‘Merit’ passes Healesville exam

Aston Merit at Highway 31 Maiden Challenge.

By Gerard Guthrie

Aston Geneve was the talk of Healesville after maintaining her undefeated record in last Sunday’s Group 2 Cup heats (350m), but the performance of her litter brother Aston Merit was also, well, full of ‘merit’.

A superbly bred son of KC And All and 2015 G1 Hume Cup winner Secret Spell, trained by Jason and Jessica Sharp and family at Avalon, Aston Merit was facing the starter for just the third time when he lined up in the last of six heats.

He’d won his first two starts in impressive fashion up the straight in heat and final of the Highway 31 Maiden Challenge over 300m, clocking 16.40sec in the final, less than three lengths outside the track record.

It was nevertheless a massive test stepping immediately up to elite company in the Cup heats, where Aston Merit ($11) was confronted by Hill Top Jonah ($2.10 favourite), which had won five ‘straight’ at Healesville, and defending Cup champion Zambora Lou ($5.40), among others.

Aston Merit mightn’t have won but the novice booked a berth in Sunday’s $50,000 to-the-winner final and certainly lost no admirers when running an excellent second to fastest qualifier Hill Top Jonah in 19.13sec, with his time of 19.28sec the fifth fastest performance in the heats.

“When he won the Highway 31, I said to Ray Borda (owner) that I think we’ll have a crack at the Cup and Ray said ‘why not?’” said Jason Sharp, who won the Healesville Cup in 2018 with Kouta Mayhem.

“He had two trials at Healesville before the Highway 31 series and ran 16.60sec and 16.70s and then won his heat in 16.72sec. They don’t normally go that quick first look.

“If it hadn’t been a straight track I mightn’t have done it (run in the Cup heats) but when they’re running those times it didn’t surprise me that he ran so well.

“I thought the box (8) might have been a problem but he seemed to handle it and moving to the inside this week he’s boxed even better.

“It would’ve been nice if he’d won but he would have won a few other heats and he’d never been out of the 350m boxes before, which in my opinion gives him the most upside out of all the finalists.”

Aston Merit will move from the outside to Box 2 for the G2 SEN Track Healesville Cup final, with TAB marking him at $12.

Tiggerlong Tonk (Box 6) is set to start favourite for the second year running at $2.50, with Hill Top Jonah (Box 1) $3, kennelmate Fernando Boy (Box 5) $4.50 and Aston Merit’s sister Aston Geneve (Box 4), which has won six from six, $6.

“He can definitely win,” Sharp said.

“I wouldn’t have put him in it if I didn’t think he was good enough.

“Hill Top Jonah off the ‘red’ is probably the one to beat but Tiggerlong Tonk and David’s (Geall’s) other dog (Ferdinand Boy) are very good dogs. All the finalists are capable of breaking 19 seconds. Aston Merit hasn’t done it yet but I think he can.

“Straight track races normally come down to who gets out in front and who gets a clear run.

“I’ve been told a few people backed him at 200/1 ‘All in’ before the heats!”

The Sharps sprung a major Healesville Cup upset in 2018, when the race held G3 status, with $20 outsider Kouta Mayhem, which was also a finalist in 2017, victorious at his 51 st start.

Sharp sees plenty of similarities with Aston Merit, which despite his lack of racing experience will turn two and a half next month.

“He reminds me a lot of Kouta Mayhem,” Sharp said.

“He’s just so focused. When you get him out of the trailer he pulls you into the track, he wants to get to the boxes, he wants to race and he wants to win.

“We got him four or five months ago and when you get a dog of his age you think they’ve probably been here, there and everywhere. He showed potential from day one, we put him around Geelong and he ran the hands off the clock.

“We’ve got a good relationship with Ray (Borda). He’s a great owner; he understands the ups and downs and leaves us to focus on training. We also train Aston Lavinia, which has won a few city races.”

Aston Merit is one of three finalists raced by Borda, along with Aston Geneve, which is trained by Kel and Jacqui Greenough, and Anthony Azzopardi’s Aston Titan.