Welcome to The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week, Mercury sports writers CAMERON MEE and JOSH BARTLETT discuss the second running of The Gong.
MEE: Josh, the big week has finally arrived. Welcome to Gong Week. The race is in just its second year, but it has quickly attracted the interest of the Illawarra public and the wider racing community. With a $1 million prize purse, it's not hard to see why. Last year's event saw thousands cram into Kembla Grange to watch the race and while COVID restrictions will result in a much smaller crowd on Saturday, the action on the track won't be any less exciting.
Inaugural winner Mister Sea Wolf will return to defend his crown, one of four Chris Waller horses nominated. Kerry Parker's Think It Over will fly the flag for the locals, while one of the favourites for the 1600 metres race, Purple Sector, is part-owned by Kiama's Matthew Sandblom.
Think It Over hasn't received too much love from the punters, the gelding currently sitting at $34 on the TAB fixed odds. His form line throughout the spring has been impressive, however, the horse building towards a win in the Group 3 Craven Plate at Randwick last month. Parker has been aiming for this race all preparation, the trainer confident in his runner's chances. Can Think It Over secure a home-track victory on Saturday afternoon?
BARTLETT: The five-year-old arrives at Kembla with an impressive recent record, including that win you mentioned, plus a second placing in a Benchmark 88 handicap at Randwick in September. And Parker is an experienced operator who will have him primed for victory on his home track. But Think It Over is up against a strong field. Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott's Dawn Passage is the early favourite and claimed an open trial win at Wyong on the weekend, while Purple Sector and the Hawkes' Rock are being backed in by the punters.
Looking across that field, who do you see as the early favourite? And is there anyone you spot as a great roughie?
MEE: Purple Sector is the one that jumps out for me. He was impressive in winning over 1800m at Flemington on Melbourne Cup day, while he also won over the mile at Randwick earlier in the spring. Trainer John Thompson gave him a quick freshen up after the victory in Melbourne and he's confident the gelding will enjoy the step back in distance on Saturday. The trainer is also seeking a feature race double, Thompson's Sweet Deal winning the $1 million The Hunter in Newcastle last week.
Another horse with fond ties to the track is Asiago, the Godolphin runner taking out this year's Group 3 Kembla Classic in March. That 1600m race came down to the wire, the then-three-year-old edging Waterhouse and Bott's Shout The Bar by the barest of margins. The mare has experienced mixed success since that victory, winning the Listed Mona Lisa Stakes but struggling in a number of other black-type races. Asiago enjoyed a step back in grade to finish third in The Hunter and it's likely the mile will suit her on Saturday.
One of the Waller runners with the most intrigue is $15 chance Olmedo. A French horse that has only had the one start with the stable, his form back home is impressive. A Group 1 winner at the mile in Paris, the trainer expects the six-year-old to repeat that sort of success in Australia.
Olmedo did finish sixth in the Group 1 Cantala Stakes last month, but there was a lot to like about that run in a quality field. He was beaten on that occasion by Rock, who finished third, and the handicappers have been kind to the Team Hawkes gelding. Olmedo will lug 58.5kg around the track, with Rock to carry 57.
Top weight on Saturday is Mister Sea Wolf, the defending champion sitting at 60kgs. It's a position he has been in before, the nine-year-old handed the top weight 12 months ago. On that occasion he carried 59kg and with such a talented field lining up, there are queries over whether the weight will simply prove too much. Do you expect to see Mister Sea Wolf salute for a second-straight year?
BARTLETT: It's an interesting one, because he is not among the early favourites to win. But the Irish gelding clearly likes this Kembla track and also saluted recently, winning a Group 2 race at Randwick in September. That was also a 1600m run, so Mister Sea Wolf seems to enjoy that distance. Throw in the fact that this is a Chris Waller-trained horse and I think he should be considered a great chance to salute again at Kembla Grange.
Speaking of Kembla, The Gong was a huge success in 2019, but things will obviously look a bit different this weekend. How do you think the Illawarra's biggest race day will go in these COVID times?
MEE: Yes, we certainly won't experience the scenes we saw last year in which punters were crammed into the venue and the winning connections embraced after the feature race. The Illawarra Turf Club has adapted to the new coronavirus world in recent months, with owners and fans slowly returning to the track. Melbourne Cup day was a sell out two weeks ago, more than 1000 people attending and adhering to the COVID restrictions. A similar crowd is expected on Saturday and it's likely the day will run fairly smoothly.
Naturally turnover at the on-track bookmakers will be down, but most people have adjusted to the new normal and I suspect this weekend will be a day for racegoers to enjoy some semblance of normality in what's been a crazy year. The fields are generally pretty strong, with a host of the top local trainers in action, including Robert and Luke Price's Tochi and Theresa Bateup's Monegal, so the racing on the track will be as good, if not better, than last year.
Let's finish off with some tips. Who are you picking to win the $1 million race and who's your favourite roughie?
BARTLETT: I like the look of Dawn Passage, but am backing James Cummings' Cascadian to salute. My favourite roughie is Think It Over. How about you?
MEE: I'm going with Rock, if he can replicate his run in the Cameron Handicap, he'll be hard to beat. Asiago is the outsider I like.