Six months ago, John Singleton bought controlling interest in Strawberry Road II, one of Australia's top thoroughbreds, by signing a $1 million IOU on the back of a betting ticket at a Canberra race track. He and partner Ray Stehr planned to breed the 5-year-old, who won 12 races and $578,268 last year.
Trainer John Nicholls, a former sports reporter, had different visions. He acknowledged that Strawberry Road II was in poor physical condition, overworked after 19 starts against top-class competitors in 1983. But he convinced the owners to let him try to rejuvenate Strawberry Road II for competition.
Three races later, Strawberry Road II could become the second Australian horse to win the $250,000 Washington, D.C. International Saturday at Laurel Race Course. The field probably will number 10 or 11, depending on whether Roving Minstrel competes.
"He had a hard campaign in Sydney," Nicholls said of Strawberry Road II, who first worked out at Laurel yesterday. "He raced for 16 months without a break. When I took him over he was very light and physically drained."
Nicholls targeted Strawberry Road II for the the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the International.
"Next to the Kentucky Derby, the International is the most recognized (American) race in Australia," Nicholls said. "The prestige is still there, no matter what the purse is. The Arc de Triomphe has a lesser purse, but it's the most important race in Europe."
Strawberry Road II rested four months before being shipped to West Germany, where he finished second in a Group 3 stake and first in the Group 1 Grosser Preis von Baden. In the Arc de Triomphe, he managed a late lead but tired in the final furlong and finished fifth. Nicholls said, "They called his ride a suicide tactic. We didn't say anything."
Lester Piggott, with a record three International victories, was scheduled to ride Strawberry Road II, but instead opted for the Champion Stakes in England.
"I'd like to think it won't matter, but when Lester's Lester, nobody's better," Nicholls said.
"The horse is versatile; soft or firm (turf), fast or slow (pace), he's always adapted well to specific conditions. He's got good speed, but we want a guy who will keep him just off the leaders."
Australian Gary Moore will replace Piggott.
"Yes, this sport has emotion," Nicholls said, "right down to the selection of the jockey."
Such excitement, he said, began dwindling after seven years of covering yachting, cricket and horse racing for the Sydney Morning Herald. He was tired of deadlines and late hours, but "general monotony" ultimately caused him to turn to training. Of his 14 horses, none has gratified him more than Strawberry Road II.
"Seeing him come along has given me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction," Nicholls said. "It's like writing a good story and having your editors really appreciate it and give it a good run.