Matt Lanigan may be a two-time Group 1-winning trainer but says he’s never been as nervous as before prodigious talent On The Bit made a miraculous return from a career-threatening injury at Healesville on Tuesday afternoon.
Lanigan won the 2016 G1 Hobart Thousand with Zipping Bruiser and G1 Sale Cup in 2019 with Weblec Eagle, but On The Bit’s scintillating comeback in what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill Grade 5 heat was every bit as emotion-charged and satisfying for the 29-year-old.
At his first start since sustaining a severe Achilles tendon injury at Geelong in May, On The Bit, an August 2019 son of Orson Allen and Paua To Excite, sizzled up the straight 350m course in 18.89sec.
“It was unbelievable; it was something else,” said Lanigan.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win G1 races and been in quite a few Group races but I’ve never been as nervous before a race as I was on Tuesday, just because of all the hard work we’ve put in and how special the dog is.
“My partner Emily (Azzopardi) said to me before I left that there was no pressure because it wasn’t his ideal distance and I couldn’t have cared what time he ran, but for him to run the same time as Ferdinand Boy ran in winning the (Healesville) Cup was incredible.
“I had tears after the race, Em had tears, and his breeder, Graham James, messaged me and he shed a few tears as well.
“Emily took On The Bit’s sister She Can Excite to Horsham on Tuesday afternoon and she won too, so it was a great day for the litter.”
It’s not only the obvious ability that’s taken On The Bit to six wins from his nine starts that has him in the spotlight; he’s raced by the Correct Weight Syndicate, which comprises some of the biggest names in Victorian thoroughbred racing.
His ownership group includes Melbourne Cup winning jockey Jye McNeil, who rode Twilight Payment to victory in the race that stops the nation last year, John Allen, Victoria’s premier jockey in 2020-21, another G1 winning hoop in Harry Coffey and successful Warrnambool trainer Daniel Bowman.
The fifth member of the partnership is Paul McDowall, who is revered in local circles as Warrnambool’s ‘number one plasterer’!
“Paul is the ring-in!” laughed Lanigan.
“He is the forgotten owner but he absolutely loves it and he and Daniel have bought a few more dogs with me, which is great.
WATCH: At his first run since May 28, On The Bit (1) set Healesville alight on Tuesday afternoon, clocking a flying 18.89sec at his straight-track debut.
“I’ve been so lucky to have such a great group of owners. Coming from horse racing backgrounds they totally understand the situation. There’s been no pressure from them at all, they just said to take my time.
“They’ve been super and I was so happy for them and to be able to repay a bit of the faith they’ve shown in me.”
The date On The Bit’s promising career came perilously close to being permanently derailed before getting off the ground is indelibly stamped in Lanigan’s memory, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“He snapped his Achilles at Geelong on May 28, and it actually happened the same week that Emily and I went out on our own,” Lanigan explained.
“So we’ve had five months without our best dog.
“I got Des Fegan (veterinary surgeon) to operate on him and he stitched it up.
“Des said it was up with the worst injuries of this kind he’d seen and that the possibility of him racing again was pretty slim. But he was young and we had time on our hands so we decided to take our chances and do everything we could to get him back.
“The day after the operation I started using Tvati, which is the same treatment Anthony Azzopardi used with McCooly’s Lad.
“I took him back to Des at the four-week mark and I thought he was pretty good but Des told me it wasn’t great. To be honest, I was pretty shattered and thought I was no chance of getting him back.
“But I kept doing all the rehab Des had given me, kept using Tvati, and started putting him up the runs. About eight weeks ago I surprised Des and took him back and Des couldn’t believe it was the same dog. Des said I was right to put him back behind the lure again.”
On The Bit will return to Healesville on Sunday for a high-class Grade 5 final, where he’s drawn Box 8, with his opposition including three-time G2 finalist Amarillo Highway (Box 5) and track specialist Anita Sonic Love (Box 7).
“Each week is a blessing and as long as he gets around safely, that’s all that matters,” said Lanigan.
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