Caption: North Queensland trainer Rhonda Essery with Stratford and her support team – Sharon Burnett and Drew Pearce – after success in the recent $20,600 RQ Country Cup (520m) at Albion Park (Photo: Box 1 Photography)
By Mike Hill
LEADING NQ trainer Rhonda Essery believes victory in the Group 3 Townsville Cup later this year is not beyond her \’little champ\’ Stratford.
An excited Essery made the prediction after Stratford\’s impressive all-the-way win in February’s $20,600 RQ Country Cup (520m) at Albion Park.
\”It\’s fantastic, it\’s the best win of my career,\” the Burdell-based trainer said shortly after the victory. \”Stratford\’s improving all the time and it\’s great to win this race here in Brisbane.
\”And it\’s great to go one better than last year.\”
Essery\’s smart chaser Naturally Gifted finished second to Ricky Hassall\’s brilliant sprinter Elegant Eleanor in the 2020 feature final.
Stratford, the $3.40 favourite, was one of the best to jump and, after an early tussle with the Dallas Beckett-trained Craig\’s Regret, led the field into the back straight.
Another Townsville sprinter, Henry Parker\’s Sprightly Bro ($5), pushed up along the rails and for a moment looked a possible threat.
However, Stratford was too strong, finally claiming the $8400-to-the-winner feature with a slick 29.96s run.
Sprightly Bro, having his first run on the track, ran a creditable second, beaten two-and-three-quarter lengths, while the Ricky Hassall-trained Nerve Settler ($11) was three lengths away third.
Essery, who has been training for 36 years, said she went into the Cup \’very confident\’, particularly after Stratford clocked a super 29.93s running second behind Steve Kavanagh\’s smart sprinter Louis Rumble (29.76s) in an Albion Park fifth grade series heat (520m) four nights earlier.
\”That run gave us a lot of confidence and it followed his impressive win in the regional final at Townsville in January,\” she said.
Essery said she wasn\’t worried by Stratford\’s quick back-up.
\”He loves his work,\” she said. \”The more work he has, the better. And that\’s the best he has jumped.
\”I think the noisy lure down here helped. Back home our lure is much quieter.\”
Stratford has been a sprinter on the rise ever since he stepped out for his first start over 380m at Townsville last August.
Essery purchased the brindle dog (Fernando Bale-Jingjing) and two of his litter sisters – Saltarello and Samshu – from Pheasants Nest (NSW) breeder Peter Davis.
\”He\’s still a young dog (29 months), but he\’s improving every week,\” said Essery, who has been a leading trainer in the Townsville region for several decades.
\”He\’s my little champion and this is my biggest win.\”
She said the victory would be a huge tonic for her husband Steve.
\”He hasn\’t been well lately and this will give him a huge boost. Steve is at home with the rest of the team.\”
Essery, one of the biggest trainers in the north, has 23 dogs in work at present and also has a group of pups ready to come through the system.
She said Stratford, better known as Romeo around the Essery kennels, was a genuine Townsville Cup-type runner.
And she knows what it takes to win.
Essery won the big feature with Mr Footprints in 2003 and is hoping this year to become the first Townsville-based trainer to win the Cup since it gained Group status in 2009.
In the past decade the northern feature has been dominated by Brisbane region-based trainers.
\”I think Stratford is good enough to win it,\” she said. \”He will have matured more come Cup time and, if he keeps on improving the way I think he will, he\’ll definitely be competitive with the best.
\”When he first won over 498 metres (in mid-September), a few people were joking with me saying he\’s your next Townsville Cup dog.
\”They\’re not joking any more, he could genuinely win it. \”We\’ll get all the best Brisbane dogs up at Cup time, hopefully, he\’s healthy and can give a forward showing.\”
His Country Cup success took Stratford\’s career record to 12 wins and 11 placings from 33 starts and boosted his earnings to almost $30,000.
And unlike Naturally Gifted that remained in the Brisbane region with Yamanto trainer Peter O\’Reilly after last year\’s Country Cup, Essery said she would take Romeo home.
\”We have the Young Guns (498m) coming up in March,\” she said.
\”That\’ll be his next big mission. \”He\’s probably the best dog I\’ve had and I want to enjoy him while he is racing well.\”
PAWNOTE: Stratford became the third Townsville-trained dog to win the Country Cup in four years. Previous winners: Innocent Man (Townsville, 2018), Dalmatynski (Townsville, 2019) and Elegant Eleanor (Bundaberg, 2020).