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Kris Lees has warned conditions will make it “very tough” for The Metropolitan-bound Mugatoo to return a winner in the Winter Challenge despite bookmakers taking no risks with the European import.

The Canberra Cup victor will make an unusual return deep into off-season racing and months away from his group 1 target during the spring carnival.

It’s all part of Lees’ plan to ensure Mugatoo’s runs are spaced during the early part of his campaign with the group-placed middle distance prospect not to be seen at the races for another month after the Winter Challenge.

BetEasy quoted Mugatoo as a $4 favourite on Thursday ahead of Noble Boy ($5) and Order Again ($5.50), but Lees was cautious about his star repeating the heroics of his Australian debut last campaign.

“He showed us a bit early so it wasn’t a shock to see him sprint well first-up last time, but it took him every bit of the mile to win that race in inferior grade to what he faces on Saturday,” Lees said.

“It was a pretty low benchmark race for a Saturday race and now he’s starting off in a 1500 metre listed race on a track where it can be a little difficult.

“The 1500 metres at Rosehill with an eight-metre rail makes it very tough for him to win. There’s a few negatives there, but I think the horse is coming up well regardless and he’ll run well.”

Lees cuddled Mugatoo through to the group 1 Tancred Stakes during the autumn where he finished down the track behind Verry Elleegant.

It did little to detract from a maiden Australian campaign which included three straight wins and a close-up second behind Young Rascal in the Manion Cup.

Lees and syndicators Australian Bloodstock will narrow their focus on The Metropolitan during the spring and the Newcastle trainer, who is on the verge of clinching the NSW premiership, said it will become more common for quality horses to start their campaigns in winter.

“He went out reasonably early and I wanted to get him up and going early because we want to keep his runs spaced as much as I can early in his preparation,” Lees said.

‘There’s a few negatives there, but I think the horse is coming up well regardless and he’ll run well.’

Kris Lees

“It’s a little bit difficult with the better quality horses as there’s just not an option for them, but a horse like this gets in OK in a listed race and then he’ll probably run again in five weeks time in the Premier’s Cup.”

The stable will roll out its usual cavalry for a metropolitan program with Lees holding a decent buffer over Chris Waller in the race to prepare the most winners in the state this season.

But the trainer is doubtful whether dual group 3 winner Special Reward will return in the July Sprint after two recent trials.

“If the rain happened to come before Saturday he probably won’t take his place,” Lees said. “He’s another one who has had a nice break and come back well, he’s a high quality horse.

“He’s won group 3s in his last two and he needs to take that next step. It’s a bit of a tricky draw on Saturday with that weight. I’m just not sure where he lands with a bit of pressure in that race.”

The race-fit Roheryn ($2.80) and ex-Victorian Eduardo ($3.80) dominated betting on Thursday from Special Reward ($4.80).

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