Superstar Tornado Tears may have been the headline act but it was the unheralded Neo Cleo that set the time standard in the heats of the group 2 McKenna Memorial at Sandown Park tonight.
Following from a brilliant 29.50 win over 515m the previous Thursday, Neo Cleo was equally dominant when stepping up to 595m, leading all of the way to score in 33.94. Not only was the win the fastest of the night, it also took more than two lengths off her previous best time for the trip much to the delight of trainer Robert Neocleous (pictured, above).
“I’ve bred a lot of litter over the years but she is very special,” he said.
“She’s got that much talent, but she does her best when she’s out on the lure. From the 595m boxes you have to come out otherwise they can block you in. Fortunately she’s jumping well at the moment.”
Series favourite Tornado Tears will line up in his sixth group final at just his 22nd career start after winning the night’s opening heat in 34.12. While the time was five lengths outside of his personal best over the distance, handler Peter Riley was content with his run following his record breaking campaign in Brisbane a fortnight earlier.
“We didn’t ask a lot him last week. Three weeks in a row over 700m in Brisbane was a big ask and he’s not a good traveller on the plane, he didn’t enjoy the trip,” Riley explained.
“But he’s been jumping out of his skin during the week. We gave him a couple of walks up the bush and some light work, so with a clean run next week anything is possible. Two heat winners went quicker than him though so it’s not an open and shut case but he’ll be trying his best.”
Interestingly it was the kennel’s second finalist, Big Bang Tears, that Riley was particularly excited about. Second up after a four month layoff, Big Bang Tears showed good early dash before being caught on the line by Out Of Range.
“I have a big opinion of the dog, he is a serious racing animal.”
“He won seven in a row in NSW and lost the plot a bit so he came down to us. Unfortunately he cracked a hock so it was case of getting back and getting him fit again. He broke 30 seconds at Geelong last week (over 520m) and he’s going to improve enormously out of that run I feel. He’s got a bit of early pace so the box draw shouldn’t worry him too much.
Out Of Range will also line up in his sixth group race final after earning his place in the $55,000 final by winning his heat in slick 33.97. The son of Fernando Bale – one of four Fernando Bale progeny to reach the final – is a dual group 1 winner over 515m but has stepped up to the stayer’s trip in recent times. However with Tornado Tears’ impregnable form over the staying journey, connections have opted drop him back in distance.
“I don’t think there’s much use in putting him over 700m while Tornado Tears is going around, he can’t beat him so we’ll stick to 600m,” said handler Jason Thompson following Out Of Range’s win, one of three winners for the kennel on the night.
“Tonight he had the perfect draw if he begun, which he did. The four (Big Bang Tears) went past him but he stayed off the fence and gave him every chance. He’s a good dog when he gets that sort of run.”
Van Ann caused somewhat of an upset by running down Australian Cup winner Hecton Bale in her heat. Beginning quickly from box 1, Van Ann led clearly before being squeezed leaving the straight the first time and dropping back to third place. However she rallied down the back straight, sweeping around Hecton Bale to win in 34.42.
“I was really happy with the run,” trainer Joe Borg said.
“She might need a bit of luck aainst them in the final, but she always tries hard and she has a good box in the final.”
The group 2 McKenna Memorial is one of Sandown Park’s longest running features and boasts an honour roll featuring some of the greats of the sport. The race acknowledges the contribution of the club’s first secretary and Victorian Hall of Fame member Jack McKenna and was first run 1971. The race was originally conducted 785 yards and remained over the club’s staying distance until switching to 595m in 2010. Since then, the McKenna Memorial has been won by some of the sport’s finest middle distance chasers including Flash Of Light, Irma Bale and Xylia Allen.
The 2018 edition of the race looks set to continue that tradition, featuring three group 1 winners and combining for more than $1.2m in prize money.
The $40,000 to the winner final will be run on Thursday 12 July.
Click on the links below for replays of each heat
Heat 1: Tornado Tears (4) defeated Azkaban (1) – 34.12
Heat 2: Out Of Range (1) defeated Big Bang Tears (4) – 33.97
Heat 3: Van Ann (1) defeated Hecton Bale (8) – 34.42
Heat 4: Neo Cleo (2) defeated Rockstar Patriot (5) – 33.94
Click here for full results