Star galloper Free Trade made an ominous return at Belmont trials on Monday when cruising to an effortless win in the fastest 1000-metre heat of the day.
Ridden by regular rider Chris Parnham, the Trade Fair five-year-old settled outside of undefeated leader Cliffs Of Comfort in running before lengthening nicely under a strong hold in the straight to score in 1:01:56.
A winner at eight of 15 starts, Free Trade hasn’t been seen since taking out the Listed Pinjarra Stakes and Listed Bunbury Stakes in succession on February 23 and March 4 respectively.
The talented gelding’s trainer, Michael Lane, was thrilled with his stable star’s trial return but says he is still expecting sharp improvement to come.
“I’m really happy where he’s at,” Lane said.
“That was his first gallop with another horse, we’ve just brought him along nice and steady.
“But he’s right where I was hoping he was and I think there’s a lot of improvement there still.
“He went out and he had 10 or 12 weeks off, so he would’ve had to have too long out if I didn’t bring him back in now.
“He’s still a few weeks off racing but he’s come back nice and Chris was very happy.
“He’s a very exciting horse.”
This Saturday’s Listed Bolton Sprint at Belmont is expected to attract a quality line up, with stakes winner Cup Night likely to join a similar field that contested the Listed Beaufine Stakes on July 11 — however — Lane says Free Trade will be held back for an additional three weeks.
He resisted the temptation of setting the gelding for the $100,000 feature and has instead targeted the Listed Belmont Newmarket on August 8 as his first-up assignment.
“He’ll trial again in two weeks and then go 12 days into the Newmarket,” he said.
“Then he’ll go to the Idyllic Prince at Weight-For-Age over 1300.
“He’ll probably carry top-weight in the first race but then he’ll go to Weight-For-Age and have a little breather before the other races come up.
“He’ll only have the two starts, then he’ll go straight into the Ascot carnival basically.
“He’ll just potter around at home before we crank him back up again.”
Asked if Free Trade’s main aim for the summer will be the $1 million Group 1 Railway Stakes (1600m), Lane isn’t entirely convinced the gelding will run a strong eight furlongs in top company.
However, he still hasn’t ruled out tackling the state’s richest mile before a potential assault on the $1 million Group 1 Winterbottom Stakes (1200m) a week later.
“He’s probably an in-between horse, to be honest,” Lane said.
“1300 to 1400 is his optimum distance I think, but we’ll have to go one way or the other.
“On a normal year, they’d be too sharp for him in a Winterbottom I would’ve thought.
“But he might start in both, you never know.
“Ortensia and Glory Hunter did it once, so we’ll see what happens.”
Meanwhile, co-trainer Daniel Pearce was pleased with the return of his exciting sprinter, Cliffs Of Comfort, in the Canford Cliff gelding’s first public appearance since bringing up a winning hat-trick at Ascot on April 4.
Now a rising four-year-old, Cliffs Of Comfort led up his 1000-metre heat before finishing one-length second to Free Trade with Joseph Azzopardi aboard.
“He got a little bit tired at the end of his trial but he’ll take a lot of improvement out of it,” Pearce said.
“Joey was really positive about him afterwards.
“We couldn’t have been happier with his last campaign, it was his first race preparation so to do what he did after overcoming his previous issues was quite promising.
“The form around him held up, too, beating horses like Laverrod and River Beau.”
Currently a 71-rater, Pearce says Cliffs Of Comfort will be restricted to ratings races as he attempts to progress through his classes.
“All things going well, he’ll race first-up in a 66+ 1000-metre race at Belmont on Saturday week,” he said.
“His rating is still low enough to try pick off a few lower-classed races, but he needs to come back even better than he was last prep to plan too much further than that.
“Hopefully he can go through the grades a bit this time in and, if he can do that, we might start looking at some better races for him over the summer at Ascot.”