Jo McKinnon Column

Ugly duckling earns champion status while her sire is regarded as a one-hit wonder

A wayward, plain, angular looking mare by a little known stallion in New Zealand called Zed (Zabeel), there wasn’t too much hoo ha when Verry Elleegant first arrived on the Australian racing scene back in the spring of 2018.

She hardly boasted a glittering racetrack resume having won a rating 65 race at Matamata before being sent across the ditch to be trained by Darren Weir. 

But it didn’t take the mare with the oddly spelt name long to show she had above average ability and at just her second start on our shores she won the Ethereal Stakes (Gr 3, 2000m) at Caulfield.

Soon after that Weir was ousted in highly controversial circumstances and the talented filly was transferred into the care of Chris Waller in Sydney.

Her first campaign for the champion trainer was during the autumn of 2019 and that’s where the ugly duckling began her journey towards becoming a swan in the eyes of her many fans.

Not overly attractive in the looks or temperament department, there was a high risk that her brilliant ability might never have been fully realised.

A finicky type of mare with a tendency to come home in her races like a drunken sailor in the early days, Waller and her regular jockey James McDonald had a job on their hands to get the very best out of her, and much to their credit, they have achieved that.

Nine Group One wins later, these two great kiwi horsemen and this cranky brown mare are taking plenty of people who are stuck in covid lockdown back in their home country, on the ride of their lives.

Verry Elleegant’s breeder and owner Don Goodwin still can’t quite believe all the success she’s having.

“You couldn’t see it, the way she wins she’s so tough. 

“She’s getting better and stronger, and that tends to be a trait of the Zeds. They get better with age,” said Goodwin.

Kiwis are a parochial lot at the best of times and Goodwin is no exception when it comes to Verry Elleegant’s sire Zed who he is a shareholder in.

Much to Goodwin’s frustration, the mare’s nine wins at elite level, including success in last year’s Caulfield Cup (Gr 1, 2400m) have not done as much as he hoped to raise the stallion’s profile and attract better quality mares to him.

“Strangely enough it hasn’t done much. He still stands at $6000 and breeders don’t go to him. Yet just about every good mare he gets, he produces a good horse.”

Now 19 years of age, Zed stands at Grangewilliam Stud at Waitotara. Last season he covered 65 mares and this year has 70 in his book.

While grateful for the patronage, Grangewilliam’s principal Mark Corcoran is frustrated that Verry Elleegant has made many think her sire is just a flash in the pan type of stallion.

“I read an article this morning that basically said he’s a one horse wonder. It riled me a bit.

“He’s not a one-horse wonder because his ratios are as good as any stallion in New Zealand. His stats are great and he’s done it with the bottom quality mares.

“He also gets bagged out for just producing wet trackers but they run on top of the ground too.”

Corcoran doesn’t have the resources to pump out big, flashy marketing campaigns for his aging stallion. He just tells it how it is. 

“I had a client out here today looking at some of Zed’s progeny in the paddock and they said ‘oh they are not much to look at are they?’ and I said no they are not but that’s what Zed leaves, he doesn’t leave these big amazing beautiful types.

“If Verry Elleegant had gone through the sales she would have made peanuts. She was no looker but the Zeds run and horses don’t run on their looks do they ? None of them look that flash but they run. 

“He leaves all sorts. Chestnuts, bays and he leaves them big and he leaves them small but  they all seem to run.”

It’s been well documented how tough it’s been for Zed to “make it” as a Thoroughbred stallion. 

At one stage much earlier in his life he was running around in a paddock at erehwon, spelt nowhere backwards because it’s quite literally in the middle of nowhere, covering Clydesdale mares.

Long story short, Corcoran was desperate to stand a stallion and got hold of Zed through Sam Williams at Little Avondale Stud.

“I was working handling and weaning foals and I was desperate to get another stallion and the Zeds were going alright at the time and I rang Sam and asked if there was any chance of getting him and he said yeah.”

With his progeny enjoying a bit of a purple patch on the track at the time, in his first season with Grangewilliam he attracted 165 mares. 

He’s since been a steady income earner for the farm and become a much loved member of the Corcoran family.

“He’s put my kids through school. He’s been great for me and got our name out there and established us.”

And now his daughter Verry Elleegant is playing her part in raising the profile of Grangewilliam where she was bred and raised.

“It’s been such a ride for us and the staff.  Every time she wins we get texts come through saying go to Zed. He’s got a bit of a fan club.” 

The Zed fan club might have plenty to cheer about come Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 3200m) day as that’s the ultimate target for Verry Ellegant this spring.

And there’s a remote possibility that she might not be his only representative in the great race. 

Corcoran is hoping that former champion jumps jockey and fellow kiwi Brett Scott’s Ballarat Cup (Listed, 2000m) winner Irish Flame, a seven-year-old gelding by Zed, might make the field.

“It would be huge if Zed had two runners in the Melbourne Cup, two with the GW brand on them, that would be pretty nice.”

Having two Melbourne Cup contenders in the one year would certainly go a long way to helping Zed shake the one hit wonder tag.