Mike Moon
Horse racing correspondent
3 minute read
5 May 2022
8:35 am

Astrix magic potion sparks July punch-up, handicapping, game theory, ‘Kommet’… and more

Mike Moon

Astrix, at 66-1, won the Grade 1, 2000m, weight-for-age race at Turffontein’s Saturday meeting.

The Premier’s Champions Challenge was a train-smash for punters, but, by default, it set tongues wagging about the forthcoming Durban July. Picture: Getty Images

The Premier’s Champions Challenge was a train-smash for punters, but, by default, it set off a round of animated debate about the forthcoming Durban July.

Astrix, at 66-1, won the Grade 1, 2000m, weight-for-age race and blew a great hole in the exotic bets at Turffontein’s Saturday meeting.

All but one of the 13 Challenge runners were Durban July entries, including defending champion Kommetdieding – who started at odds-on in Joburg, powered to the front early in the straight and ran out of steam to finish fifth.

As a pointer to the July, it was all a bit confusing.

Mike de Kock-trained filly Sparkling Water certainly threw down a gauntlet, losing out to Astrix on the mere bob of a nose. Puerto Manzano and Flying Carpet in third and fourth did well enough, but, in a race of mixed-up form, these were hardly July-winning preps.

Kommetdieding? The lack of elite-level pace didn’t suit him and he possibly surged too soon. Will a disappointing Highveld autumn sojourn have taken the edge of him ahead of the July? And will trainer Michelle Rix go with her original strategy of raiding Durban from Randjesfontein after this?

Will the hugely popular fellow be retired to stud now, to start earning even bigger bucks in the mating barn? Or will gelding him get his mind back on the job of winning races?

Other viable July candidates to disappoint in the Champs Challenge were MK’s Pride (seventh) and Second Base (11th). Do their connections try to forget this puzzling race and pursue their July dreams – or is it time to temper expectations and aim lower?

And what about Astrix? Trainer Paul Peter points out his R60,000 bargain buy has been dogged by bad luck but has nevertheless had the ability to reach the top of the tree. The five-year-old gelding will have a few supporters for the July, if only because he’s as honest as they come and has demonstrated the capacity to steal a big race if everyone else goes loskop.

Into the post-race hubbub, De Kock stepped in with some forthright comments about handicapping, kick-starting an entertaining debate in the Sporting Post.

The master trainer said the Challenge result showed up confused and illogical merit rating and mused on how the handicappers might try to get themselves out of a self-imposed jam. This, of course, had him accused of trying to influence the re-rating announcement this week – something he himself has said Cape rival Justin Snaith gets up to on a regular basis.

De Kock stated plainly that his filly Sparkling Water would be a big runner in the July but insinuated she might not get a fair chance if harshly treated. So, it is possible he was trying to get her a lenient penalty for her excellent runner-up showing.

The spirited online banter even invoked the mind-numbing complications of mathematical game theory at one stage – surely an intellectual high-point in horse racing chatter.

In the end, Sparkling Water didn’t get hammered when merit rating adjustments were made on Wednesday. She went up a mere point, from 115 to 116.

Astrix was thumped, though, hiked from 112 to 122.

This was the National Horseracing Authority’s reasoning: “The handicappers were unanimous in their view that fourth-placed Flying Carpet would not have run below his best in finishing where he did in a race of this nature and used him as the line horse, leaving him unchanged on a mark of 116. Astrix was beaten 2.6 lengths (at level weights) by Flying Carpet in the Summer Cup but finished three lengths (at level weights) ahead of Flying Carpet in the Premier’s Challenge thus showing at least a 10 pounds improvement…”

There is the small matter of the Summer Cup form being something of an “outlier” in many pundits’ opinions, but let’s not get too picky. Unravelling game theory is complicated enough.

Another Durban July first entry, Sean Tarry-trained filly Rain In Holland, had her MR of 118 untouched after a bloodless odds-on victory in the Grade 2 Gerald Rosenberg Stakes on Champions Day.

And while all this was going on upcountry, the wily champion Snaith was quietly tending to his 12 Durban July entries in Cape Town.