Mark Zahra aboard Santa Ana Lane (Image: Racing Photos)
Santa Ana Lane won his third Group 1 sprint in the space of just six months and his fourth overall to lay down claims to be the country's premier sprinter and surely it's most underrated.
The late blooming six-year-old produced what is now his trademark devastating final sprint to leave Australia's greatest sprinters, including dual The Everest winner Redzel, in his wake in the $1 million VRC Sprint Classic.
On the line, Santa Ana Lane had a neck advantage over In Her Time ($12), with a length-and-a-half to dead-heaters Jungle Cat and Pierata. The favourite Redzel was heavily backed before the jump from $3.30 to $2.90 but was struggling a long way from home before battling on bravely for fifth.
Winning trainer Anthony Freedman said Santa Ana Lane had matured and improved as a racehorse over the past 12 months, but it is an improvement that has managed to slip under the radar of many punters.
In his debut Group 1 last spring in the Rupert Clarke Stakes, Santa Ana Lane ran as a $26 chance. He was the same odds when he took last autumn's Goodwood in Adelaide and a $14 chance when he stormed home to win the Stradbroke Handicap in Brisbane.
On Saturday, punters were again wary of the horse after he failed to place on a very wet track in The Everest, but back on top of the ground, with a sizzling early pace set by Invincible Star, the gelding ran by his rivals easily to score an almost soft win at the odds of $10.
Freedman had wanted to take Santa Ana Lane for the Hong Kong Sprint next month but was unable due to quarantine troubles and he said the straight win in the VRC Sprint Classic might put paid to any further thoughts of an international assault.
"I always had a bit of a question mark about him up the straight because he'd had two failures up here but one was 1000 metres and the other, he got shunted over to the wrong side," Freedman said.
"Now that he's won up the straight, it's opened up a few options for us.
"I am glad we took the option to run him. It would have been nice to go to Hong Kong but that's not happened so he'll have a rest now and we'll think about what we do with him next year.
"(Royal) Ascot, there's just not enough money to be perfectly blunt about it and he's got no agenda because he's a gelding but if the guys said to me 'We want to go to Ascot', I'll certainly listen to them."
Freedman said he had been left flat after the horse struck a bog track on Everest day.
"I thought he was spot-on for Sydney but after he went 100 metres, Ben (Melham) said he knew he couldn't win on that track," Freedman said.
"There is only one way to ride him and when he wins, he does it late and I told Mark (Zahra) that and he didn't panic.
"It's a nice consolation for The Everest. It might have been the one that got away but we might be back next year."
Peter Snowden was at a loss to explain why Redzel could not repeat his performance of last year.
"He was disappointing. No real excuses. They were all up and around him before he knew it," he said.
Charlie Appleby's retiring sprinter Jungle Cat ran well for a dead-heat for third in what was his final race start but otherwise, the international assault on the race fell well short with all four of Aidan O'Brien's runners finishing well back. Stewards noted U S Navy Flag had pulled up lame.