There was a new track record, and a winning double for leading trainer Mark Gatt, yet it wasn’t until long after the heats of the Ladbrokes Muswellbrook Cup had concluded that the most interesting story unfolded.
While Gatt’s pair Ritza Debra and Leg Speed were brilliant with their heat successes, the latter shattering the track record, it was the performance of group 1 winner Embrace who caused all the post-heat chatter.
The Craig Chappelow-trained bitch, having her first start on a grass track, jumped well and accelerated to lead clearly around the first turn. She extended the lead up the back straight and was headed for a comfortable win when she seemed to baulk and slow nearing the turn out of the back.
Thankfully for her supporters she regained her composure and momentum, and went on to win easily in 32.97s, but the on track stewards were a little concerned and said they would need to speak with Chappelow and the vet needed to examined his star.
Like wildfire rumours swept the course that Embrace would be withdrawn from the final with some suggesting she had stopped chasing on the top turn.
As Chappelow would eventually say, commonsense prevailed and stewards deemed that she must have baulked at a shadow on the track at that point or perhaps the irrigation pipping situated inside the rail at that exact point.
“There was a little bit of a concern,” Chappelow explained. “Just on the point of the home turn Embrace I believe eased at a shadow on the track or some obstruction on the inside of the running rail and regained her composure and managed to finish off the race and won.
“That's when we were questioned after the race as to whether she needed to go to the vet and then also to the stewards. So we've just come out of that, and I think commonsense has prevailed. She was given the benefit of the doubt. The stewards believe that's what caused the problem, the shadow or the obstruction inside, and they were happy to let her go around in the final next week.
“So we can now breathe a sigh of relief.”
Considering she did ease, the run and time were very impressive.
“Obviously take out that little glitch up at the top turn and I thought she went terrific. First time on the grass, she found the lead early which was good, but she handled herself perfectly through the first part of the track.
“I was really impressed and probably more so the way she recovered after that little hiccup there on the turn, so I think she'll improve and we have box five again (in the final), and somewhere in the middle is probably where she's happy being.
“We’re going to need a little bit of luck. It's a very good race with Mark and Daniel's (Gatt) two getting through and a few of the locals as well. It's a good final and I’m looking forward to next Sunday.”
Daniel Gatt and his father Frank made the trek from Thirlmere to Muswellbrook but it would have been a happy trip home with two starters for two winners.
Ritza Debra used box 1 to her advantage and although she clearly didn’t handle the track in some places, she still clocked 32.79s, less than a length outside the old track record held by Nut Wing at 32.74s.
Kennelmate Leg Speed powered to the lead on the top turn in his heat and raced away to clock 32.62s, shattering the previous record set at the new Muswellbrook track on opening day in April last year.
“It was an excellent run from Ritza Debra. I know the other dog (Leg Speed) broke the track record but I actually thinks she was a better run than him just adding up what she'd done and as long as she improves on the track next week … I think she's faster than him,” said Daniel Gatt.
“Leg Speed was super. Excellent. The one dog (Danseuse) looked like it had him off the bit there at one stage, but he knuckled down. He’s a really strong dog. I just thought he handled it a lot better than Debra, and there wasn’t a lot between them (in times).
“The 571m is just perfect for both my both our dogs.”
The pair didn’t fair well in the box draw for next Sunday’s $25,000 final, the richest event ever run at Muswellbrook. Ritza Debra drew box 6 and Leg Speed box 7.
“Yeah it’s not good the box draw, but you get what you're given … but they’re not good. Debra's got a bit more speed than he was and I think she'll push under him and be in front of him going into that first turn, and Embrace is under them both and she's the one to beat in my opinion.”