Image: Bruno Cannatelli
The Group 2 McEwen Stakes winner Rothfire is good to go for the Group 1 Moir Stakes at Moonee Valley on Friday night.
“The horse has gone super,” confirmed trainer Robert Heathcote. “I had planned to take him to The Valley on Monday, but it was a very heavy track … so I didn’t.
“I galloped him this morning at Flemington. Damien Lane rode him and the report back he gave after the gallop, for him, was as good as it could be. He is a man of few words and is very measured when he speaks. He said, ‘the horse gave me a lovely feeling … he was a little bit keen … but he did everything I wanted him to do and I’m going into the race confident the horse will race well.’
“It was a very glowing report.
“There are obviously horses to beat in the Moir, like Paulele and Zoustyle … good horses,” continued Heathcote, “but I am happy to take them on as opposed to taking on Nature Strip and Eduardo and Mazu … who are the very top of the line.”
The Moir Stakes is the next step in a really incredible Rothfire story … with a second Group 1 win which not that long ago would have been considered a far-fetched pipedream, now tantalisingly close.
“It’s obviously a good story … and that was why there was a lot of emotion there when he won the McEwen at Moonee Valley,” said Heathcote.
On the day that River Fire lit up Brisbane (September 3), Rothfire exploded at Moonee Valley, producing fireworks of his own, to cement his comeback with a spectacular Group 2 victory which, while not attained at the most elite level, certainly still took his connections to a rare level of celebration.
Heathcote has been through it all … and more … with the highly talented son of Rothesay, now a five-year-old gelding, whose career seemed to be over after the shattering injury he suffered in September 2020, in the run-in to what would have been arguably his best shot at The Everest.
The injury … it was career threatening … and recovery, which was backed by an enormous team effort, have both been well documented, but it is still interesting getting Heathcote’s thoughts at this time, two years on from that moment when he was basically traumatised in the aftermath of Rothfire sustaining that injury in the running of the Golden Rose at Rosehill on September 26, 2020.
“My confidence going into the race (the McEwen) was already high,” explained Heathcote. “Let me tell you, when I tip a horse to my golf mates, which I did with Rothfire, it had better win otherwise I’m going to have to find a new gold club because I couldn’t cop the ribbing.”
That confidence came from Rothfire’s progressive runs in the Doomben 10 000, Kingsford-Smith and the Stradbroke (all Group 1’s) … a workload that Rothfire handled well, but there is still a scar that Heathcote carries from those traumatic past events which meant he needed a bit of solitude in which to watch the McEwen Stakes on the day.
When Buffering famously won the Al Quoix for Heathcote in Dubai, there was footage of Heathcote and his foreman Mel Sharpe cheering the Queensland champion home, with Heathcote saying … “he’s coming Mel … he’s coming MEL … HE IS COMING MEL” … before wild celebrations broke out among all of the connections.
This time … while the result was as joyous, watching the race was very different matter for Heathcote.
“I was confident, but I was very nervous at the same time,” admitted Heathcote. “I actually watched the race on my own, away from everybody. I was in the laneway. I could just see the big screen.
“It was just a quiet moment of hope and expectation … but, even though Rothfire is very well and back in the best of condition … the glow in the coat, the glint in the eye … I now always have this fear whenever he does something.
“I was traumatized by the circumstances in which Rothfire suffered his injury. One vet said he won’t come back to racing. We got him back … but that fear from that trauma, to some extent at least, has stayed with me.
“Thankfully, everything went right at Moonee Valley with Damien Lane’s perfectly executed ride and level of professionalism being worthy of special mention.
“He comes out without any fanfare. He gives me the saddle and says, ‘this is how I see the race unfolding. It was word perfect, and then he goes out and executes the plan as perfectly.
“When Rothfire came back, he wasn’t puffing. He wasn’t huffing. He is super-fit. His demeanour is fantastic. He has always been like that from day one.
“An example that best sums Rothfire up is if you go back to a run at Eagle Farm. He came into the enclosure. It belted down with rain. They had to go back to the stalls for twenty minutes. Then they came out again and a strapper got kicked and they needed the ambulance.
“Then they went to the start where there was another delay … and Rothfire never turned a hair. When he was doing his rehabilitation as well with Shannon Betts at Emeran Park, he was a good, well behaved, responsible patient. That sort of attitude can take a horse a long way and it has certainly helped Rothfire with all he has gone through.”
“Moving forward, the program I have set for Rothfire is the perfect one for him,” continued Heathcote, “particularly now that he has ticked box number one … the ability to handle Moonee Valley. He has done that and won a Group 2 and done everything right.
“Next is the $1 million Moir Stakes at Moonee Valley on Friday night and then the plan is for the $2 million Manikato a month later. That, to me, is the right strategy … to space his runs, keep him fresh and keep him happy and we are all going to reap the benefit.
“And here’s another thing. There is a bonus … if you run in the Manikato and don’t win, but you won the McEwen Stakes … if you then go to the Darley Champions Sprint and win that there is a $1 million bonus on top of the $3 million prize-money for that race.
“So, to answer any questions about a possible run in The Everest, we don’t have to share that prize-money for those races I already mentioned with anybody … and, more importantly, whilst The Everest is exciting and is a wonderful concept and one which can be very tempting, you will still be running against the likes of Nature Strip, Eduardo, Masked Raider and others … the very best sprinters, while one can argue that the Manikato and the Darley might not have the very best sprinters … so it might be wise to cut your cloth accordingly.
The Moir Stakes is over 1000m, a distance over which Rothfire is unbeaten having won four out of four over the trip. The Manikato steps up the distance test to 1200m with the Darley being contested over the same distance.
So, between now and November 5, when the Darley Sprint is run at Flemington, it is going to be an important time for Rothfire.
The Heathcote trained Buffering, a multiple Queensland Horse Of The Year winner, made the Moir Stakes his own winning the race in 2012, 2014 and 2015 … and he was also a McEwen Stakes winner back in 2011 … so Moonee Valley has been a very happy stomping ground for Heathcote.
Buffering was renowned for his fighting qualities on the track where he met and overcame challengers with a champion’s heart.
It might be in a very different context, but few can doubt the fact that Rothfire has shown similar and significant strength in meeting and overcoming serious challenges of his own and, in that sense, it would only be fitting if he could put his name up alongside that of Buffering as a Moir Stakes winner.
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