IT HAS been a harness racing year to remember for Alex Ashwood and Tayla French, but the young partners hope they have saved their best for last.
The couple has enjoyed an incredibly prolific first six months at their Lord's Raceway base and will look to end 2021 on a high with a trio of Group 1 runners on a much-anticipated Vicbred Super Series finals night at Tabcorp Park Melton on Friday.
Spearheading their chances will be the undoubted star of their stable Parisian Artiste.
The ever-improving three-year-old gelding is racing in rare form with three-straight wins to his credit.
The son of Love You and the mare Schleck topped off his Vicbred preparation with a scintillating 12.7m heat win at Maryborough on December 20, and looks as well placed as any time before to challenge the might of this year's three-year-old boys' Breeders Crown champion Aldebaran Zeus.
In an intriguing twist, Aldebaran Zeus and Parisian Artiste have drawn one and two, setting the scene for a titanic battle between the top two fancies in betting.
Trainer Ashwood continues to be impressed with his trotter's sharp progression and is certain Parisian Artist is making inroads into Aldebaran Zeus' dominance.
"He's racing in great form this campaign and is just getting bigger and stronger and better each time," he said.
"It's going to be a great tussle between Aldebaran Zeus and him.
"We'd like to be in front - there's probably a small chance of that happening.
"In saying that, Zeus is a great horse and he has been a great three-year-old through his campaign this time in.
"He's probably been the benchmark this whole campaign, but our fellow is bridging the gap every time he goes around and I don't think he will be too far away."
While a Group 1 victory would be a magnificent feather in the cap, Ashwood continues to be excited by Parisian Artiste beyond Friday night.
"In six months' time when he comes back, he's going to be racing the big boys because that's where he is national rating is," he said.
"I think he is more than capable of taking that next step into open company.
"He is going to be a serious horse into his four-year-old year."
Ashwood considers La Serena - a winner at Ballarat in the lead-up to her heat fifth behind Ofortuna at Melton - a sneaky chance of taking the fight to the higher-profile hopes in the four-year-old trotting mares final.
"She is not out of it - I think her run in the heat was full of merit at Melton," he said.
"Sat parked and in good time, the winner was on the fence and Pink Galahs was behind the leader.
"She only got beaten by six-metres and her run was full of merit.
"I think this mare, if she gets the right run, covered up and saved for the last crack at them, she will be more than quick enough to to make her presence felt and figure at the end of the race."
The first of three runners for the night will come in the four-year-old mares final (race one on the card) with Roquefort Cheese.
The daughter of Betterthancheddar is an early 100-1 chance.
In a season that has already produced 60 training wins in a little over six months, Ashwood would like nothing better than to add to that tally on a night when 12 Group 1 races in total will be contested.
"It's always a great feeling on those nights when you come home with the chocolates - it's a great thrill," he said.
"That's why you get up early in the morning and do what we do, to win these sort of races.
"Hopefully we can one on Friday night."
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