THERE would not many drivers who would feel confident when caught three-wide for almost an entire lap in a quality final, but Ashlee Grives had every reason to be on Friday night.
After winning his 1,730 metres heat of the annual Star Trek series with a flat tyre and toughing it out three-wide before running away from his rivals to win his semi-final, Whittaker had shown the sort of form to give Grives confidence.
It showed in Friday night’s $15,900 final at the Bathurst Paceway as Whittaker was worked three wide from a barrier 11 draw before he pulled away from his rivals over the last 100m.
Grives was delighted as the four-year-old son of Sportswriter won by 3.7m over Bernie Hewitt’s talented mare Im With Lexy, in a 1:54.8 mile rate.
She said she was helped out by early speed – the first quarter of the last mile covered in 27.9 seconds – but Whittaker also showed the qualities which has helped him to record four wins and a third from five starts this season.
“In these feature races they certainly go hard early, which they did here … I thought we’d be able to slide up in the second quarter when they backed off,” Grives, who is taking care of Whittaker for Christchurch trainer Mark Jones, said.
“Talking to the owners, we thought he was tough enough [to go three wide] and they went hard early, so I wasn’t too worried.
“He’s certainly a tough fellow and he possesses that high speed too, which is a good quality. Not a lot of horses possess both, so it’s pretty exciting.”
Whittaker’s efforts to book his place in the final came from barriers three and six, but so impressive were those runs that drawing 11 for the decider did not deter punters as they backed him into $1.50 favouritism.
It didn’t deter Grives either.
With Brad Hewitt’s Inner Light duelling with Im With Lexy for the lead once the green light was given, the speed Grives was looking for came.
Inner Light poked his nose in front on the outside for a handful of meters, but as they came around for the bell Im With Lexy held the lead.
Our Chittybangbang was third in the trail and Eliza Dushku one out and one back, while Grives got moving with Whittaker, who had been fifth.
At the 600m mark it was still Im With Lexy holding the lead over Inner Light, but Whittaker was making ground.
As they balanced in the home straight Whittaker had improved to second on the outside of Im With Lexy, while Anthony Frisby pulled into the sprint lane aboard Our Chittybangbang.
It looked as if would be a tight finish, but Whittaker found another gear comfortably ran away from that pair. Im With Lexy ($5) placed second, with another 2.1m back to Our Chittybangbang ($51).
“It was probably one of the strongest Star Trek finals that we’ve seen here and with the draw, we knew they’d go hard early, which we wanted them and needed them to do to get him space,” Grives said.
“But he’s made a move basically from the 1,200 metres, so he didn’t do it easy. His last half was pretty exceptional too because he made a lot of ground up and seemed to do it pretty comfortable in the end.
“He’s a very nice horse, when he drew the second row I wasn’t entirely worried because he doesn’t possess a lot of gate speed. I was quietly confident.”
Whittaker will now remain in Grives’ care at Jones’ Menangle stable as he is aimed towards the Chariots Of Fire in February, the richest four-year-old race in Australasia with its $200,000 purse.
“That’s [Chariots] the main aim for him this season, but that’s not until February, so touch wood everything goes to plan. He’s based at Menangle this fellah, so he’ll probably just go around on Saturday nights in the country front races and metros as he progresses through,” she said.
“I think I’ll have some fun with him, that’s for sure.”
Also staged at the Bathurst Paceway on Friday night was a Menangle Country Series and a Where Horses Fly Heat.
The Steve Turnbull trained Belligerence ($3.20 favourite, Amanda Turnbull) won the Menangle Where Horses Fly Heat, while in the Country Series heat Wayne Watterson’s Miss Rodriguez ($36.90, Jason Turnbull) sprung an upset.