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Article by Daryl Timms

Already with a glowing CV further bolstered by victories in five hurdles last year including the famed Galleywood Hurdle (3200m), the Australian Hurdle (3900m), the Brendan Drechsler Hurdle (3500m) and the Grand National Hurdle (4200m), Saunter Boy returns to Pakenham on Sunday where his glorious jumps campaign kicked-off in 2022 with a win in the MJ Bourke Hurdle (3200m).

With an unblemished record over the jumps in 2022 for training partners Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, the 10-year-old gelding headlines a six race program as he attempts to defend his title as the 72kg top weight in the $100,000 MJ Bourke Hurdle which has attracted a field of eight.

And Declan Maher, who is co-trainer and runs the Ballarat stable for his brother and Eustace, has warned potential rivals that Saunter Boy is shaping up as a better jumper than he was last year.

He said the grey’s run on the flat two weeks ago over 2400m was great.

“Obviously we are just following a very similar path to last year,” Maher said.

“We kicked off at Pakenham before running at the Galleywood at Warrnambool and it’s probably one of his mini grand finals at Warrnambool.

“I probably had him a little bit earlier this year and he is probably a little bit fitter than he was then. I was probably slightly chasing my tail a bit last year because he had a deeper prep the year before but this time he didn’t run at the final meeting of the year and went out a little bit earlier and came in a little earlier.”

Obviously being aware that Saunter Boy would carry more weight this campaign – he has 2.5kg more than when he contested the MJ Bourke Hurdle in 2022 – Maher said he didn’t want the champion “too soft” going into his first assignment of the season.

Carrying an extra kg that he did in his last three hurdle races last year, Maher points out that Saunter Boy won the Australian Hurdle by nine lengths with the big weight and also scored impressively in the Drechsler Hurdle and also won the Grand National with 71kg.

“It’s scary to say but he possibly could be going better than ever because he possibly could be a little bit better at jumping because he a little bit older and a bit more season and is relaxing a bit better,” he said.

With his two jumps trials at Cranbourne this year, the first on February 23 and the following one in early March, Declan said he believed Saunter Boy, which kicked off his campaign in early February in the Colac Cup (2000m), was jumping cleaner.

Drawn barrier one, Maher said they would leave it up to regular rider Steve Pateman to decide the tactics on Saunter Boy but he couldn’t imagine him being behind too many of the other runners.

“He should dictate terms and be hard to beat,” he said.

“The track won’t be a problem for him. He has won on a heavy at Warrnambool and has won on a good track, so it doesn’t matter much to him as he is very versatile.”

Saunter Boy will again head to the Warrnambool Racing Carnival, which kicks off on May 2, to defend his Galleywood Hurdle title on the third day of the carnival.

The Ciaron Maher and Eustace camp are well represented at Sunday’s meeting.

Declan Maher rates six-year-old Stern Idol, a last start winner over 3000m on the flat at Sandown, as being in super form as the gelding makes his debut over the fences in the other feature of the day, the $100,000 JEH Spencer Memorial Steeplechase (3500m).

A dual winner over the hurdles, Maher said the gelding’s steeple trials had been impressive and he was settling now more after being a bit of a tearaway last season when he would get hot and bothered before races.

“I can’t fault him at home and he is jumping really well and being a great big horse, we always knew that jumping fences would be more to his liking as the hurdles are too small for him,” he said.

“The Pakenham meeting is a great kick-off for him and it’s a nice big track and he has won over the hurdles there and it should set him pretty right for the Brierly (3450m) at Warrnambool.”

Maher estimates Stern Idol would be about 17.3 hands.

With an abundance of entries for the maiden hurdle, two divisions of the 3200m race will be run but Maher isn’t sure whether they’ll race the former Kris Lees trained Aquileon which has trialled over the jumps.

If the track is too heavy, Maher said the six-year-old’s hurdle debut could be saved for Warrnambool.

The stable’s Rockstar Ronnie, a winner over the fences in England, will make his Australian jumping debut in the 3200m Chase where he will carry 72.5kg.

He was scratched from the barriers in March at Sandown and was sent to horse breaker Julien Welsh for educational work to improve the gelding’s barrier manners. He has won a hurdle and a steeplechase trial.

“He is on track for the Grand Annual which has been the plan all along for him and this race will be a nice stepping stone on the way to that,” Maher said.

“He has got his quirks but the longer we have him, the more we iron them out and it will be exciting to see him kick-off over the jumps and then it’s off to Warrnambool.”

And Declan Maher, who is a trainer in his own right, also has two horses running for him at Pakenham.

He has Nelson in the John Adams Memorial Hurdle (3200m) and said the gelding couldn’t have been any more impressive than winning his maiden hurdle at Warrnambool in March.

“It’s also a great stepping stone for him as well,” he said.

“He’ll most likely head to the novice hurdle at Warrnambool and will probably also have a nomination for the Galleywood, depending on how he goes at Pakenham.”

Declan Maher’s other runner, Epizeel, won a 3200m maiden hurdle at Terang in March and will contest the same steeplechase as Rockstar Ronnie.

“He has pretty well been faultless at his first two jumps runs and was first in his first run at Terang and second the other day at Hamilton,” he said.

Maher said Epizeel, which ran third in the 4652m Jericho Cup at Warrnambool in November, was also headed to the Grand Annual Steeplechase (5500m).