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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
It is four years to the day since Nature Strip and Sunlight clashed in the Lightning Stakes at Morphettville, a virtual match race from which both went on to achieve extraordinary things.
Managing owner Rod Lyons has ridden the highs and lows of Nature Strip’s extraordinary career more than anyone. In the beginning, the son of Nicconi was both captivating and capricious, having had eight wins and five trainers inside his first 12 starts.
Since February 2019, under the guidance of Chris Waller, he has won 13 races, nine of them at Group One level – among them a memorable victory in last month’s King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot. He has also won the world’s richest sprint, The Everest.
From talented and headstrong speedster, Nature Strip has now evolved into the world’s best sprinter and is odds-on to secure his second Australian Racehorse Of The Year title when the current season comes to its conclusion this weekend.
Lyons said the Royal Ascot success – he blitzed the field by 4.5 lengths – ranks as the most memorable of Nature Strip’s many achievements.
“It still sends shivers down my spine. It holds such great memories for me. You can’t get it out of your mind what a thrill it was and what an effort it was to get the horse halfway around the world and to get him to perform at that level,” he told The Report.
“Just the thrill of being there, walking through Royal Ascot with the ghosts of champions past. There is that 300 years of history, it was so fantastic.”
“From a monetary point of view it was nowhere near the biggest of his wins, but from that historic point of view, Royal Ascot is seen around the world as the top shelf, it really is,” he said.
That Nature Strip was able to deliver a first Royal Ascot win for Waller was also significant.
“There were many, many times that we never thought he’d (Nature Strip) reach his true potential and we probably didn’t realise what that true potential was,” Lyons said.
“The previous trainers were all great trainers, but once he landed with Chris Waller, it was just the difference. Chris has just got that god-given gift. He will be up there and spoken about in the same tone as Bart Cummings, Tommy Smith and Colin Hayes in years to come.
Chris Waller and Rod Lyons after the Darley Sprint Classic in 2019. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)
The legend of Nature Strip has been built over many milestones and one of those early markers happened four years ago this weekend at Morphettville racecourse.
The Lightning Stakes, contested at black-type level since the 1970s, is a peculiar event in that it pits two and three-year-olds together on the final weekend of the racing season. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was won by future Group One winners Redelva and Street Ruffian, while in more recent years, future dual Group One winner Viddora opened her stakes account in the 1050-metre Morphettville sprint.
In 2018, two rising stars were targeted at the race, looking to build a bridge into the spring features.
Earlier that season, Sunlight had established herself as one of the top two-year-olds in the land, winning the Magic Millions 2YO Classic as well as the Silver Slipper and Magic Night before a gallant third in the Golden Slipper.
She was being prepared for her three-year-old spring from the Adelaide stables of Tony McEvoy and given she would carry just 52kgs, the Lightning looked an ideal starting point.
She would have a 7kg weight advantage on her main rival, Nature Strip, who was then under the eye of Darren Weir.
He was coming off victories in two winter sprints at Flemington, including his first stakes victory in the Listed Creswick Stakes and his entry in the Lightning created a virtual match race with the star Zoustar filly.
The bookies put up $1.50 about Nature Strip and $2.50 about Sunlight. The shortest price of the rest of the five runners was $61. They got it right.
There were a few nervous seconds for Lyons and the rest of the ownership group, when Nature Strip dwelt and Sunlight bounced on the pace, but he soon settled outside of her and would belittle her in a way that few others did to her in her career, winning by 5.9 lengths.
“He stepped away slowly, over-raced a bit, but once they came around the turn and they let him go, he just exploded. That was a super impressive run,” Lyons said.
Damian Lane’s riding performance that day was a precursor to the tactics which would become key to James McDonald unlocking Nature Strip’s full ability in the coming years. While he missed the start, Lane just let him run and from there and he just ground Sunlight down.
“Forget Sunlight, it’ll be daylight second,” commentator Terry McAuliffe remarked.
While there have been so many big Nature Strip wins for Lyons, that performance still sticks in his mind,
“It was a $100,000 Listed race and you end up coming out with two very, very good horses,” he said.
Nature Strip and Sunlight clashed four times in their careers, with Nature Strip holding sway 4-0. He beat her home (4th v 5th) in the 2019 Concorde Stakes, won the 2019 Moir Stakes, where she finished third, and finished fourth in the 2019 edition of The Everest, when she ran 10th.
Sunlight (left) in the company of Invincibella and Champagne Cuddles at Coolmore Australia, (Photo: @TomMagnier/Coolmore).
But Sunlight would be quicker to Group One success, outpointing the colts in the Coolmore Stud Stakes in 2018, then winning the 2019 G1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes and Newmarket Handicap to stamp herself as the country’s top sprinter.
Nature Strip’s first Group One success came in the 2019 The Galaxy, while he would win the Moir and the VRC Spring Classic later that year.
Sunlight would not return to the best of her three-year-old days, where in contrast, Nature Strip just got better with age and after his Royal Ascot win, is still arguably at the peak of his powers, despite turning eight on Monday.
Lyons believes the key to that longevity has been the mental maturity which Nature Strip has developed.
“He has been to England and you wouldn’t know it. You’d have thought he’d been in the Hunter Valley for a couple of weeks spell,” he said.
He has been to England and you wouldn’t know it. You’d have thought he’d been in the Hunter Valley for a couple of weeks spell.
“You can lead him around on a piece of cotton these days. The way he paraded around the Royal Ascot mounting yard, he didn’t turn a hair, He was so relaxed, not one bit of sweat on him.”
So while Sunlight, who was sold to Coolmore for $4.2 million in 2020, is set to foal down to Wootton Bassett this spring, having produced a colt by Justify in 2021, Nature Strip is being aimed at further racetrack glory.
Trainer Chris Waller confirmed last week that he will have three spring runs, progressing from The Shorts to a defence of his Everest crown and then to a shot at a third VRC Spring Classic, now known as the Champions Sprint.
“That’s what Chris has got penned in. It’s in concrete but the concrete hasn’t set yet,” Lyons said. “Unless something extraordinary happens, that’s the plan for sure.”
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