Jockey Blake Spriggs believes the John Thompson-trained Grand Piano has the potential to jump-start his career in the group 1 Stradbroke Handicap and make four weeks in quarantine time well spent.
Spriggs travelled to Queensland on the weekend to start a two-week quarantine to allow him to ride Grand Piano in the June 6 feature at Eagle Farm.
The Sydney-based Novocastrian is staying with good friend and Newcastle Jockey Club's industry liaison and racing supervisor Michael Buckley at Winston Wallabies Retreat in Sheldon during quarantine, which is in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spriggs accepted the offer from Waratah Thoroughbreds boss Paul Fudge to ride Grand Piano at 51 kilograms in the Stradbroke. He was surprised late on Monday when weights were released and Grand Piano was given 49.5kg. The lowest he has ridden is 50kg. He was 53kg on Monday but he has time on his side to get it down.
Grand Piano, a three-year-old gelding, has won four of his past five starts, all in Sydney. Spriggs rode Sir John Hawkwood to a group 1 victory in The Metropolitan, and with it a Melbourne Cup start, in 2016 for Thompson and Fudge.
However, this season has not been kind to Spriggs, who had surgery to remove badly damaged meniscus in his knee in late November. He returned on March 7 but has since had only 22 rides and no wins.
He wanted to stay with fiancee and fellow hoop Rachel King in Sydney but that has limited his opportunities on the track during the pandemic. Racing NSW has restricted jockeys to nominated zones since mid-March and Spriggs has had just 14 rides in the highly competitive metro zone.
To ride Grand Piano, Spriggs will miss two weeks of racing before the Stradbroke and another two in quarantine when he returns to Sydney. However, he was keen to make the sacrifice for the opportunity after his frustrating recent spell, which included missing out on riding subsequent winner Nettoyer in the Doncaster.
"It's come at a great time," Spriggs said. "I was in the mix to ride Nettoyer in the Doncaster, it came down to Jimmy Innes and myself and I obviously missed out. That was a little bit disappointing, but I was very happy for Jimmy.
"It was a little bit of a kick in the guts because I knew it was going to be hard work to make a positive out of this negative time [during COVID-19]. I try not to complain because there are people doing it a lot worse than me, but in terms of my career, it couldn't have come at a worse time.
"I was trying to come back from injury and didn't have any momentum to carry into the city area."
Given the setbacks, Spriggs said he was driven to "do whatever it takes to get it done" on Grand Piano.
"He just keeps stepping up to the mark and from what I'm told by form analysts in terms of ratings, he's not far off the mark at the weights," he said. "His ratings have been quite high when he's won. He only just won last start but he was still a three-year-old against the older horses and he had 56.5.
"Now he drops down against quality horses, but they are quality horses who are probably struggling to find their best form.
"It looks a race this year that could be set up for a horse like him, who's on the way up and pretty untapped. If he can put in a peak performance with that weight, he should be top four or five."
Adding to the gamble for Spriggs is the fact Grand Piano is not guaranteed a start. He believed nominations would fall away enough to get him in the race. He also hoped to pick up more rides in Brisbane and help kick-start his career back home.
"I'd love to make the most of it," he said. "I'd like to think the connections I've had success for will see that I can still get the job done with the right horse. I'm still a group 1 winner and I've got plenty of experience, so hopefully they can throw me some rides and I can show them what I can do."
Spriggs was out for three months with his knee injury but he is finally riding pain-free.
"The surgeon and physio were happy after about 10 weeks but I just felt that the extra two weeks would be beneficial long term, and at that time I wasn't in a rush to get back," he said.
"I had the injury for two years and it really plagued me the last 12 months, so I just wanted to give it the two weeks just to be certain.
"Thankfully, I haven't known about it since I've been back, which is great."
He will be clear to ride Grand Piano in work in the week leading up to the Stradbroke.