Zaaki gallops at Sandown with Craig Williams. Picture: Racing Photos

Zaaki galloping at Sandown with Craig Williams aboard (Image: Racing Photos)

Williams rides Cup favourite

Craig Williams on Tuesday firmly staked his claims for all three Melbourne spring majors when he confirmed a Caulfield and Lexus Melbourne Cup booking for top-class import Spanish Mission shortly after taking his first ride at trackwork on Cox Plate favourite Zaaki.

The Andrew Balding-trained Spanish Mission, who is the $9 favourite in the market for the Lexus Melbourne Cup, is expected in Victoria on the first shipment from England on Saturday, which would allow him to also run in the Caulfield Cup on October 16, for which he is the $13 third favourite.

Williams almost rode the winners of the three spring majors in 2011 when he won the Caulfield Cup on Southern Speed and the Cox Plate on Pinker Pinker before a suspension cost him the winning Lexus Melbourne Cup ride on Dunaden.

Williams was enthusiastic about his spring prospects at Sandown on Tuesday morning after taking Zaaki through his paces ahead of his first Group 1 attempt in Melbourne in Saturday's $1 million Underwood Stakes.

He said he had no fears a switch to the clockwise way of racing at the undulating Sandown course would bring the horse underdone this Saturday in the 1800-metre race, for which he is marked the $1.40 favourite.

In fact, Williams said he feels Zaaki will be well suited to the task.

"I've also gone through his (English) replays and for a horse that has won twice at Epsom, I think Sandown is the least of his worries," Williams said.

"Sandown is quite unique in regards to its undulations compared to a lot of racetracks that we have here in Australia and especially in Victoria.

"He actually holds the record, as Annabel Neasham his trainer told me, at the 1600 metres at Epsom and Epsom would be one of the toughest tracks for racehorses and the reason is because they actually gallop downhill and at an angle.

"Sandown is a beautiful track with an undulation, so if he ticked the box at Epsom, I have no concern with him and this morning, I had no concerns with him." 

Zaaki holds the 1713-metre Epsom track record for his win in the G3 Diomed in 2019, where he ran 1:40.40.

Williams said Zaaki felt like he was where he should be four weeks out from a Cox Plate.

"He's right in his preparation where I expect the stable will be really happy with him," he said.

"He has a little bit to come on in looks in his coat and for me it great to get acquainted with him and get a feel for him and his mannerisms.

"His profile and racing performances in Australia this year have been amazing and obviously he is a deserved favourite for this year's Cox Plate.

Williams is taking nothing for granted, however.

"Now in Victoria with every Group 1 a $1 million race, there are no soft Group 1 $1 million races, especially at weight-for-age here in Victoria," he said.

"But it's a really good opportunity for him to race left-handed for the first time here in Australia and it's a nice race to set him off.

"I'd be disappointed if he gets beaten, but it is horse racing."