Tough is a word that comes up several times in conversation with Otaki trainer Johno Benner when talking about his talented filly Key. The Exceed And Excel three-year-old, a A$550,000 yearling purchase for owner Gary Harding last year, steps up to stakes company for the first time in Thursday’s Group 3 Lucia Valentina Wellington Stakes (1600m) at Otaki.
“I can’t complain. She’s going great,” said Benner, who trains with his partner Hollie Wynyard. “We’ve had a fair bit of rain down here so we might be racing on a slow track but that shouldn’t worry her. She won trials on heavy tracks and she goes on anything. She’s just tough.”
Benner also uses “tough” to explain that it hasn’t always been an easy road getting Key to this point in her career where TAB bookmakers have installed her a $3.20 favourite for Thursday’s race. “She’s a grumpy filly and she’s had her quirks with the barriers but we think we’ve got that under control now,” he said. “She’s just tough, both physically and mentally. She’s a really strong filly and that’s coming across in the way she races.”
A dual trial winner before racing, Key ran out a three-length maiden winner at Otaki on debut last month before a valiant second to Naval Fleet at Awapuni in her only start since. “She’s very good. Even though she got beaten the other day, she did an amazing job from the wide draw and it still took a good one to beat her,” Benner said. “We’ll see how the track plays but she’s got terrific gate speed so she should be right there behind the speed and then Danielle (Johnson, jockey) can pick her time to go. She’ll take some beating,” Benner said.
Safely through Thursday’s race, Benner will look to the Group 3 Lawnmaster Eulogy Stakes (1600m) at Awapuni on December 12 for Key’s next start. “The Eulogy is in three weeks and that’s the natural progression. If she can secure some black type, it will add value to an already valuable filly,” Benner said. “Long-term, we’d like to think she could be an Oaks filly. Her second dam is Princess Coup, who won an Oaks so there’s no reason why she can’t get the trip.”
Benner and Wynyard will also saddle emerging stayer Shakespeare and maiden galloper Wononeohwon at the meeting. “The rain is a big plus for Shakespeare. He likes to get his toe in the ground and he’s drawn a lovely marble for early in the day. He’s a progressive stayer,” Benner said.
The couple’s weekend focus will be on Ellerslie runner Montre Moi, who tackles the Listed Trevor Eagle Memorial (1500m) as a possible precursor to the $1 million Karaka Million 3YO Classic (1600m) at the same track on January 23.
Benner and Wynyard produced Scott Base to win the Karaka Million 3YO Classic in 2018, having given him a previous look at the track when he placed in the Listed Champagne Stakes (1600m) the prior season. “For Montre Moi, it’s good to give him that trip away and get a look around there. He’ll be all that much better for the experience,” Benner said. “We’ll get to see how he measures up as well. The clock says his win at Otaki first-up was very good. We think he’s a good hope on Saturday but we just want to see him strong late.”
Benner said they would assess Montre Moi’s run at Ellerslie before deciding whether he goes straight into the Karaka Million 3yo Classic or has another run at the races or trial beforehand.