It sounds outlandish, but Alice Springs might well host one of the best races in Australia on Sunday.
The Save The Date – Alice Springs Cup – 30th April 2023 Handicap (1200m) is the feature race at Pioneer Park and it has attracted an outstanding group of runners.
It's the last race meeting of the year in the Red Centre and although the race is valued at $23,100 with a tick over $15,000 going to the winning connections the field itself is one of the best you'll ever see outside the Alice Springs Carnival.
The $100,000 Pioneer Sprint (1200m) in the Alice is the next best race in the NT for the speedy types after the $135,000 Palmerston Sprint (1200m) held during the Darwin Carnival, but all eight runners on Sunday wouldn't look out of place in either race.
It's the off-season in the NT, but it's hard to knock the depth in Darwin and Alice Springs of late and it's hard to recall when last the Red Centre has hosted such a quality program at this time of year.
“It's certainly a decent meeting to end the year and the main race, well, it's a cracking field really,” Pioneer Park's race-caller Dylan Bairstow said.
“We had to split one of the races, really good numbers which is very good for Territory racing at this time of year.
“We've got a lot of horses in work in Alice at the moment.
“There's 50 horses accepted across six races – good each way betting all day really.”
Looking at the main race and Leanne Gillett's Bench Press, an impressive winner over 1400m (BM76) a fortnight ago, was quoted as a $2.80 favourite on Wednesday.
Come race day there might be a new favourite and there's every chance it could be $4 or $5 the field with online bookmakers.
Whether or not trainers are starting their Alice Springs Carnival preparations early or they've decided to give their chargers a gallop is a matter of conjecture.
“It's definitely a Carnival quality field, that's for sure,” Bairstow added.
“And for this time of year, it's actually a little bit surprising to be honest.
“Maybe they're just giving their horses a run or two, so it's not so long off.
“I suppose if you spell too long it's too hard to get them fit.”
Flying Start, named as the 2022 Alice Springs Horse of the Year, makes his return on Sunday after impressing in the Red Centre and at Fannie Bay in the Top End.
Winner of the NT Guineas (1600m) at Pioneer Park in April by eight lengths, Flying Start backed up two weeks later during the Alice Springs Carnival to topple Bench Press over 1600m (BM68) for the three and four-year-olds.
A second against his age group over 1300m (BM66) in his Top End debut in June was followed by a disappointing seventh in the Darwin Guineas (1600m), but the former Victorian gelding bounced back before the Darwin Carnival ended.
He would go on to win a $40,000 race for the three-year-olds over 1200m (BM68) before making the step up to open class to post a win in a $30,000 race over 1300m on Darwin Cup Day on August 1.
Jessie Philpot, who has partnered Flying Start in all of his seven NT starts – which included a first up win in a 1200m maiden in the Alice on April 2, retains the ride on the son of Flying Artie this weekend.
Bairstow agreed that you would have to treat Flying Start, who is blessed with amazing acceleration, with respect when it came to assessing all eight runners.
“Well, you'd have to say Greg Connor's Flying Start is in the mix – he sort of took all before him last campaign,” he said.
“Went up to Darwin over Carnival – they found out that he was probably more suited to the sprint trip.
“So I would say he'd be aimed up at a Pioneer Sprint rather than the Chief Minister's Cup (1600m).
“I was speaking to Greg, he seems to think that his turn of foot is really good – so maybe he's suited to the fast pace early and work home over the top of them.”
Bairstow said he wouldn't be surprised if any of the starters saluted on Sunday.
“Roughly has been racing terrific for such a long time – she's a stalwart of Territory racing,” he said.
“She gets a bit of weight relief which will help her, but the 1200m at this stage of her campaign is probably slightly against her.
“Then you've got Bench Press, he's a quality horse.
“He's won five from 13 starts and has been placed on another six occasions.
“He's another up and comer, who has finished either first or second in 10 Alice starts.
“And Bar Gem has been racing well.
“Our Luca was placed in the Pioneer Sprint and wasn't disgraced in the Palmerston Sprint, so if he brought his best form he'd be hard to beat too.”
Even identifying an outsider is difficult.
“Probably Cyclonite, but to be fair to him he's a 12 time winner – so that's probably being a bit harsh on him,” Bairstow said.
“He's a quality horse in his own right, and he has won nine races here at the track.
“He'll probably be the outsider, but he doesn't deserve to be that's for sure.”
Terry Gillett's unbeaten Dakota Lee, who has posted seven wins from as many races in Alice Springs, looked set to make her return after she was nominated for Sunday's race.
The four-year-old mare was scratched from the NT Guineas when she refused to enter the gates, so a clash with Flying Start failed to transpire.
However, Dakota Lee, recipient of the 2022 Alice Springs Sprinter of the Year award, did get a win over Bench Press over 1100m in October last year.
“If Dakota Lee had accepted it would have been a bottling sort of race, but it's a good race none the less,” Bairstow said.
After Sunday's meeting, the ASTC will break with racing returning on January 15.
After extensive repairs to the Pioneer Park surface approaching the home turn near the 500m at the start of the year in which the ASTC were forced to abandon two meetings in January, light remedial work will take place at the track over the festive period in preparation for the Cup Carnival in April.