Star Kiwi trio orchestrate a Melbourne Cup fairytale

Written by Bren O’Brien

Article courtesy of TDN AusNZ

It is doubtful in the long history of the G1 Melbourne Cup, stretching back to 1861, that the stories of the winning

VERRY ELLEEGANT (Zed x Opulence) wins the G1 Melbourne Cup, defeating Incentivise and Spanish Mission. Ridden by James McDonald. Photo by Bronwen Healy. The Image is Everything – Bronwen Healy Photography

horse, trainer and jockey have intertwined in the way that those of Verry Elleegant (NZ), Chris Waller and James McDonald did on an amazing day at Flemington.

At the Australian racing awards last month, Verry Elleegant was awarded Australia’s champion racehorse, Waller the title of top trainer and McDonald the top jockey, yet, oddly, when the three combined for an epic 4l win in Australia’s greatest race on Tuesday, it was considered an upset by betting markets.

Verry Elleegant may have gone into the race as a nine-time Group 1 winner, but off the back of a brave third in the G1 Cox Plate, public opinion, at least in the betting ring, was not in her favour. She drifted to odds of $18. Such markets take into account so many metrics, but can so often ignore champion qualities, be they equine or human.

As she has made a habit of doing throughout an extraordinary career, Verry Elleegant defied the knockers and naysayers to grab her 10th Group 1 victory and elevate herself to even greater heights in terms of her standing in the history of Australasian racing.

She becomes just the ninth Australasian horse in the Group 1 era to win 10 or more Group 1 races. None of the other nine have won a Melbourne Cup.

Forging her own path

Verry Elleegant’s path to equine history has never been conventional. A homebred filly by Zed (NZ), a stallion whose career had included spells siring farm horses and Clydesdales, she is raced by a syndicate put together by her breeder Don Goodwin and involving his long-term friends the Carter family.

Goodwin, the original Verry Elleegant true believer, always had faith in her pedigree. She was a maternal descendant of both blue hen Eight Carat (GB) (Pieces Of Eight {GB}) and the influential Cotehele House (GB) (My Swannee {GB}), and the connection with Zed, a son of the great Zabeel (NZ), meant she was bred on a similar cross to the superstar Octagonal (NZ), incidentally one of those other eight Australasian horses to have won 10 or more Group 1 races

Speaking to the media after Tuesday’s win, Goodwin said he had a very strong impression of the filly from the moment she had a saddle on her back.

“I knew she (Verry Elleegant) was good before she even went to the trials. When they don’t seem to be going very fast, and they go those times, you know they are pretty good.”

“I knew she was good before she even went to the trials,” he said. “When they don’t seem to be going very fast, and they go those times, you know they are pretty good.” – Don Goodwin

She began her career with trainer Nick Bishara in New Zealand and after her second win at start number three at Matamata, Goodwin took a phone call in the mounting yard and did a deal, brokered by another Kiwi – Andrew Williams, to part sell her to Australian interests, which included prominent owners Brae Sokolski, Ozzie Kheir and John O’Neill.

She initially joined the Darren Weir stable and while there were obvious signs of talent, it was clear that this was a filly of strong character, sometimes at the expense of her ability. Weir’s sudden disqualification in early 2019 saw her head to Chris Waller’s stable.

Her arrival with Waller overlapped with the final moments of the career of her superstar stablemate Winx (Street Cry {Ire}) and 40 minutes before Winx’s legendary final start in the G1 Queen Elizabeth S., Verry Elleegant won the G1 Australian Oaks.

The baton had been passed but it was a hell of an act to follow. Ten Group 1 successes later, including a dominant Melbourne Cup victory to follow her Caulfield Cup success last year, she has done an amazing job of standing out in her own spotlight.

Those 10 Group 1 wins have been in 10 unique Group 1 races, placing her level in that regard with Black Caviar (Bel Esprit), Kingston Town (Bletchingly) and Lonhro, and behind only Winx, whose 25 Group 1 wins came in 11 different races.

Waller is of course the common thread between the two superstar mares.

Waller joins the Cup greats

Over a decade before Verry Elleegant, Waller had crossed the Tasman looking to make his own mark. What he has achieved in the time since ranks alongside only the greatest horsemen to grace the Australian turf.

