BY HIS own admission, Sutton Grange trainer Ross Graham concedes winning the $20,000 Vale Stan Rutland Pace (2150m) at Lord's Raceway on Saturday night with Major Manbar would be a major surprise.
But it would also be a major honour.
The race for NR 78 to 87 pacers will honour the former long-time Bendigo harness racing administrator, who died on June 29, aged 85.
Rutland's long involvement in racing included stints as president of the Bendigo Harness Racing Club and executive director of the Bendigo Owners, Trainers and Drivers Association.
He was also a life member of the Victorian Breeders and Studmasters Association.
His most notable involvement as a horse owner was with the Bruce Morgan-trained Group 1 winner and free-for-all star Denver Gift.
Rutland was also a part-owner of the talented multiple country cups winner Sports Dancer, who was trained in Bendigo by Ross Graham's uncle Garry Graham.
The connection is not lost on him.
"He was probably the best pacer I ever drove, Sports Dancer, or the fastest I've ever driven anyway," Graham said.
"He was electric out of the gate and had enormous speed and Stan owned him in partnership with uncle Garry.
"He won somewhere around 20 races (22), but was cut down by injury. He bowed a tendon at one point and he had niggling issues with that for the remainder of his career, but he was top-notch.
"We'll be up against it, drawing nine, but it would be a nice race to win for sure."
Major Manbar, a winner of 11 of 66 starts for $118,760 in earnings, will be one of the outsiders in the field, which is headed by the Emma Stewart-trained Von Art, who is an early $2.50 favourite and chasing an eighth straight win.
The powerful Julie Douglas stable at Strathfieldsaye shapes as a major player with three chances - Magic Mike, to be driven by Jack Laugher, Rick Reilly (Ellen Tormey) and Would You Mind (Abby Sanderson).
READ MORE: Wins keep flowing for Douglas stable
Graham will be hoping for a bit of luck in his bid to claim the race bearing the name of such a great contributor to the sport of harness racing.
"(Gate) nine is not all bad for him, he's the sort of horse that needs to find a helmet to follow pretty quick smart for him to relax," he said.
"But on his present form, he's probably not going as well as he can.
"A win would be a surprise. He had a foot abscess about six weeks ago, and even though he ran second at Ballarat (two starts ago), he hasn't really regained the form he had prior to that foot abscess.
"His work is up there, but he'd need everything to fall into place."
Instilling much more confidence in Graham is Nephew Of Sonoko, his contender in the Group 3 Wagon Apollo Trotters Free For All.
The six-year-old Danny Bouchea gelding's run of four straight wins was broken by his last start third at Ballarat at Group 2 level behind Adelle and Maori Law.
He takes on a similar field on Saturday, headed by the likes of Maori Law, Sundons Courage, Kyvalley Chief and Humble Ladd, but minus Adelle.
Graham could not be happier with Nephew Of Sonoko's progress.
"There was nothing wrong with his last run, he sat in the breeze and did all the work, and got run down late," he said.
"We still have Maori Law to contend with and there are some other really nice horses in it and we've drawn seven, so that makes it difficult.
"I can't see why he shouldn't go well. He's been working well since his last run, so all's good I think."
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