Just a week ago, many were questioning the wisdom of Lance Justice. Some even suggested he should be charged for a crime against the elderly.
His ride with veteran Smoken Up had been an incredible one, but with age finally beginning to weary the pacer, it not only seemed audacious, but somewhat ludicrous for Justice to even consider bringing the 11-year-old to Sydney in the hope of gaining a berth in the SEW Eurodrive Miracle Mile.'Two unplaced runs in his previous three starts should have deterred the trainer. It didn't, and once again we were taught to never doubt a champion, or a man who knows his warrior.
"Sure he had been a little bit vulnerable at Melton in some of his recent runs, but I knew that when we got to Menangle … I've seen it before, he just feels bigger and stronger here," Justice explained.
The saying horses for courses could have been penned for Smoken Up and the Tabcorp Park Menangle circuit. He has raced there 11 times, for eight wins, two seconds and a creditable third behind Blacks a Fake in the 2010 Inter Dominion final.
"He just loves it," Justice said. "That was my thinking about coming up to Sydney. The big track, the wide open spaces. At Menangle he just grows a length or two and he showed that again last Saturday night."
In the space of less than two minutes, Smoken Up went from longshot to make the Miracle Mile field, to race favourite, courtesy of a blistering 1min.49.9s performance in the Cordina Chicken Farms Sprint, a win which was accompanied by an invitation to the Mile.
"I actually could have gone quicker," Justice revealed. "When I got to the front, I backed off in the second quarter. So you can expect him to go quicker this week.
"Is his track record (1min.48.5s) a chance to go? I definitely think he can get down around it. He showed me last Saturday he can comfortably break 1min.50s … it's not too much further to go to the record."
Justice admits the Miracle Mile has been an event which captured his imagination from an early age, and one he has pursued.
"It's 10 years ago I won my first one with Sokyola, and I've won four out of the last nine. It would be good to improve that to five out of last 10."
History beckons both driver and trusty steed on Saturday. No horse has won three Miracle Miles. After his wins in 2010 and 2011, a third awaits Smoken Up.
No driver has ever won four Miles. Justice won aboard Sokyola in 2003, but when the pacer defended his crown a year later, Justice was sidelined through suspension. He did partner Smoken Up both times however, so victory this weekend would see him surpass the three wins of Vic Frost and Tony Herlihy.
Smoken Up showed dazzling speed to lead from gate nine last Saturday. This week he has drawn one, and while some judges have suggested he could be crossed at the start, Justice will hear nothing of it.
"Number one ... he loves the one. He won't be crossed. Some have said that other horse (Mach Beauty) will be leading him … look at replay from last week. Without stoking him up too much I was able to come out equally as good as that horse. It didn't pull away from me, and I can tell you now, I'll hold him from one."
While it's often said, the NSW Harness Racing Club really has assembled one of its finest fields for this year's Miracle Mile. While Smoken Up is the $3.20 favourite, it's a wide market with TAB.COM.AU fixed odds, with For A Reason ($3.60), Beautide ($4.50), the brilliant Kiwi Chirstian Me ($5), and triple New Zealand Cup winner Terror To Love ($7), all given a serious chance of winning.
Even a victory from Restrepo ($18), Mach Beauty ($21) or I'm Victorious ($26), would not surprise too many, except maybe Lance Justice, who makes you want to believe there really is one more special moment left for his old mate Trigger.
G2 - Prix Doynel De Saint-quentin
G2 - Prix Joseph Lafosse
Listed - Secretariat Stakes
Listed - Southeaster Sprint
G2 - Southern Cross Stakes