Hotel Drive flying under the radar for home track qualifier
WHILE Murwillumbah trainer Matthew Dunn's four-pronged attack led by Perfect Dare and Delightful Feeling has attracted most of the attention ahead of Monday's $150,000 Northern Rivers Country Championship Qualifier (1400m), a classy five-year-old gelding far closer to home has largely slipped under the radar.
It's easy to see how punters could skip past Hotel Drive's name in the form guide. At first glance Hotel Drive's form leaves little to be desired - a forgettable 12th in a Benchmark 75 at the Gold Coast on January 17 his only recent start.
The lack of form is mainly through circumstance, however, and not a reflection of his true ability. A comeback from a series of setbacks has been clouded by a litany of scratchings on wet tracks not suited to a horse who trainer Scott Henley says "likes a rock hard track".
One need look no further than his 1006m Open Trial win on a Good (3) at Grafton on January 27 to see how much potential Hotel Drive possesses - storming home in a blistering 57.17 seconds (33.28s last 600m), thrashing a handy field including four championship rivals by five lengths.
"It was outstanding, probably a PB," Henley said. "I was most impressed with his last furlong.
"He's in this race up to his eyeballs. He'll give them a shake around his own track.
"He's a ball of muscle and ready to rumble. A hot day on a rock hard track, a few things are lining up for him on Sunday."
Connections have always maintained faith in Hotel Drive's ability since he burst onto the scene as a three-year-old two years ago with two wins in his first two starts. But Henley admitted the winner of five races from 16 career starts had not yet realised his full potential.
"I really thought we would've won more races by now," he said. "Not to sound arrogant, but he had feet problems and a pec muscle. We haven't seen the best of him yet. We saw briefly what he could do in his two wins last year."
The second of those was the biggest of his career in a $65,000 No Metro Wins 1350m Handicap at Doomben on January 23.
Hotel Drive has not won in his past five starts, but Henley is confident he is finally getting back to his best, just in time for this Sunday.
"The stars are starting to line up for him. He's ready to rumble, he's a ball of muscle.
"A rock hard track, that's what he likes. A hot day on his home track, a few things lining up in his favour on Sunday."
* The race meeting has been postponed to Monday due to extreme heat conditions on Sunday.
Henley's stable operation is a joint effort with wife Fleur Blanch, born and raised in Grafton. They pair worked for Gai Waterhouse together and moved to Grafton in 2014 to set up their own stables and start a family.
They live across the road from the track and now have two small children, Leila and Zac.
"Fleur is the unsung hero of the place," Scott said. "She's the vet nurse, the accountant, the racing manager, the stable manager, the strapper, the mum. She's got a few titles.
"I don't do much, just a bit of PR. We work together, that's what makes it a team."
Gazing across the CRJC track from his stable, Hotel Drive's placid demeanour contradicts his growing reputation as a fiesty warrior.
"He's basically part of the family," Fleur says.
"Before we had our son all the owners used to say he was our son, the way we treat him.
"He has such a kind nature. He's the only horse who will wrap his neck around yours and give you a full on cuddle.
"Butter would melt in his mouth over here.
"But on race day he goes from Eric Bana to the Incredible Hulk, just becomes a complete monster. It's game on when he's over there.
"During the carnival it took five of us to saddle him up."
And with a forecast of up to 43 degrees set to scorch the wide open spaces of the Grafton track, you can discount Hotel Drive's chances at your own peril.
"He hasn't been able to get a dry tack run," Fleur said.
"I think that's part of our upper hand here on Sunday. Being his home track, this fella knows every blade of grass."