New Zealander vs New Zealand
It took New Zealander, world champion jockey James McDonald to deny New Zealand-bred Mr Brightside (Bullbars) in a classic renewal of the Cox Plate (Gr 1, 2040m).
Live, it looked like Mr Brightside had prevailed. Even experienced Melbourne commentator, Matt Hill, gave his initial call to the six-year-old Kiwi gelding but the photo proved otherwise. A head bob decided the result, the official margin a nose, although it looked more like a lip.
McDonald, aboard Hong Kong raider Romantic Warrior (Acclamation), was in disbelief. Prior to dismounting after the thrilling finish he said: “I can’t believe I’ve won the Cox Plate. This means so much to me, but I thought I got beaten.”
Saving every inch of ground, Craig Williams cleverly shot Mr Brightside forward along the rail with a lap to run and hugged the fence in fifth around the first turn. Romantic Warrior was just ahead but two out down towards the 1400-metre mark. These two lay fourth and fifth at the 1000 metres and were side-by-side at the 700-metre mark. Inside the 600 metres Mr Brightside improved along the fence into fourth. At the 400 metres Romantic Warrior gained three deep and rounding into the straight they were again level.
At the top of the short straight Romantic Warrior was poised, ready to strike while Mr Brightside, who’d eased out a lane, was pocketed, needing some sort of split. A path was provided when the tiring pacemaker King Colorado (Kingman) dropped away and Williams saw a gap next to the rail, pulled the left rein and shot through. Wider out, Romantic Warrior chased new leader, Alligator Blood (All Too Hard) as Mr Brightside began his chase.
From the 100-metre mark there were just three in it: Alligator Blood by a neck with Romantic Warrior looking menacing and Mr Brightside inching closer. Inside the final 50 metres Romantic Warrior bested Alligator Blood but Mr Brightside had too and may have held a small lead. In a titanic battle, a stride from the line they were level. At the line it could have gone either way but the camera saw Romantic Warrior ahead by the tiniest margin.
The 2023 Cox Plate gave us the finish the race always promised. It is the best weight-for-age event in the southern hemisphere and did not disappoint.
History was made too as Romantic Warrior is the first Hong Kong–trained runner to bag the classic. McDonald was under great pressure leading up to the Cox Plate. He had two Group 1 wins in Hong Kong with the champion and kept his faith in the horse even though a fourth (beaten nearly four lengths) in the Turnbull Stakes (Gr 1, 2000m) on October 7 looked fair, at best, McDonald’s only defeat on the five-year-old.
Kudos to the Moonee Valley Racing Club for attracting Romantic Warrior to Melbourne for the great race. Hong Kong is a world-leading racing jurisdiction and to have their champion tackle the best in Australia is great for racing.
Romantic Warrior was truly worthy and, with the Cox Plate, took his record to 11 wins in 16 starts, banking $3 million from Saturday’s epic win and a further $HK81.8 million in Hong Kong.
Yes, he can
Mr Brightside can get 2000 metres despite the questions asked by this writer (twice) after wins in the traditional lead up races, the Memsie Stakes (Gr 1, 1400m) and Makybe Diva Stakes (Gr 1, 1600m). After the Makybe Diva, Williams declared Mr Brightside the best miler in the country. On Everest Day, Williams was again aboard in the King Charles III Stakes (Gr 1, 1600m) when a hard charging second to Fangirl (Sebring) in readiness for Saturday’s ultimate test.
Mr Brightside’s connections made reference to the distance question post race, with co-trainer Ben Hayes saying: “He’s ticked off that 2000–metre box and we couldn’t be prouder of the horse,” adding: “We actually thought he’d won when they crossed the line, so that makes it that little bit worse, but he is just an absolute superstar.”
The NZ$22,000 purchase has amassed just shy of $11 million in earnings, his two recent second placings contributing $1.6 million to the total from 14 wins in 28 starts. He could have been bought at the 2019 NZB Ready To Run Sale but failed to reach his $50,000 reserve.
On a brighter side..
Two New Zealand stables, Te Akau’s Mark Walker and Sam Bergerson plus Roger James and Robert Wellwood, gave the Kiwis plenty to shout about after Imperatriz (I Am Invincible) and Prowess (Proisir) landed the Manikato Stakes (Gr 1, 1200m) and Crystal Mile (Gr 2, 1600m) respectively.
Opie Bosson caught everyone by surprise by electing to lead on Imperatriz. He quickly realised that (a), the mare began so well, and (b), no one else was bold enough to sum up the situation in a split second. That’s what makes a great jockey.
As Bosson stated: “It wasn’t really the plan to lead, but we were there and she was doing it comfortably. She changed legs at the right time and turning for home I knew that we were going to be hard to beat.”
