which has firmed from $10 to $7.50 for the $29,000 feature event, rediscovered some form last start, finishing an excellent second to the Mitchell Beer-trained Cream Rises in a 1400m Benchmark 74 Handicap at Wagga.
Banger flashed late when beaten three lengths by the Kembla Grange galloper, which franked that form when finishing a gallant second to Winning Point in the $80,000 Bega Cup on Sunday.
“I thought it was a much-improved run from him,” Widdison told NSW Country and Picnic Racing.
“I’m not quite sure why he wasn’t putting in earlier in his prep, but it was a much better run, and I definitely think he’s come on from it.”
Widdison said the small field would go against his galloper unless some pace were injected into the race.
“He’s going well, but it sort of depends on how the race gets run,” Widdison said.
“The small fields sometimes don’t generate enough pace, and he will have to take his medicine, go back, and switch off.”
On his day, Banger is one of the best Open Company horses in the region, with the Shrapnel gelding boasting nine wins while earning connections almost $320,000 in prizemoney.
With Hannah Williams in the saddle, he won this race last year before backing up to take out the $40,000 Corowa Cup in March.
In those victories, he carried 56kg and 58.5kg, respectively, and with Holly Durnan on board on Thursday, Banger won’t know himself with 57kg on his back following the apprentice’s two-kilogram claim.
“When he won those few during that last prep, including this race and the Corowa Cup, the same sort of thing happened, and there was a higher rated (horse) in it, and it poked him down in the weights,” Weeding said.
“We’ve got Holly on, and he gets in well at the weights, and it should really help him.”
According to Widdison, the eight-year-old has never looked better as he eyes a tenth career victory at start 62.
“He is glowing and looks a treat,” Widdison said.
“He’s a happy horse again, and I can’t fault him going into it.
“Still, I would have thought Rocket Tiger was the one to beat if he turns up in some form, and Demanding Mo has been in good form, albeit in a lower grade, but he’s not far off a win either.”
Just across the border and on his home track, Widdison also races at Wodonga tomorrow, with Monday Miss contesting the 1100m Benchmark 58 Handicap.
A winner on her home track in a similar race on January 14, the five-year-old draws awkwardly with gate 11 but gets in well at the weights (57kg) due to Alysha Warren’s two-kilogram claim.
Back at Wagga, a good Southern Districts program will also see the final Country Championships qualifier prelude ahead of the $150,000 qualifier at Albury on Sunday, February 18.
The event is a 1300m Class Four Handicap, and the Doug Gorrel-trained Asgarda (Kayla Nisbet) is the $2.25 favourite.