Windsor Park Plate, HB Spring Racing Carnival
It's been an up-and-down spring so far for the great galloper Mufhasa. Last week he was named Horse of the Year for the second time in his illustrious career, following his amazing exploits throughout the 2011-12 season.
But in his first start of a new spring campaign, Mufhasa almost had more things go wrong in one race than in that entire award-winning season. Now he'll return to the scene of that disappointment for another attempt at an incredible 10th career group 1 victory when he lines up in the group 1 Windsor Park Plate at Hastings today. But Mufhasa's hopes of a change of fortune in today's $200,000 feature race were dealt a blow days out from the race when he drew a wide gate at the notoriously tricky 1600m start point.
Mufhasa came to Hastings three weeks ago as a red-hot favourite to defend his title in the season-opening group 1 Makfi Challenge Stakes - understandably, given his four group 1 victories the previous season.. There was a sense that history was about to be made as Mufhasa sought his 10th group 1 victory; his eighth on New Zealand soil. But it wasn't to be in the Makfi.
The Hastings track, though it improved remarkably over the course of the day's racing, was wetter than ideal. Then longshot Khemosabi gave Mufhasa a torrid time in front, engaging him in a duel so fierce that Khemosabi himself soon dropped out to finish a clear last. Mufhasa looked a spent force on the point of the home turn. The fact that he fought every step of the way down the Hastings straight and held on to finish fourth behind superb winner Ocean Park is a credit to his fighting qualities.
For much of the time since that brave and unlucky effort, everything seemed to be falling into place for Mufhasa to bounce back to his brilliant best in the Windsor Park Plate. Consistent fine weather has all but guaranteed a Good 3 track, which is absolutely ideal; and the 1600m distance, over which Mufhasa has won five times - four at group 1 level - holds no fears.
In this same race last year, in identical conditions, only the incomparable Jimmy Choux could get past him. Plus, the running styles of the other runners in the race suggest Mufhasa will have an easier time in this race in terms of pace.
But that confidence has been dented by Wednesday's barrier draw, in which Mufhasa drew gate 10 in the 14-horse field. With a very short run from the Hastings 1600m start point into the first turn, a wide gate makes the task that bit more difficult for a horse whose style is to dominate from on or near the lead.
And, although there's perhaps no Jimmy Choux this time around, there's still a terrific line-up of group 1 performers setting out to deny Mufhasa in his attempt to lift his group 1 trophy collection into double figures.
Heading that group is rising star Xanadu, whose ferocious late finish for second was one of the standout performances in the Makfi. She's yet to have a taste of group 1 glory in her career, but many of her performances in her brief career to date suggest that will only be a matter of time. The extra 200m of the Windsor Park Plate will be ideal, and so will the drier track, so it won't surprise anyone if today proves to be Xanadu's day.
Xanadu isn't the only one brought right into contention by the drier track and extra distance. Telegraph Handicap heroine Guiseppina needs firm footing to show her incredible late finish. She finished stylishly enough in rain-affected ground in the Makfi, and should be much better suited by the track today. All of her wins so far have been over shorter distances than a mile, but the way she finishes her races over 1400m, it seems likely Guiseppina will stretch out over more ground and is a genuine threat in this race.
The same could be said for He's Remarkable, despite what on paper seems to be dreadful recent form. The gulf between He's Remarkable's performances on dry and wet tracks is absolutely vast, and the improved conditions should bring about a spectacular turnaround in his form.
He's a genuine group 1-class horse on both sides of the Tasman and shouldn't be written off here, despite the row of zeroes in his form line. Shez Sinsational provided the stiffest challenge to Mufhasa in the race for the Horse of the Year award for 2011-12. She hasn't been at her amazing best so far this season, but will be getting closer with every added metre of distance.
The 2040m of the spring classic in two weeks will be more up her alley, but expect her to be finishing strongly.
But despite the fearsome field lining up against him, and despite the significant setback in the form of the wide barrier draw, Mufhasa remains the clear favourite for today's big race. He is the best horse, and he would have been by far the likeliest winner if he'd drawn towards the inside and had the chance to hug the rail all the way around. What remains to be seen is how much of a difference this wide draw will make, and whether Mufhasa can overcome that disadvantage. It's safe to say that if he does, Mufhasa's 10th group 1 win will be hard-earned and richly deserved.