By Dennis Ryan
The roll of honour for the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame is set to be enhanced by champion racemare Verry Elleegant, who will be on the list of 2023 inductees at the Hall of Fame Dinner in Hamilton on May 7.
In common with recently announced inductee Melody Belle, Verry Elleegant easily meets the Hall of Fame standard with a record of 16 wins – 11 at Group One level – and stake-earnings of A$14.8 million. Defining performances included her Melbourne Cup victory under 57kg, her Winx Stakes win at weight-for-age over 1400m and her 2400m wins in the ATC Oaks, Tancred Stakes and Caulfield Cup.
Her range of achievements earned a string of accolades: Australian Horse of the Year in 2020-21, Champion Australian Stayer in 2020-21 and 2021-22, Champion Australian Middle Distance Horse in 2020-21 and Joint Head of 2021 WBR Rankings (Ext.).
The Verry Elleegant story began with her breeder, Don Goodwin, who had an ownership interest in Zed, a blue-blooded son of Zabeel and the Group One-winning Danehill mare Emerald Dream. Zed’s racing career was curtailed by injury after he had won one of only four starts, but his pedigree was enough to secure a stud career.
That began in 2007 at Little Avondale in the Wairarapa, where he attracted more than 130 mares at a fee of just $500. When interest waned after five years, Zed’s breeding career took an unusual twist, consigned in 2012 to Erewhon Station in the South Island’s Canterbury back country serving draught Clydesdale mares.
However, Zed’s “road to nowhere” was short-lived. When some of his early crop members started showing form on the track, Zed was reclaimed and in the 2013 breeding season he covered what was to be his biggest ever book of 168 mares at Grangewilliam Stud in south Taranaki. Amongst them was the Danroad mare Opulence, who Goodwin had purchased for the express purpose of mating her with Zed.
“I had always been a big fan of the Eight Carat line that Zed’s dam Emerald Dream hailed from, and I wanted to double up on it, which is why I bought Opulence,” Goodwin explained. “Like Emerald Dream, she traced to Eight’s Carat’s daughter Cotehele House, plus there was a double-up to Emerald Dream’s sire Danehill, who was also the grandsire of Opulence through Danroad. But that Eight Carat blood was the key and Opulence fitted the bill perfectly.”
Just how perfectly, the Auckland retiree could never have foreseen. Opulence’s first mating with Zed, while he was still at Little Avondale, resulted in a premature filly that didn’t survive. In 2014, by which time both were domiciled at Grangewilliam, Opulence produced a colt by Zed that was named Verry Flash and has since won 11 races up to Listed stakes level.
The following year the horse that was to change lives arrived. Goodwin, who had become acquainted with South Auckland trainer Nick Bishara through buying Opulence off him, had already taken him and a group of friends into a racing partnership with Verry Flash and came to a similar arrangement with Bishara and a group of stable clients with the filly named Verry Elleegant, incorporating the name of Goodwin’s grand-daughter Elle.
“Even though she was very immature and didn’t know what she was doing, we knew before she raced that she had something,” Goodwin recalls. “She could knock out 600 metres in 36 seconds without even trying.”
After one educational trial, Verry Elleegant made her debut at Te Rapa in the final month of her two-year-old season, hitting the line late to finish second. She went on to easily win her next two starts, both over 1400m at Ruakaka and Matamata, by which time more than just the inner circle realised she might be special.
During post-race celebrations at Matamata, Goodwin took a phone call that was to open up a world of opportunities for his talented filly. In the deal that followed, the partnership expanded to include the original majority owners and breeders of Zed, Carter siblings John, Mark and Rachael and a group of Auckland friends, along with a number of Australians such as rapidly emerging owners Aziz ‘Ozzie’ Kheir and Brae Sokolski.
Thus Verry Elleegant was transferred to leading Victorian trainer Darren Weir, and less than a month after her Matamata win she made her Melbourne debut and finished third in the Gr. 2 Edward Manifold Stakes at Flemington. At her next start she won the Gr. 3 Ethereal Stakes at Caulfield but was to finish outside the major placings in her two remaining spring carnival starts, the Gr. 2 Wakeful Stakes and Gr. 1 VRC Oaks.
The Australian racing landscape underwent a big change soon after with the disqualification of Weir and the dispersal of his large team to other trainers. For Verry Elleegant, that meant a move north to Sydney and champion trainer Chris Waller. Everything she had achieved to that point had been on natural ability and it was Waller’s challenge to develop her full potential. The Waller touch saw Verry Elleegant develop into Australia’s leading middle-distance performer and ultimately one that was to win at racing’s highest level from 1400 to 3200 metres.
In four starts during her first campaign for Waller, she won the Gr. 2 Phar Lap Stakes and the fillies’ championship double of the Gr. 1 Vinery Stakes and ATC Oaks. As a still-developing four-year-old she scored just twice in nine starts, but her autumn win in the Gr. 1 Tancred Stakes (2400m) bracketed by second placings in the Gr. 1 Chipping Norton (1600m), Ranvet (2000m) and Queen Elizabeth ll (2000m) Stakes underlined her emerging dominance.
First-up at five Verry Elleegant won the Gr. 1 Winx Stakes over 1400m on the way to winning the Gr. 1 Turnbull Stakes (2000m) and Caulfield Cup (2400m) in Melbourne. In her remaining start that campaign she finished seventh in the Melbourne Cup. In the autumn she scored second-up in the Gr. 1 Chipping Norton Stakes (1600m), followed by victory in the Gr. 1 Ranvet Stakes and second again in the Queen Elizabeth ll Stakes.
Her six-year-old season began with a second placing in the Winx Stakes before winning the Gr. 1 George Main Stakes (1600m) ahead of what was to be her final Melbourne campaign, where she finished fourth in the Gr. 1 Turnbull Stakes and third in the Gr. 1 WS Cox Plate. Ten days later she produced the performance that sealed her greatness, a runaway win in the Melbourne Cup, crediting NZ Racing Hall of Famers Chris Waller and James McDonald, who was to partner Verry Elleegant in 11 wins, with their ultimate victory.
At a rain-plagued 2022 Sydney autumn carnival, Verry Elleegant claimed a second Chipping Norton Stakes, followed by a second placing in the Ranvet Stakes and fifth in the Queen Elizabeth ll Stakes. That was her final Australian start and her career came to end after four starts in Europe in which her best performance was third in the Gr. 2 Prix Foy at Longchamp.
Even though Don Goodwin sold his interest in Verry Elleegant following the mid-2022 decision to race her in Europe, he still owns two full siblings. A yearling brother will be offered in the Lime Country Thoroughbreds draft at the upcoming Sydney Easter Yearling Sale, and he intends retaining a weanling sister, who was fostered onto another mare when Opulence sadly died soon after foaling last spring.
“That is a day I will always remember, on the one hand the thrill of getting the filly I had had been hoping for after a run of colts, and then hours later getting the call to say we had lost the mare,” Goodwin says. “It’s going to be interesting to see what the buyers in Sydney think of the colt, and the filly is also a decent type, much like her big sister.
“Verry Elleegant made a lot of difference to a lot of lives, and she certainly changed my life and my family’s. There were so many thrills – 11 Group Ones, the Winx Stakes at 1400 metres and the Melbourne Cup at 3200 – how many horses have done that?
“But her Melbourne Cup carrying 57 kilos and winning so easily in one of the fastest times ever – that sure takes some beating. Now we’re just thrilled that she has been paid the ultimate compliment to be inducted to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame.
‘It’s a bit like dreaming that one day you might win the Melbourne Cup, even when she had done that we didn’t dare dream that she would also get in the Hall of Fame.”