Astrix’s Magic Potion Triggers July Punch, Handicap, Game Theory, “Kommet”…and More

The Premier’s Champions Challenge has been a headache for bettors but, by default, it has sparked a series of heated debates about the upcoming July in Durban.

Astrix, at 66-1, won the Category 1, 2000m, weight-for-age race and blew a big hole in the exotic bets at Saturday’s Turffontein meeting.

All but one of the 13 Challenge riders were registrants in Durban in July, including defending champion Kommetdieding – who started at odds in Joburg, rocketed into the lead at the start of the straight and ran out of steam to finish fifth.

As a pointer to July, it was all a bit confusing.

Sparkling Water, a filly trained by Mike de Kock, certainly threw down a gauntlet, losing to Astrix on a simple nose blow. Puerto Manzano and Flying Carpet in third and fourth did well enough, but, in a race of mixed form, they weren’t winning preparations in July.

Kommetdieding? The lack of elite-level pace didn’t sit well with him and he may have pounced too soon. Will a disappointing autumn stay in the Highveld take him before July? And will coach Michelle Rix continue with her original strategy of attacking Durban from Randjesfontein after this?

Will the hugely popular guy be retired to stud now, to start making even more money in the mating barn? Or will the gelding give him the spirit to win races?

Other viable July contenders to disappoint in the Champs Challenge were MK’s Pride (seventh) and Second Base (11th). Are their relationships trying to forget about this confusing race and pursue their July dreams — or is it time to temper expectations and aim lower?

And what about Astrix? Coach Paul Peter points out that his bargain purchase of R60,000 was hampered by bad luck, but still had the ability to reach the top of the tree. The five-year-old gelding will have some supporters for July, if only because he’s as honest as he gets and has shown his ability to steal a big race if everyone loses.

In the post-race hubbub, De Kock chimed in with candid comments about disability, sparking an entertaining debate in the Sporting Post.

The master trainer said the result of the challenge showed a confusing and illogical merit rating and reflected on how handicappers might try to get out of a self-imposed block. This, of course, accused him of trying to influence the announcement of the new rating this week – something he himself has said Cape Town rival Justin Snaith does regularly.

De Kock made it clear that his filly Sparkling Water would be a great racer in July, but hinted that she might not have a fair chance if she was treated harshly. It is therefore possible that he tried to get him a lenient penalty for his excellent second place.

Lively online banter even invoked the mind-numbing complications of mathematical game theory at one point – surely an intellectual high point in horse racing chatter.

Ultimately, Sparkling Water wasn’t hammered when merit rating adjustments were made on Wednesday. She went up a single point, from 115 to 116.

Astrix was hit, however, dropping from 112 to 122.

This was the reasoning of the National Horseracing Authority: “The handicappers were unanimous in thinking that Flying Carpet, fourth, would not have run below his best level to finish where he did in a race of that nature and used him as a line horse, leaving him unchanged at a mark of 116. Astrix was beaten by 2.6 lengths (at level weight) by Flying Carpet in the Summer Cup but finished three lengths (at weight level) ahead of Flying Carpet in the Premier’s Challenge, showing an improvement of at least 10 pounds…”

There is the small issue that the shape of the Summer Cup is something of an ‘outlier’ in the opinions of many experts, but let’s not be too picky. Unraveling game theory is hard enough.

Another early Durban entry in July, Sean Tarry-trained filly Rain In Holland had her MR of 118 intact after a bloodless win in the Grade 2 Gerald Rosenberg Stakes on Champions Day.

And while all of this was going on in the backcountry, crafty champion Snaith was quietly tending to his July 12 entries in Durban in Cape Town.

Sharon D. Cole