AN injury-plagued “ugly duckling”, Clearly Innocent wasn’t thought to be an attractive enough proposition for sale as a yearling.
On Saturday at Randwick, the six-year-old gelding which earned the title ‘King of Scone’ will try to conquer the biggest mountain in turf racing.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking that when he came to me,” Newcastle trainer Kris Lees said about Clearly Innocent competing in the $10 million The Everest (1200m).
Lees has guided the former Greg Bennett-trained Country Championship winner to group 1 glory and a start in the inaugural Everest. He came to Lees’ stables from the retiring Bennett around the time the Everest was announced in February.
Under Lees, the Cressfield Stud sprinter defended his listed Luskin Star Stakes title at Scone and won the group 1 Kingsford Smith Cup at Eagle Farm. Thirds in the Stradbroke Handicap and Premiere Stakes have been enough to gain Damion Flower’s slot in the Everest, where the winner takes home $5.8 million and last gets $175,000.
It’s already an amazing rise for a horse which has overcome stifle, hock and throat surgeries to win $1.23 million and nine of 17 starts.
“It's been a fairytale from day one with Clearly Innocent,” Bennett told Fairfax Media. “Who would have thought he would come from a Scone maiden to running in a $10 million race in the space of 2 1/2 years? Three years ago no one had heard of the horse. He's had to go through a lot of difficulties as a young horse to even get to the racetrack.”
Lees said Clearly Innocent was “ready to go” but “he’s going to a pretty high level this week, so we’ll see where he’s at”. He hoped predictions of quick early pace would prove on the money for his noted fast-finisher, which will start from gate six of 12 with champion jockey Hugh Bowman aboard.
“That will suit him because it means they will probably be vulnerable late and he’ll be strong through the line,” Lees said. “If they go slow through the early section they will be hard to catch, those high-quality horses up on the speed.”
Lees’ biggest win was the 2016 Queen Elizabeth Stakes with Lucia Valentina, which earned $2.51 million for the victory – less than half of the Everest first prize.
“It’s a new concept, it’s the richest race ever conducted on turf anywhere in the world, so to have a runner in it is huge really,” Lees said.
Despite Clearly Innocent’s sharp rise to The Everest, Lees was confident from the start that he was on a winner.
“Knowing the owners well, I always knew he had ability,” he said. “It’s no great surprise to anyone that he’s racing at this level. He’s an ugly duckling. He’s not going to win any awards pre-race. He’s got a few faults from a racing conformation point of view, but there’s no rules to that.”
Lees said Sense Of Occasion (bruised foot) would not run in the Craven Plate, where he also accepted with Singing. He said Yulong Xingsheng was a place chance in the Reginald Allen Quality but Doukhan faced a tough task in the St Leger Stakes.
As for Clearly Innocent’s main opposition, Lees said: “I think Vega Magic, if he gets the right run. If they go too quick, Chautauqua will be strong. It’s a good race.”
Bennett, meanwhile, told Fairfax Media he is finalising a lease for a property in the Gold Coast hinterland where he will resume his training career.