Like most forays to the Central Coast, last week’s punt at Gosford returned nothing and left me licking my wounds.
Nature Strip’s win in this year’s TJ Smith Stakes was arguably his best victory to date.
He settled off Eduardo, who took up the lead after a typically quick jump from the gates. The pair ran along at relatively steady sectionals, which allowed Nature Strip to put an unassailable gap on his rivals from the 400-metre mark.
Masked Crusader ran on brilliantly despite having to weave a path at the top of the straight, but the race was already over. It was an emphatic victory for Nature Strip.
While the six-year-old gelding has been a polarising horse among punters due to his inconsistent results, Chris Waller has uncovered three key ingredients that should create a repeatable recipe for his third tilt at the Everest in the spring.
1. Race fitness
It has been well documented in recent years that the six-time Group 1 winner is not at his best when first up. Although he won the Group 1 Lightning Stakes at his first go this preparation, a number of his previous performances fresh have been below expectation.
He was a beaten odds-on favourite at the start of both of his 2020 autumn and spring campaigns. His third and fourth starts of a preparation are typically his best. He has won 11 times from 16 starts when third up or deeper into a preparation, including four of his six Group 1 wins.
This is vastly different from his first-up and second-up record, which only accounts for five wins from 14 starts.
2. Space between runs
This is perhaps the biggest factor for Nature Strip’s successes. He has needed at least three weeks between runs to show his best. Two weeks appears to be too short for him to bounce from his previous start, which is understandable given the effort required from his racing style.
From his group race starts, his stats are much more favourable when he has had three weeks or more between runs. From 15 starts his record is 8-3-0 as well as four fourth placings. This accounts for five out of six of his Group 1 wins.
When he has less than three weeks between runs his group racing stats are clearly inferior. From four starts he has finished fourth, eighth, tenth and first. It should be noted that this win was 20 days between runs.
The Everest performances are not included in these stats because it is not a group race – but they do enhance the theory even further. In 2020 he was two weeks into the Everest and finished a lack lustre seventh, beaten 3.8 lengths as a $7 chance. In 2019 he was 22 days between runs when he came fourth after doing a lot of work from a wide gate, beaten 1.3 lengths as a $21 shot.
Combining these first two components, when he is not first up and has had at least three weeks between runs, his record at group level is 8: 5-2-0. In the only non-placed run, he came fourth after having to trial for steward’s clearance in the week leading up to it.
There is no doubt that he has been inconsistent, and that his best and worst are worlds apart. However, based on the above it could be argued that he is not as unpredictable as commonly thought.
3. The ability to settle off the lead if required
Whether this has been a masterstroke from Waller, or from maturity with age, or most likely a combination, he has developed an ability to settle without having the lead.
It became a real problem for the son of Nicconi when horses started to match his early splits and take him on. While it also resulted in their demise, it took something off Nature Strip if he couldn’t have the lead to himself.
This preparation has seen the addition of this ability to relax without leading and not be a control freak, as he had been accurately described previously by Darren Flindell in multiple calls. First up this preparation he settled in behind Pippie, who wanted to go quicker at the start of the Lightning.
He did the same again in the TJ Smith when he sat second without overdoing it while Eduardo took up the running. Both of these starts he finished brilliantly to win after relaxing throughout, which provides him with a key weapon going forward if horses elect to take him on early.
Chris Waller has of course locked Nature Strip in for his Everest slot. With the above components put in to practice he can certainly improve on his previous starts in that race.
Third up with the Moir Stakes or the Shorts as his lead-up run, he would have every possible chance to make it third time lucky in Australia’s richest race, albeit as a seven-year-old.