STAR trainer Ciaron Maher says it's a tough choice trying to separate the chances of his two runners in Wednesday's $400,000 Group 3 Bendigo Cup.
Maher and co-trainer David Eustace have the two favourites in the 2400m feature, with the progressive Smokin' Romans ($3.20) on top in early betting markets ahead of his stable-mate Tooradin ($4.40).
The Phillip Stokes-trained top-weight Amade is next in line at $4.80, with Maddie Raymond's triple country cups winner Wentwood - to be ridden by Swan Hill's Harry Coffey - the only other runner under $10 at $7.50.
Maher and Eustace will be attempting to go one better in the race than in 2018, when they finished second with Dal Harraild behind the Brent Stanley-trained local Red Alto.
They also finished fifth with Bondeiger in 2019 in the cup won by the Michael Moroney-trained Top of the Range.
Maher said the pair would dearly love to tick off a Bendigo Cup win and he was certain they had the horses to do it in one of the most even fields to contest the race in the last decade.
"Tooradin has had a super prep - last start was a funnily run race and they didn't build a lot of momentum into the straight," he said of the five-year-old's seventh in the Group 2 Herbert Power Stakes at Caulfield.
"But he has trained on really nicely. Both horses get into the race with a really nice weight and both horses are in really good form.
"There's probably not a helluva lot between them - I think the market's probably not far off.
"Smokin' Romans is going to drop from a big weight down to the minimum and he's got a nice draw.
"I think he will improve a bit off the other day because he had a while between runs.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he improves."
The progressive five-year-old has been racing in terrific form, with his last-start second over the 2400m cup distance at Caulfield coming on the back of three straight wins in benchmark 84 and 78 events.
Last year's Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Jye McNeil will take the ride aboard Smokin' Romans, while Linda Meech has been engaged for Tooradin.
The most obvious danger to their hopes, according to Maher, is Wentwood, who will be looking to add to his victories in last year's St Arnaud and Werribee cups and this year's Terang Cup.
The Warrnambool-trained seven-year-old looks primed following a Group 2 second in his lead-up run in the Coongy Handicap at Caulfield.
"He (Wentwood) is probably a bit over the odds. It was a good run last start and he looks like he's got a good draw," Maher said.
"It will be a competitive race.
"We'd love to win it, it's one of the big country cups and both of our horses are progressive horses.
"It would be fantastic for the owners.
"Gerry (Ryan) has been pretty keen to have Tooradin pretty right for his cup."
In reference to it not being the strongest cup field in recent memory, Maher said: "They never are, until you try and win them and then they're always tough enough."
Meanwhile, while there will be no crowd to cheer on a winner due to COVID-19 regulations, it's shaping as a massive day for the Bendigo training ranks with 12 trainers saddling up runners.
Best of the hopes appear to be the Brendon Hearps-trained Vungers and Bob Donat-trained Tatunka in the heat of the Melbourne Cup Carnival Country Series, with the top two placegetters going through to the $500,000 final on Oaks day at Flemington (November 4).
Rod Symons and Brent Stanley will enter the day in form after respective wins at St Arnaud on Sunday and Benalla on Monday and will have two of the leading hopes in the 1100m benchmark 64 handicap in Kiata and El Salto.
Last Saturday's Group 2-winner Josh Julius, Shane Fliedner, Kym Hann, Arthur Pace, Matthew Enright, Danny Curran, Sean Mott and Janet Wicks will also be represented.
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