There is a real affection in James McDonald’s voice these days when he talks about Nature Strip, the world’s best sprinter and the favourite for this year’s Everest.
It’s a long way from the feelings he had when he saw his name against the headstrong tearaway’s on cold mornings at Rosehill trackwork just three years.
But time mends all wounds. As does more than $18 million in prizemoney from wins in the best races in Australia and at Royal Ascot helps as well. McDonald’s dread has morphed into love.
“He is such a gentleman now, a statesman even,” McDonald says. “He is hard not to love now. He has given me some of my best memories in racing … and paid for the house renovations.”
McDonald pauses and continues: “But I still remember when he first arrived. I would check the board to see what Chris [Waller] had me on and see Nature Strip and go, ‘Oh no’.
“I dreaded getting on him because he was the hardest ride of the morning and in a race he just wanted to get everything over and done with so quick.”
Nature Strip had a number of homes before he arrived in Sydney as a four-year-old, an unfulfilled talent with eight wins from 12 starts.
He had group 1 potential but a style that depended on pure speed and little craft.
That would proved good enough to win The Galaxy at his second start for Waller, but the trainer wasn’t into having a one-hit wonder and began a program to reprogram Nature Strip an turn him into the champion he knew he could be.
“He won the Galaxy by a nose [from Pierata] and the way he was going that was going to be his only group 1,” McDonald said.
“We were trying to settle him behind them, but he was so tough to ride because he didn’t want to work with you.
“He wanted to show how fast he was. He could have won a lot of races doing that, but he wouldn’t be the horse he is now.”
Waller and his team wanted to get Nature Strip to relax. countless hours were spent at Rosehill away from raceday and away from the stable, encouraging him to be a horse that listened to his rider.
Meanwhile, he kept winning – a Moir Stakes and VRC Sprint Classic would be added to his group 1 haul later in 2019 – but the manner of his victories was more in keeping with his tearaway style than Waller wanted.
“[Trackwork rider] Stu Williams, who rides him in the morning, and the team spent two preparations making him the horse he is now,” McDonald said. “They gave up a lot to do that, but that work has given the results we are getting now.
“Without that Nature Strip wouldn’t be Nature Strip the star. You used to have to hold on when you got him, now you can ride him with a loop in the rein. It’s a massive change and makes him a weapon.”
The Everest has been at the centre of Nature Strip’s story. He was first picked to run in 2018, but a disappointing effort in the Moir Stakes a month out from the race forced a rethink and he was sent for a spell rather than running at Randwick.
A year later, Nature Strip set up the track record win by Yes Yes Yes as he fired through the first half of the race, dragging the field with him. He would hold on to finish fourth. He was still a tearaway but the work was continuing behind the scenes.
He would win a TJ Smith six months later, but his Everest campaign would be littered with misadventures, dropping McDonald coming out of the gates in a barrier trial and fading to finish midfield on the big day.
“He was at crossroads after that campaign,” says McDonald. “He was testing all of us. We knew he was getting better but had to show it or it was all over. He came back the next year and it clicked. He has just got better and better since.”
Sprinters tend to mature later because, like footballers, they need the body of work behind them before they hit their true potential. But, even so, it was hard to think Nature Strip was about to hit his prime as a six-year-old in the autumn of 2021.
His records since 2021 is that of a legend of the sport, with wins in the Lightning Stakes, a 1000m test of speed down the Flemington straight, two TJ Smiths, a VRC Sprint Classic and, most importantly, The Everest, at his third attempt.
But it was his Royal Ascot glory in the King’s Stand Stakes, where he smashed Europe’s best sprinters by 4½ lengths, that confirmed his greatness.
That cemented a domination of racing’s world sprinting ranks not seen since Black Caviar and was the completion of his journey from tearaway to champion.
“I’m so proud of him because he executes so well these days,” McDonald says. “Talent takes you a long way but to do what he did at Royal Ascot takes a lot more than talent.
“There is something special about that meeting, and it will define him. He is not Winx and he is not unbeatable but it will take a damn good horse doing everything right to beat him in The Everest.”