Trainer Chris Waller has a stranglehold on Saturday's Group 1 Queensland Derby (2400m) with a two-pronged attack, headed by $1.70 favourite Kovalica and impressive last-start winner Special Swey ($9.50).
A son of Ocean Park, Kovalica has long been set for the $1 million feature.
The winner of five of his eight starts, Kovalica won the Group 2 Queensland Guineas (1600m) two starts back but missed his intended target of the Group 3 Rough Habit Plate (2000m) a fortnight ago due to a foot abscess.
Raced by proud Queenslander Neville Morgan and David Devine, Kovalica was quick to bounce back from the setback and caught the eye when third in last week's Group 1 Doomben Cup (2000m) behind Huetor and Numerian.
“Kovalica is an exciting horse who announced himself in the late Spring, going on to win a Grand Prix (Group 3) at Eagle Farm over 2100m which is obviously a good test early in the season for a three-year-old, so from that moment on he has always been set for the race,” Waller said.
“There was a slight bump in the road two weeks ago when he missed the run in the Rough Habit, but Brett Killion and his team have done a fantastic job to get things back on track.
“Kovalica's run last Saturday in the Doomben Cup had plenty of merit coming from well back thanks to a nice ride from James Orman. We certainly saw him attack the line and that will bring on his fitness to the levels required to run the Derby distance on Saturday.
“He has come through the run well. He looks fantastic and has drawn to get the perfect run (barrier 5).
“I am pleased I ran him in the Doomben Cup, otherwise I would have questioned his fitness levels, but we can now go into the race confident that we have a very fit horse in what will be a tough staying test.”
While Kovalica was scratched from the Rough Habit plate, newly-arrived Kiwi import Special Swey proved a more than able back-up, looping the field and injecting pace into the contest to ultimately outstay his rivals and flag his staying credentials in his first start for Waller.
“Special Swey is a talented horse,” Waller said.
“His owner Tony Muollo brought him to my attention when he won his maiden in New Zealand. I love the way he won that maiden at Matamata. He did a lot of work during the early and mid-stages of the race yet still showed good acceleration.
“He replicated that in the Rough Habit two weeks ago. I was pleasantly surprised when he arrived in my stable after travelling over from New Zealand, he was in great condition and his trainer Stephen Ralph has done a fantastic job with him.
“He will take improvement from the (Rough Habit) run, and he is thriving in the Queensland warmth.
“He has drawn a tricky gate (barrier 17) but that shouldn't really worry, given his style of racing.
“He is a tough horse and I would expect him to stay the 2400m journey really well. He is obviously by Sweynesse who could be an underrated stallion with a superstar already in Hong Kong so hopefully he can fly the flag in Queensland on Saturday as well.”
Group 1 South Australian Derby runner-up Promises Kept ($7) is the only other single figure runner in the capacity 18-horse field.
New Zealand bred horses have won the past two editions of the Queensland Derby (Pinarello and Kukeracha) and make up seven of the 18 runners this year.