Racing News

‘He could compete in some of the biggest races in the country’

Ralph Zito is known chiefly as the man who sold Mystic Journey (Needs Further) for the princely sum of $11,000, but that could be about to change if his homebred Steel Run (Real Steel) can fulfil the huge potential he showed when winning last Saturday’s Mahogany Challenge Final (2500m). 

His arrogant victory as the $2.70 favourite suggested a horse with an abundance of upside, and while Zito has been in the breeding game long enough to know that harbouring lofty expectations can be something of a fool’s errand, he was not alone in being impressed by the manner of the performance. 

Had Steel Run not been passed in at the 2022 Inglis Premier Yearling Sale, we could be seeing a repeat of the Mystic Journey tale unfolding. But as fate would have it, the morning of the sale a vet detected an issue with the yearling’s palate caused by a viral ulcer, and he subsequently failed to meet his modest $40,000 reserve price.

Undeterred by the setback, Zito decided to keep Steel Run and race him in partnership with his wife Peta and their lifelong friends and fellow breeders, Joseph and Rhonda Cichello.

Given their long-standing association with Mick Kent and his reputation as one of Victoria’s leading trainers of stayers, Steel Run soon found his way into the astute horseman’s Cranbourne stables and promptly made a winning debut over the Caulfield (Heath) mile in April of this year.

Jockey Ethan Brown was very keen to stick with the three-year-old and after the pair just failed to run down Lindsay Park’s promising Aztec State (Pierro) at start two, connections began plotting a path towards the Mahogany Challenge Final. That plan bore fruit at Flemington on Saturday, when Steel Run dominated his rivals to take his career earnings past $150,000 from just four outings.

Having accomplished his mission this prep, Steel Run is currently enjoying some well-earned rest and relaxation in the paddock and although his spring ambitions have yet to be mapped out, Zito and Co. aren’t afraid to aim high with him. 

“We’ve always really liked the horse, as has Mick [Kent], so it was very exciting to see him win like that against the older horses on Saturday,” Zito told ANZ Bloodstock News from the comfort of his ocean view accommodation in Port Douglas, where he and his wife are holidaying to escape the Melbourne winter. 

“We had some enquiries for him from Hong Kong, but in the end nothing came of it and while you never say never, we’re delighted we kept him and it would take a pretty good offer for us to sell now because he’s showing us plenty of promise.    

“I was a little bit nervous on Saturday because it had been a month between runs, but you wouldn’t have known it. He’s only lightly-raced and we don’t know how far he can go, but he will obviously be nominated for the Cups in the spring. It’s only July so it may be a bit of a stretch at this stage to think he could compete in some of the biggest races in the country, and I’d say he’s probably more likely to be a late-spring, early-autumn horse. 

“We certainly won’t be pushing him, and as always we’ll let the horse dictate where he goes. But he’s pulled up really well from the race and provided he enjoys his spell and comes back with a spring in his step, I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun with him later in the year.”   

Steel Run was the product of a long-range plan hatched by Zito, a self-confessed “breeding fanatic”. After spending countless hours assessing potential suitors, Zito sent their mare North Sea (Hussonet) – a $55,000 purchase at the Magic Millions National Broodmare Sale – to be covered by Real Steel (Deep Impact), a multiple stakes victor for Cox Plate (Gr 1, 2040m)-winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi.     

Real Steel only stood at Arrowfield for one season before returning to his native Japan, where he is in great demand thanks in no small part to the feats of his sister Loves Only You (Deep Impact), the globetrotting superstar also trained by Yahagi.    

Had Real Steel returned to Australia, Zito would have readily sent North Sea back to the Hunter Valley for a repeat mating; but it wasn’t to be and instead he and the rest of the ownership group are very happy to enjoy the ride with Steel Run.

“Real Steel is doing great things at stud,” said Zito, who also bred and races Steel Run’s promising half-brother Northern Barrage, a stakes-placed four-year-old trained by Kent.   

“As a son of Deep Impact, he’s obviously got a beautiful pedigree and his colt Forever Young should have kept his unbeaten record intact in the Kentucky Derby, but he lost by a nose in a photo finish. So we would definitely have used him again, but he never came back to Australia and instead we sent North Sea back to Churchill. The resulting filly [Chaussette] went really well in her first trial for Mick on Monday morning, so we’re pretty pleased with her progress so far.”

Chaussette is one of nine horses – which include Kyneton Cup (2006m) winner Harmysian (Lope De Vega) – currently part-owned by the Zitos. 

The one that got away was, of course, 2019 Australian Guineas (Gr 1, 1600m) heroine Mystic Journey, a winner of 12 races who amassed more than $4 million in prize-money before she was sold – for a mooted $3 million – to Northern Farm to begin her new life as a broodmare in Japan.  

Zito has long since made his peace over the decision to sell her as a yearling at the 2017 Magic Millions Tasmanian Yearling Sale, where she was picked up by retired barrister Wayne Roser and trainer Adam Trinder. Every breeder has a hard-luck story – and Zito’s might hurt a touch more than most – but he takes a philosophical approach, not least as retaining a share in every foal he breeds would make little sense from a purely commercial perspective.

“Nobody was happier than me to see Mystic Journey win all those races and become a superstar,” he said.    

“I’d be lying if I said the money she earned wouldn’t come in very handy, but there are no guarantees she would have had the career she did if we hadn’t sold her. We had her half-sister [Emerald Crown] on the farm, and as a yearling she was slightly bigger and more forward. As hobby breeders we have to play the numbers game, so we decided to keep her and sell the filly who turned out to be Mystic Journey. 

“It probably wasn’t the best decision we ever made, but we took a punt with her because nobody had tried that particular cross before, so there was no way of knowing it would produce such a spectacular result. We probably wouldn’t have kept her in Tasmania, she would have been sent to a trainer in Victoria and there are so many variables in racing that it’s impossible to predict how her career would have panned out. 

“But our name is still in the stud book, so nobody can take that away from us and we enjoyed every minute of her career. We’d love to head over to Japan to pay her a visit, so that’s definitely the next trip on the bucket list. She has produced a lovely filly by the Japanese Derby winner Kizuna, so hopefully she can write the next chapter of the Mystic Journey story.”

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