What A Winter will be looking to redeem a disappointing Champions Season campaign when he contests the Mercury Sprint (Gr 1) over 1200m at Clairwood on Saturday. Mike Bass’s charge is a star sprinter at his best and would have been a warm order to win this race last year, as both course and distance look tailor-made for him. However, the son of Western Winter was injured and ended up missing the race, with a surgery-enforced layoff of some six months ensuing. Upon his return, What A Winter looked very much his old self, cruising home in a Pinnacle Stakes and then the Gr 2 Diadem Stakes before going down narrowly to supermare Val De Ra over her preferred 1000m in a magnificent renewal of the Gr 1 Cape Flying Championship. That was a great run in defeat and he also emerged with credit when staying on for third in the Gr 1 Computaform Sprint over the minimum trip, this time behind Shea Shea. On both occasions, he would have found the trip on the sharp side.
Things have gone a bit pear-shaped since the start of the winter season, though, with What A Winter – for the second year in succession – running well below his best in the Gr 1 Golden Horse Casino Sprint over his preferred trip, with several of his rivals here finishing well ahead of him. However, it is evident that Scottsville just doesn’t do it for him and he was also lumbered with top weight that day, conceding large chunks of weight to the horses that beat him. With this race being run at weight-for-age terms, he is now significantly better off with all of them, and the straight course at Clairwood will suit him down to the ground.
His last effort saw him trailing in at the back of a five-horse field in the Gr 1 Gold Challenge over 1600m but he had four high-quality milers in front of him that day. He wasn’t beaten that far in a race where they simply saw out the trip better than he did, in rather testing conditions. One wouldn’t want to be making excuses for him again after this race but he oozes class when at his peak and he is worth a chance to redeem himself here.
The Golden Horse Sprint is inevitably the race that many will look to for a pointer and the first five home in that event all take their places here. Delago Deluxe ran on very well under pressure to see off the challenges of Snowdon, Shades Of Indigo, Copper Parade and Rushing Wind, a welcome return to the form that had seen him crowned as champion juvenile last season. He meets them on slightly worse terms here but he is a very smart sprinter with possible scope for further improvement. He could yet confirm the form with the lot of them and looks sure to go close here.
His main challenge may be to see off What A Winter on 5.5kg worse terms at a track which the latter will be much better suited to – a notable weight turnaround given the ability of What A Winter when in top form.
Snowdon is very consistent and, having looked more of a 1400m horse at one stage, has been running really well over sprint trips of late. He challenged strongly in the Golden Horse and should once again give Delago Deluxe plenty to think about.
Shades Of Indigo is a more than capable sprinter as he showed when scoring a shock win in the Merchants at Kenilworth earlier this season. His form since then has shown that that was no fluke as he has run some good races in defeat. However, he seems a horse who can carry weight well in ordinary handicaps (he ran a great race when second under 62kg to the promising Divine Jet) or run well at graded level when handily weighted, as he did in the Merchants and Golden Horse – but who gets found out when asked to carry weight in the bigger contests. He is set to struggle here under these conditions,
Copper Parade, on the other hand, went close in this race last year and has been coming back to form with two good placed efforts in the Golden Horse and the Post Merchants, the latter a cracking effort under a big weight. He is not the most reliable of performers, so it remains to be seen if he will carry his form into this race, but he is a big runner here at his best.
Rushing Wind got back into the winner’s box for the first time in ages when winning a Pinnacle event over 1500m at this track last time out. It will be interesting to see if the experience of getting his nose in front brings about a change in his bridesmaid status as he has run consistently well against the best sprinters around over the last few seasons, but always arriving on the scene too late to actually win. He is one of the more proven runners in the race and must have every chance of featuring in the finish.
Antious is the mystery horse of the race. He packs a serious turn of foot and showed his ability with superb graded victories over 1160m at Turffontein in the form of the Merchants and the Senor Santa Handicap. He was found to be coughing after a dismal penultimate effort and it was no surprise to see him unplaced in the Golden Horse after an interrupted preparation. There are too many question marks hanging over him at the moment to select him with any confidence, but he could mow them all down if returning to his best.
Stablemate Chocolicious is a smart filly and a Gr 1 winner against her own sex. She ran well when staying on for fourth in the SA Fillies Sprint after setting the early pace bit and has won on either side of that effort, but she faces a much tougher task here against male opposition and looks held in this line-up.
Mike's Choice is an honest sort and wasn't winning out of turn when scoring a well-judged victory in the Post Merchants (thus ensuring that the Merchants winners from the three major provinces are all represented here). However, he was relatively handily-weighted that night and will need to raise his game even further if he to tackle the big guns here on level terms. He looks to have a minor place chance at best.
Winking Jack has campaigned with honour in the latter stages of his career and is still going well at the age of seven, having lowered the colours of legend J J The Jet Plane two runs back at Pinnacle level. J J was clearly a shadow of his fomer self by then, but to give Winking Jack his due, he ran really well in the Computaform Sprint and Golden Horse last season. He doesn't look quite the same force at the highest level this season, though, as he never got into the fray in this year's running of the Computaform Sprint and may just find this a shade beyond him.
Magico can mix it with the best of them over 1000m but has never convinced when trying further, as he showed when finishing last in this event in 2011. He roared back to form, after a string of below-par efforts, with a very good second in the Computaform Sprint but has since failed to impose himself against much weaker. He's a more than decent sprinter on his day but has clarly had his share of problems and it would be something of a shock to see him featuring here on current form. There will be a few eyebrows raised at the fact that he is merit-rated level with What A Winter.
Midnight Serenade completes the line-up. He is speedy and honest but he appears best over a fast-run 1000m and the combination of stepping up in class and trip at this relatively testing track looks to be too much of a task for him.
It's not the most straightforward of races, given What A Winter's slight form slump this winter, but he is worth another chance to show us his true colours here and he will be hard to beat if he brings his A-game to the track. Delago Deluxe is the main danger, along with Snowdon. Quartet punters need to go a bit wide to feel secure, with Copper Parade and Rushing Wind capable on their day and Antious posing a headache, as he is capable of making the frame, but impossible to assess at the moment, given his recent setbacks.