Day At The Track

Heaven Rocks' courage in doubt

06:00 AM 10 Oct 2017 NZDT
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Heaven Rocks, harness racing
A greasy heel may have been to blame for Heaven Rocks' failure at Addington on Friday
New Zealand Herald Photo

The Heaven Rocks spell has been broken. Because while the extraordinarily talented pacer is already back on the New Zealand Cup trail punters could be forgiven for thinking the big fella has already lost our greatest race.

Heaven Rocks stunned his connections and burnt punters when he raced erratically and dropped out to finish last in his comeback race at Addington on Friday night.

So wayward was he in the home straight and proppy when returning to the stables there were initial fears he has broken down.

By Saturday morning they were allayed and it turns out a greasy heel may have been the cause of the problems that dented his aura while bullet-proof stablemate Lazarus ground his way to an unexpected victory.

Driver Natalie Rasmussen, who has little tolerance for mental or physical weakness in horses, was blunt in her assessment.

"Plenty of other horses wouldn't have let it bother them but he is a bit of a baby like that," says Rasmussen.

"It doesn't take a lot to put him off his game but the good news is he is fine now and straight back into work.

"We galloped him in work today and he will hopple again tomorrow [Tuesday]."

So effectively Heaven Rocks, who had been flying at the trials before the race and was expected to be too fit and sharp for Lazarus, hasn't missed much from a New Zealand Cup point of view.

He is still targeting the Flying Stakes at Ashburton on October 23 and could sneak in a race at Addington on November 3, three races pre-Cup plenty for such an athletic horse who was already advanced after two trials and some dazzling work at home.

And the ever-cautious TAB bookies have hardly given up on Heaven Rocks, as he is still a warm second favourite at $3.60 for the November 14 Cup, with Lazarus in to $1.75 from as long as $2.50 on Friday.

But while Heaven Rocks can still win the Cup and there could still be other twists and turns in the five weeks before the Addington thriller, does anybody really want to back Heaven Rocks any more?

There is no doubting his talent and his motor might be as big as Lazarus but he has always been a hard horse to trust, particularly when things get tough.

And things don't get any tougher in harness racing than a New Zealand Cup.

Any mental deficiencies can be exposed by the biggest, and noisiest, crowd in New Zealand racing and clearly Heaven Rocks doesn't need much to upset him.

But perhaps more importantly a New Zealand Cup paced at sub 3:55 places a premium on courage and the ability to run through the pain barrier.

Lazarus proved he can master those physical threats when he won the Cup by 10 lengths last season while Dream About Me also has nothing to prove on that front after a race record in the Auckland Cup.

As good as Heaven Rocks is Friday reminded us there is no room for sulking in the sulky.

So until we see glaring evidence to the contrary, it is hard to make any case he can beat Lazarus or even Dream About in our most brutal pacing race. That is not to say he can't win the Cup, but all of a sudden he feels more like a 8-1 chance.

ROAD TO THE NZ CUP

Friday: Holmes D G at Alexandra Park.
Sunday: Methven Cup.
Oct 23: Flying Stakes, Ashburton.
Oct 30: Kaikoura Cup.
Nov 3: Potentially open class races at both Addington and Alexandra Park.

By Michael Guerin

Courtesy of The New Zealand Herald

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