Peter and Dawn Williams have fond memories in past editions of the Gr.1 Captain Cook Stakes (1600m), and the Byerley Park trainers are hoping another crown lies ahead with Desert Lightning on Saturday.
The Williams’ claimed back-to-back victories in the Trentham feature, now known as the Gr.1 TAB Classic (1600m), in 2013 and 2014 when represented by classy mare Shuka, a winner of more than $700,000 in prizemoney.
In this year’s event, they will prepare ever-consistent gelding Desert Lightning, a classy three-year-old returning to stakes company for the first occasion at four.
Peter Williams recalled Desert Lightning’s first start at Ruakaka as a two-year-old in February 2022, where the talented juvenile showed his promise, saluting on debut ahead of future Group One-winner Skew Wiff.
“He didn’t really show a lot until he went to the races, he’d trialled but the day he won at Ruakaka was pretty impressive,” Williams told TAB NZ.
“When he won that day, he beat Skew Wiff and a couple of nice horses, so we thought we had something.”
Desert Lightning was among the lesser celebrated three-year-olds last season, despite securing black-type success in the Gr.2 Avondale Guineas (2100m) alongside placings in the Gr.1 New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m), Karaka Million 3YO Classic (1600m) and Gr.3 Manawatu Classic (2000m), and only once finishing out of the first five placegetters.
Returning in his four-year-old season in October, Desert Lightning was explosive when dominating a competitive Open 1200m field, getting home in an eye-catching 32.26 last 600m. His campaign continued onto Tauranga last start, where the gelding posted a creditable third placed performance on unfavourable Heavy8 track conditions.
“He always tries, he always runs a good race. Some of the three-year-old races we had trouble with him over-racing and doing little things wrong, but he seems a lot better this year,” Williams said.
“He has his little ways, he can be quite a toey horse when he wants to be but most of the time if you keep him in a routine he’s fine.”
Desert Lightning will partner with regular rider Vinnie Colgan on Saturday, the Northern hoop having been aboard in all but three of his 14 starts. The son of Pride Of Dubai sits a current $9.00 fourth-favourite for the TAB Classic, with the well-travelled gelding Aegon sitting atop of the TAB market on his Kiwi return at $4.80.
“Vinnie’s really pleased with him this season, he said he’s a lot better to ride in a race. Vinnie stuck with him last year all the way through and some of the times he wasn’t racing that kindly, but he seems to have improved now and matured,” Williams said.
“His work on Tuesday morning was very good, I was very happy with it and that was the deciding factor for whether we’d definitely go.
“He’s a good horse, whether he stacks up against the best we’ll wait to see but he’s done a good job so far. He just needs a bit of luck in some of his races and he’ll be alright.
“We raced him over ground last year but I do think he’s probably a 1400m-1600m horse, he got away with it because he was a three-year-old, some three-year-old’s, if they’ve got a bit of ability, get away with it.”
As of Friday morning, the Trentham course rated a Soft5 with a positive forecast ahead, perfectly suited to Williams’ charge.
“The firmer the better for him, he’s a firm track horse. I know he’s won on a soft track, but his best form has been on firm ground. Looking at the weather forecast, the track should be perfect,” he said.
Desert Lightning races in the colours of Barneswood Farm, owned by Sarah Green and Ger Beemsterboer. An influential pair in South Island racing, Green and Beemsterboer have a successful history with the Williams barn, having raced both Gr.1 New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m)-winning fillies Planet Rock and Media Sensation.
“They’re very good clients of ours, the more races they win, the better it is for them and us. They’ve had a great run with their horses, hopefully it keeps coming.”