Tuesday’s success was his 129th Group 1 win, a mark achieved just 13 and a half years since his first, a rate of around 10 per calendar year.

When success comes so readily, it is easy to overlook to substantial achievement of the trainer. On Tuesday where he joined the best of the best to have trained a Melbourne Cup winner, names like Bart Cummings, Colin Hayes and TJ Smith. He did it with a mare who has never been straightforward, but who he has elicited every shred of talent out of.

Waller, the most successful Australasian trainer of the 21st century, wasn’t at Flemington, choosing to watch the race from Sydney with his wife and kids.

In an era defined by Zoom calls, he perhaps appropriately was patched into the TV coverage from home, a surreal post-script to one of his greatest achievements.

“They will be very proud of this back in New Zealand, that’s for sure and to have a New Zealand horse do that is pretty special,” he said.

“They will be very proud of this back in New Zealand, that’s for sure and to have a New Zealand horse do that is pretty special.” – Chris Waller

At Flemington, his Melbourne assistant Jo Taylor was left to fill the usual post-race media commitments and reflect on the significance of the moment.

“I really wish Chris could have been here,” she said. “COVID has been a cruel thing to him. I would say he’s just as elated just by having those victories and by watching James’ reaction, I think it just shows you how special this race is.”

The view from the saddle

McDonald is the third New Zealander in this remarkable story, but just as significant a player as the other two. He arrived in Australia with a big reputation a decade ago and has endured the highs of 57 Group 1 wins, and the lows of an 18-month disqualification in 2016 that threatened his career.

He has been at the top of his game since his return in May 2018, riding 23 Group 1 winners from that point. Eight of those victories have come on Verry Elleegant, a mare with who he has forged an amazing affinity with.

“I’ve got so much faith in that mare, I just love her to bits,” he said after the race. “She is just trained by a master, he just gets them right and she is a superstar. I’m so proud of her.”

“To pilot horses like Verry Elleegant each and every carnival is just a huge privilege and obviously it worked out really well for us today.”

VERRY ELLEEGANT (Zed x Opulence) wins the G1 Melbourne Cup. Ridden by James McDonald. Photo by Bronwen Healy. The Image is Everything – Bronwen Healy Photography

Seven days ago, McDonald was without a Cup ride. He broke his partnership with Verry Elleegant and opted to take a ride on Zaaki (GB) (Leroidesamimaux {Brz}) in the G1 Cox Plate, but that horse, a hot favourite in the weight-for-age feature, was scratched on race morning and McDonald watched on as Verry Elleegant and Damian Lane ran a gallant third.

The jockey was contracted on Away He Goes (Ire) (Farhh {GB}) in the Cup at that stage, but that horse then went amiss, leaving him without a ride. At that point Verry Elleegant’s connections had not decided whether they’d back her up for a second shot at the Cup, after she had run seventh in the race last year.

Call it fate or serendipity or just luck, but McDonald was the man on the end of the phone when Waller decided he needed a jockey.

“It’s just funny how things fall your way sometimes,” McDonald said. “One door closes and another opens. You have to be patient.”

While he may have chosen other paths earlier in the spring, McDonald’s confidence in Verry Elleegant never wavered and he was delighted to be given another chance on her.

“I just shows how far she has come, she relaxed over 3200 metres and showed a dazzling turn of foot. Like I have said all along, there wasn’t another nine-time Group 1 winner in that race,” he said.

“I wouldn’t have thought there was one other horse in the race who could have run third in the Cox Plate.”

If there was one it was Incentivise (Shamus Award), the shortest-priced Melbourne Cup favourite in 91 years, who would fight the race with McDonald and Verry Elleegant down the Flemington straight.

“The thought (she could win) went through my mind at the 500-metre mark when I saw Incentivise getting shoved along, I knew he would fight though,” McDonald said.

“There wasn’t a horse that was going to come from behind me, and it was only a matter of catching him.”

Catch him they did, racing past and onward to a 4l Melbourne Cup victory in a lightning fast time of 3:17.43.

Australia’s best horse, best trainer and best jockey, all born in New Zealand, successful on Australia’s greatest racing stage.