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Country stars set for Doomben

By Andrew Adermann

Several of the state’s best country gallopers are set to shine on the big stage in Saturday’s TAB Country Cups Challenge and Country Stampede finals at Doomben.

Two capacity fields – for middle distance runners and sprinters respectively – have been assembled after 32 qualifiers were held throughout country Queensland over past two months. 

In its third year, the 1600-metre Country Cups Challenge Final looks to be one of the most intriguing races on the card, which also features the Group 3 George Moore Stakes.

Leading the betting at $2.70 is the Alex Malliff-trained Paniagua, who is chasing a stunning eighth victory in a row.

The four-year-old – a $600 online purchase – comes into the Final on the back of victories in both the Townsville Guineas and the Cairns Cup, looking to skyrocket his career earnings to over $200,000 with another victory.

“I found him in an online auction I was the first bidder one Sunday and nobody else bid on him,” Malliff told the Courier Mail this week.

“He’d had two starts and been beaten a combined 35 lengths, but I thought ‘oh well, Tycoon Ruler’s progeny generally get better as they get older’ so I decided to see if there was anything worth working with.

“It didn’t take long for the penny to drop; we thought his first two for us he was poorly ridden.

“His work has been pretty good and I really thought he was better than that so I decided to mae a change with the pilot – he hasn’t been beaten since.”

The short-price favourite won’t have it all his own way, with the Todd Austin-trained Eschiele looking to continue a super run of form which has seen him only miss a top two finish once in six starts.

Being able to call on the services of leading country Queensland jockey Dan Ballard will also do the eight-year-old’s chances no harm at all.

On the back of a challenging few years for Austin, he is looking to add a Country Cups Challenge to his trophy cabinet, following a podium finish in 2019. 

“I ran third in last year’s Country Cups Challenge with French Hussler and I’m hoping Eschiele can win it this year,” Austin said.

“Dan knows the horse well but he had to sweat to ride her at 62kgs in the Roma Cup and he’s got to get down to 60kgs this time.

“He’d be better off being a second rower for the Brisbane Broncos but in my book he’s a metropolitan class jockey.”

One notable absentee in this year’s Final will be 2019 champion Deadly Choices, who was not accepted despite being eligible after claiming the opening qualifier of the series.

The inaugural 1110-metre Country Stampede Final – the second event on the card – looks to be a far more open affair on paper, where Country Trainer of the Year Bevan Johnson saddles up $4 favourite Muiron.

The four-year-old sprinter has been a model of consistency, notching up five wins in seven starts before a photo-finish second at Roma two weeks ago.

Top Mackay trainer John Manzelmann will bring down a pair of aces in his quest for the $105,000 Final, in the shape of seasoned veterans District and Raiden.

Both look great value on paper for the punters, and District’s good form coupled with an ideal barrier over the sprint trip makes great appeal for the $12 currently on offer.

Finally, short-course specialist Absolute Bonza for Rockhampton trainer Kevin Miller looks a solid chance if he can overcome his horror draw.

The six-year-old will jump from barrier 18 and will look to combat the outside lane by driving forward from the outset.

A last start winner at the distance and three for three this prep, the gelding should be right in the finish with in-form ex-Victorian hoop Ben Thompson aboard to give his mount every chance.