KEMBLA Grange trainer Paul Murray prevented Luke Pepper from retaining his Narooma Cup crown by the merest of margins at the Moruya racecourse on Monday.
Four-year-old pre-race favourite Fair Nation made up ground on the home straight to beat defending champion Quichang by a nose after a superb ride by star jockey Jeff Penza.
Young hoop Taylor Lovelock-Wiggins had eight-year-old gelding Quichang in a perfect position at the turn, despite starting wide in barrier 12, and with 50 metres to run it looked as though Pepper would secure back-to-back Narooma Cups.
However, Penza timed his charge perfectly with the winning post in sight to take out the $27,000 feature in stunning fashion.
“It was a bit nerve-racking there at the turn but the horse has always dug deep and Jeff got him outside and got him rolling early,” Murray said.
“He was going to wait and take him up the inside but (Penza) was a bit worried so he got him outside early.”
Murray was “100 per cent” pleased with Penza’s performance and said that he gave the Racing NSW Country Jockey of the Year little to no instruction before the race.
“Jeff knows the horse and asked me what to do but I said ‘I’ll leave it to you’,” he said.
An elated Murray suggested he would likely target Moruya Cup success with Fair Nation on January 21 at the same track.
“We’ll see how he pulls up – that’s his 11th run today and it’s a long 12 months that he’s been in, so we’ll have one more if he pulls up well and then that’ll be it.”
Quichang, who started at $7, was an attractive option for punters before the race and after Pepper took out the Town Plate with Freetoair in race six, there was a feeling around the track that it was going to be the Moruya trainer’s year yet again.
However, Murray insisted he always had faith in Fair Nation ($3.20) to get the job done.
“He did well after his last win at Wagga (in December) and he came through that well so, yeah, we were confident,” he said.
“It was a tight finish but we always had the stride in. Fair Nation had his head coming up and Quichang had his head going down, so I knew we’d get it.”
A massive crowd flooded through the gates to make the most of the near-perfect conditions and witnessed hometown trainers win three of the eight races.
“Going off early estimates, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a record crowd,” Moruya Jockey Club manager Brian Cowden said.
“I’d say we had somewhere around the 3750 mark.”