An outstanding trial gallop from star sprinter Levante has only served to multiply the butterflies in Matamata trainer Ken Kelso's stomach leading into one of the biggest weeks of his career.
Levante prepared for Monday week's Gr.1 Sistema Railway (1200m) at Te Rapa with a dashing second to Babylon Berlin in a Group and Listed horse trial at Matamata on Friday.
Regular rider Ryan Elliot had a tight grip on the dual Group One winner as she produced a trial which delighted Kelso and his wife and training partner Bev.
"It was a nice trial. She flew the gates. I was very, very happy," Kelso said afterwards.
"I was delighted with the way she went to the line. She hasn't raced since Melbourne and that trial will bring her on immensely. She'll get real benefit from that and that should have us pretty much bang on target for the Railway."
A winner of 10 of her 17 starts, including this year's Gr.1 Telegraph (1200m)-BCD Group Sprint (1400m) double, Levante's last two runs have been at Flemington for fourth placings in the Gr.1 Newmarket (1200m) in March and the Gr.1 VRC Sprint (1200m) last month.
"Her fresh-up form is very good. Before the VRC Sprint, she'd never been beaten fresh and her run in that race was the equivalent of winning one over here," Kelso said.
"Ryan said she just jumped and put herself there, then travelled well the whole way. He was really happy with her. The track was testing enough to make her do a little bit of work so he was as delighted as we were."
TAB bookmakers have Levante as a $3 favourite for the Railway, ahead of Imperatriz at $5 and Bonny Lass and Dragon Leap at $7. Heat winner Babylon Berlin shares the next line of betting with Letzbeglam at $10.
But more pressing for the Kelsos will be two Group assignments at Pukekohe on Boxing Day, with last-start Gr.1 New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) winner Legarto tackling the Gr.2 ATR Eight Carat Classic (1600m) and fellow three-year-old filly Divici Belle contesting the Gr.3 Shaw's Wire Ropes Uncle Remus Stakes (1400m).
Unbeaten in four starts, Legarto had her final gallop in preparation for the Eight Carat Classic at Matamata on Friday morning, pleasing her trainers with her effort.
"She galloped up on the course proper this morning with Belle En Rouge against the rail and worked extremely well so I'm happy with her too," Kelso said.
"She's done well since the trip to Christchurch. I expect her to go another great race at Pukekohe and to keep her record intact. This looks a touch stronger than Riccarton but she can't have done any more than what she's done up to now. She's ready to go. I'm happy with her."
Legarto, the TAB's $1.40 favourite for the Eight Carat Classic, had an exhibition gallop at Te Rapa last Saturday under Elliot, who was glowing in his assessment of the filly afterwards.
"His first words coming back after that gallop were: 'Gee, the trip has really improved her'. She was always a little laid back in her gallops but he said she was really on the job and ran through the line,” Kelso said.
"The trip has made her grow up a bit and it certainly hasn't done her any harm. You wouldn't have thought she'd even been to Putaruru. She's done really well since. It's all systems go for the Eight Carat."
The Kelsos were pleased with Divici Girl, who ran a luckless eighth at Te Rapa earlier this month, denied clear running room along the inside.
"Before that race I said to (breeder-owner) Marie Leicester that if we run in the first four, we'll have a crack at the Uncle Remus. With what happened, she should have run in the first four so we couldn't find a reason not to go," Kelso said.
"It's come up a really strong field but if she'd got a clear run the other day, I believe she could have pushed Wild Night. Not saying she would have beaten him, but we think she should have run in the first two or three, so she deserves a crack.
"She's very well, worked up well and drawn well again (in barrier one)."
With three key runners over the Christmas carnival, it would be easy to assume that the Kelsos have a dearth of horses to pick from but Ken revealed that wasn't the case.
"We're only working eight at the moment so we've been very lucky with the quality of horses we've got," he said.
"We're pretty hands on still. We've got some nice horses. But it's going to make for a nerve-wracking week coming up, that's for sure."