Source : The Sydney Morning Herald, by Adam Pengilly
Photo : Chris Harwood on Verry Elleegant, provided by Getty Images.
Verry Elleegant sounds like she would be a pretty horse. The one who walks into a parade ring without a hair out of place, her coat gleaming and neck arched neatly towards her chest. Refined. Natural. How could you not want to back her? You imagine her handler and how easy their job would be tending to an animal carrying that name.
“But to be honest, she was quite a bitch,” laughs her first trainer, New Zealand-based Nick Bishara, who re-mortgaged his house to stay in the industry before Verry Elleegant arrived at his stable. “She came to us broken in and we had to get her re-broken in again. I’ve never had to do that with another horse in my career. She was just a wild child.”
It goes to show how racing can make fools of people.
Breeders spend a lifetime matching mares to stallions they think will produce fast and commercial horses, and buyers take out second home loans to snap them up at yearling sales. It’s really all a lottery. Punters wed themselves to theories passed down by their fathers and grandfathers. They’re still trying to work out if they actually work. Administrators agree that racing must change with the times, but can’t agree what that change is.
At the end of it all, we just like to remember the horses. And there has never been a bigger contradiction than Verry Elleegant, the rogue with a royal name and the best horse in Australia at the moment.
Ring around with those who know her best and it’s hard to imagine she’s built a record that matches some of the turf greats. So slender was she in her early days that the descriptions “weed” and “coathanger” are used. It’s not out of disrespect, it’s just that she has always been a small and imperfectly plain horse before maturing into the winning machine she is now.
“She came to us broken in and we had to get her re-broken in again. I’ve never had to do that with another horse in my career.”
Riders used to fret about being legged aboard her, not because she was slow but because she wouldn’t give them a moment’s peace. One said every morning was like “wrestlemania”, trying to harness her want to just run as fast as she could for as long as she could.
The white bridles her current trainer, Chris Waller, uses on all his horses on raceday so he can identify them when watching on television only made it easier to see what a free spirit she was. She would throw her head to the side, left and right, up in the air. To be successful, racehorses need to be taught to work with their jockey and conserve energy for the finish. Few are better at it than Waller, yet even he considers Verry Elleegant one of the trickiest horses with talent he’s trained.
Verry Elleegant has always been successful despite her tendencies, rather than because of them. The reason is probably pretty simple: she has this innate sense of refusing to let other horses run past her.
“You can’t even pull her up after the line,” says jockey Mark Zahra, who rode her to Caulfield Cup glory last spring when she beat ill-fated English Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck in a photo finish. “She has to be the last one to do that because she has to be in front even after the race is well and truly over. That’s what makes her so good.”
Verry Elleegant’s great rival, the William Haggas-trained Addeybb.CREDIT:SAM MOOY
On Saturday, Verry Elleegant will run in the $4 million Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Randwick against Europe’s top-rated horse, Addeybb, trying to win her ninth group 1 race. Addeybb came to Sydney last year for the autumn carnival and beat Verry Elleegant twice, including in this race, which was held behind closed doors on a sodden Randwick track.
A few weeks ago, Verry Elleegant and jockey James McDonald exacted revenge in a stirring Ranvet Stakes battle. The heavyweights have at least one more fight in them, and this week’s build-up has been one of the most intense to a race in Sydney in recent memory.
Addeybb’s trainer, William Haggas, has been accused of pushing the panic button to keep up with the mare. He has applied blinkers to Addeybb to find improvement and has even suggested that if the horse wasn’t 17,000km from home he would probably scratch him given the prevailing dry conditions won’t suit him.
Regardless of the result, Verry Elleegant will be named Australia’s Horse of the Year at the end of the season. She has already won five group 1s in the 2020-21 campaign. Four of those have had officials margins of 0.1, 0.1, 0.2 and 0.2 of a length. No horse can lay claim in recent years to winning so many big races in so many desperate finishes.
“She doesn’t always look the winner, but that last 100 metres that fighting quality always seems to dig deep.” Chris Waller
“Her courage,” Waller says. “It was probably different to it is now. She was winning an Oaks and other races by big spaces, but she was so immature.
“Was it more courageous then than now, where she is getting into a fight with some horses and picking herself up like some champions of the past? She doesn’t always look the winner, but that last 100 metres that fighting quality always seems to dig deep.
“I thought [Anthony Van Dyck] had us cold at the 100 metre mark [of last year’s Caulfield Cup]. Even talking to Hugh Bowman, who rode the runner-up, he just said, ‘she lifted when I got to her’. That was interesting to hear because you don’t see that, but when you get a rival jockey of his calibre say, ‘you should have seen the determination, she was never going to let me get past her’.”
Verry Elleegant beats Anthony Van Dyck in the Caulfield Cup.CREDIT:GETTY
It’s far removed from her humble beginnings, the like of which meant she would never have been considered for inclusion in a blueblood yearling sale. Her sire, Zed, was so unwanted almost a decade ago he was serving Clydesdale hacks and mares on New Zealand’s south island. His service fee was once as low as NZ$500. Verry Elleegant’s dam, Opulence, was bought by her breeder for $14,000.
But their resulting progeny is now honoured on the office walls of Australia’s biggest trainer. Either side of a narrow staircase and down a dim hallway, Waller’s stable hang photos of all their group 1 wins. There are 25 of Winx, but office staff are now scurrying to create their own Verry Elleegant section as she tries to equal Northerly as a nine-time major winner. Manikato and Lonhro (both 11) and Octagonal (10) are also in her sights.
“It’s great to see she’s getting recognition now for who she is,” Waller says. “I’m not one to say what quantifies horses as champions or not, but she’s right up there with some of the good horses we’ve had in Australia.”
Verry Elleegant’s regular trackwork rider, single father of two Chris Harwood, takes great delight in all of the wins after he became her morning companion when she was transferred to Waller’s stable after Darren Weir was outed on animal cruelty charges (Weir won a bidding war, which included clients of Waller, to buy Verry Elleegant from New Zealand after three starts).
A few years ago, Harwood drank a six pack of beer and wrote a song about his close friend, Tommy Berry, and the jockey’s late brother Nathan. He sang it to Berry’s close family and friends at a private gathering and, when he looked up from his guitar, everyone was crying. Berry’s fiancee at the time, now wife Sharnee, asked Harwood if he could play it at their wedding. He reckons he’s never been as nervous in his life.
Out of love for the horse and for a bit of a laugh, the “drunk musician” dropped by the bottle-o this week and bought another six pack. He has previously penned a few ballads about some of Waller’s track stars. This week, he recorded an updated version of his Verry Elleegant song, so fond of her are Waller’s team.
Won eight group 1s, a Caulfield Cup
What else can I do?
I know you love me, stuff the rest
I’m going to beat Addeybb for you
Simply the best
For I’d never win a beauty contest
But on raceday, that’s when you’re going to learn
Doesn’t matter if it’s soft, even too firm
“I’ve copped a few headbutts from her, busted noses, I’ve fallen off her twice,” Harwood laughs. “But as soon as she gets into flight mode that adrenaline takes over and she would run through a brick wall. It’s like trying to stop a train some mornings.
“She’s obviously hard work, she has good days and bad days, but it’s all worth it in the end, isn’t it?”