Te Akau Racing's hand in this year's $1 million Karaka Million 2YO (1200m) will become clearer this weekend.
Matamata trainer Jamie Richards is assured of four runners in the 1200m Ellerslie two-year-old showpiece on January 26 as he chases a third straight Karaka Million after he and then co-trainer Stephen Autridge produced Melody Belle and Avantage to win the past two.
Gr.2 Wakefield Challenge Stakes (1100m) winner and last-start Gr.3 Eclipse Stakes (1200m) runner-up Aotea Lad goes straight into the Karaka Million, but Richards will saddle four other contenders this weekend for the race restricted to graduates of New Zealand Bloodstock yearling sales.
Runaway Te Rapa debut winner Yourdeel, impresssive last-start winner Probabeel and stakes-placed Challa all contest Sunday's NZB Insurance Pearl Series Race (1200m) at Ellerslie a fortnight before a return visit to the same track, while Louis Luck makes a late bid for Karaka Million inclusion when he starts in the Wellington Cup Day Next Saturday Premier (1200m) on debut at Trentham on Saturday.
"Louis Luck needs to win to qualify and it looks like he's bumping into a nice one in John Bary's horse (The Fugutive) but he's shown us a lot at home. He'll run well," Richards said.
A win at Trentham would earn Louis Luck $18,750, enough to elevate him to equal ninth on the order of entry, though Jager Bombed, Platinum Touch, Rosarito, Vistock, Sanibel and La Joya all fit in the same category in the same race.
It's a less-pressure situation for Richards at Ellerslie with all three of his starters assured of a Karaka Million run but no less comfortable as he seeks satisfactory final lead-up runs from the trio.
"They are all getting ready for the Karaka Million. They have all been fortunate enough to earn money earlier in the season then had a bit of a break," Richards said.
"They have fresh legs on the scene and this race will tighten them up nicely for two weeks' time. We've used this race as the lead-up for the winners of the last two Karaka Millions, though Melody Belle drew the outside and ran near last before coming back to win and then Avantage won this race last year before her win."
Matthew Cameron rides Dundeel gelding Yourdeel, a 5 1/4-length Te Rapa winner over 1200m last month, while stable jockey Opie Bosson rides Probabeel, a 4 1/2-length Ellerslie 1100m winner last month, and Michael Coleman rides Challa, who finished second to race rival Miss Federer in the Listed Welcome Stakes (1000m) at Riccarton in November.
"Yourdeel is improving all the time. He won well at Te Rapa and he's gone from strength to strength," Richards said.
"Probabeel is a laid-back filly and it's not always easy to get a good line on her, but she's in good order. I've held back from putting the blinkers on her this weekend - I've saved them for Karaka Million. And Challa has got stakes form from the South Island. He's got good speed and he's really improved since we gelded him. He'll run well too."
Richards said no decisions had been made on rider engagements and wouldn't be till after this weekend as he shoots for a "dream" Karaka Million hat-trick.
"To win three times, we'd have to pinch ourselves. We're really proud of what we've done in this race the last couple of years but it is what we set out to achieve when we buy these yearlings at the sales 12 months earlier." - NZ Racing Desk