Then Bosson offered his highest praise for the five-year-old mare: “It’s easy when you’re riding horses like this,” he said. “She just does everything for me, really. She’s something special. She’s the best I’ve ever ridden, by far. I’ve never ridden a horse that can just switch off and then go bang when you want it.”
A $360,000 purchase from the 2020 Magic Millions Yearling Sale by Te Akau principal David Ellis, Imperatriz boasts seven Group 1s (three in her last four starts) and has a remarkable strike rate of 16 wins in 22 starts and a bank exceeding $3.5 million.
Clearly, she scared off the opposition. There were just five opponents for a super winner’s share of $1.2 million, twice the amount of her William Reid Stakes (Gr 1, 1200m) win over the same course and distance back in March.
The Champions Sprint (Gr 1, 1200m) down the straight Flemington runway is next. That field will surely be stronger but they will need to be very sharp. Imperatriz is in the form of her life and proved on Saturday that she can sit anywhere then “go bang” as Bosson said.
Prowess is back. Perhaps not as devastating as Imperatriz but she got the job done in the Crystal Mile, perhaps a distance short of her preference, with the promise of even better things to come. Although narrow, her win was achieved with some authority and the two runners that filled second and third, Antino (Redwood) and Tuvalu (Kermadec), are no slouches.
Prowess was beaten on her return to racing when finishing second in the Taranaki Breeders’ Stakes (Gr 3, 1400m) on a track that clearly did not suit her. However, she needed the race before any attempt in Australia could be contemplated.
There was likely a small sense of relief in her return to the winner’s circle but as co-trainer, Robert Wellwood suggested: “It is great to be back over here and winning again. Ideally we would have liked to have been running in the Cox Plate today, but she just had a few little niggles. They weren’t major, but just stopped us at some crucial times.”
Wellwood said that the preparation was back on track. “We’ll head to the last day at Flemington for the Champions Stakes, and we’re really looking forward to seeing her back up over further again. She’s in awesome order, and in hindsight, the setbacks have probably been a blessing in disguise. She’s developed, and I really think she’ll be even bigger and stronger next year.”
The next three Saturdays look exciting for Rich Hill Stud’s Proisir (Choisir). The Golden Eagle (1500m) and Legarto are up first followed by Prowess in the Champions Stakes (Gr 1, 2000m) and on November 18th Coeur Volante is one of the favourites for the Caulfield Thousand Guineas (Gr 1, 1600m). These three races are perfectly timed ahead of the upcoming NZB Ready to Run Sales (November 22 & 23) in which there are 12 Proisirs. Four are fillies. Proisir’s fillies are something else.
Riccarton’s carnival is just around the corner, as are the two Group 1s for the boys and girls, the New Zealand 2,000 Guineas (1600m) set for Saturday, November 11, followed by the New Zealand 1,000 Guineas (1600m) a week later.
Crocetti (Zacinto) remains a warm favourite for the 2,000 Guineas but a strong win in what is effectively a preview, the War Decree Stakes (Gr 3, 1600m), raced at the same track, gives Burn To Shine (So You Think) some hope as a competitor. Crocetti is yet to attempt 1600 metres.
Burn To Shine was given the run of the race by Johnathan Parkes and was brave over the final 100 metres. Parkes positioned him in the one-one to the 600 metres before moving out two lanes into the straight. He took over before the 300-metre mark, had a length to spare at the 200 metres but from the 100 metres dared his rivals to run him down, bravely holding out a late challenge.
His sire, So You Think (High Chaparral) can sire anything and everything from sprinters (like Everest winner Think About It) as well as a host of classic and semi-classic winners. Burn To Shine’s dam, Smoulder (Traditionally), was successful at 1600 metres in the Eight Carat Classic (Gr 2, 1600m) and was twice placed at Group 1 level including third in the New Zealand 1,000 Guineas.
It is no wonder that The Oaks Stud declined to let him go for less than the required $150,000 reserve at the NZB 2022 Karaka Yearling Sale and kept him to race. The War Decree Stakes was his third win in six starts and his bank stands at $128,000 with potentially more to come.
In an odd quirk, Burn To Shine’s family was ineligible for the stud book until quite recently. Burn To Shine’s great grandam Hairini (Zabeel) was admitted to the stud book in 2003 as a “vehicle mare”. Hairini’s dam Ardee One (Sharivari) won Ellerslie’s Railway Handicap (Gr 1, 1200m) and admittance was justified well before that as the family had built up a healthy production record.
Other members of the family include Ullyatt (Alvaro), winner of the Perth Cup (Gr 1, 3200m), Great Northern Guineas (Gr 2, 1600m) winner, Red Henry (Avon Valley) as well as Avondale Guineas (Gr 3, 1600m) winner, Gay Cobbler (The Cobbler).