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Walker shows early season hand with big team unveiled at Te Rapa trials

Te Akau wins juvenile heats with Zoustar and Exceed And Excel fillies as three-year-olds reappear

New Zealand powerhouse Te Akau Racing, sans Jamie Richards and in his place the returning champion trainer Mark Walker, signalled its intent early in the new season at a huge Te Rapa barrier trial session yesterday, unleashing 77 horses being readied for the spring.

With Richards moving to Hong Kong as the Jockey Club’s high-profile training recruit for next season, Walker is firmly entrenched back at Te Akau headquarters at Matamata after a successful stint in Singapore.

There were 30 barriers conducted at Te Rapa on a heavy surface, Te Akau winning 15 of them, including both two-year-old divisions run over 650 metres. 

A Zoustar (Northern Meteor) filly named Egyptian Queen, herself a daughter of stakes-placed Hieroglyphics (Conatus) who was purchased by Te Akau principal David Ellis for NZ$220,000 from this year’s New Zealand Bloodstock Karaka Yearling Sale, won the opening heat by one and a half lengths while $400,000 Magic Millions buy Sky On Fire (Exceed And Excel) took out heat two by three lengths.

“Dave bought the Zoustar filly from Gerry Harvey at Karaka and she looks quite a precocious sort while the other one, the Exceed And Excel, we got her from Magic Millions and she’s a big, strong horse who is also a very nice filly,” Walker told ANZ Bloodstock News. 

“We had six two-year-olds trial and five of them will go for a break but the Zoustar will carry on.” 

Sky On Fire was sold by Eureka Stud after Harry McAlpine bought her dam Elusive Meteor (Northern Meteor) for $200,000 at the 2020 Magic Millions National Broodmare Sale with the filly in utero.

With Walker back at the helm of Te Akau, expectations are high that the New Zealand premiership-winning momentum can be maintained and yesterday’s public hit-outs exposed the numbers the Matamata outfit has at its disposal, but the trainer himself was not getting carried away by the Te Rapa expedition.

“We’ve got limited opportunity to go [gallop] on the grass and so we’re very fortunate that Te Rapa’s got the inside grass track where we can trial,” Walker said. 

“At this time of year, you’re just desperate to find a grass track … you can do so much on synthetic tracks, but it’s not the same as the grass, of course.

“They’re also catchweight trials, so when you’ve got Opie Bosson or Troy Harris, they’re carrying a lot of weight whereas some of our other riders are a lot lighter.”

Among the new season Te Akau three-year-olds to step out was last-start Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (Gr 1, 1400m) winner Maven Belle (Burgundy), who was ridden by Bosson in heat four over 900 metres, finishing sixth behind the Vicki Prendergast-trained Our Alley Cat (Atlante), while another filly, the Yarraman Park-bred twice stakes-placed I Choose You (I Am Invincible), ran third in heat six.

The Karaka Million (RL, 1200m) winner Dynastic (Almanzor) finished fourth in his heat while the unraced Deep Field (Northern Meteor) gelding Bello Mio won heat 13.

The $300,000 Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale graduate Sans Doute (Not A Single Doubt), an unraced three-year-old filly bred by Greg Ingham and sold by Arrowfield Stud, is close to having her first start after taking out heat 21.

“She kept going quite shin sore as a two-year-old but I think she handled that little bit of cut out of the track as well, so she’ll go to the races now,” Walker said.

“There’s a meeting at Taupo on the 24th of August and some of our better horses might kick off there. We have just got to play it by ear and see how they eat up and those sorts of things in the next few days [before making a firm decision].”

Prise De Fer (Savabeel), a Group 2-winning gelding who was runner-up in heat 23, and Brando (Savabeel), the winner of heat 26, are two older horses who could appear at Taupo in the absence of the retired champions Melody Belle (Commands) and Avantage (Fastnet Rock).

“It is always hard when you have the quality of horses who were retired in the past 12 to 18 months. We haven’t got those flag bearers but I am confident there’s still going to be some flag bearers coming through, that’s for sure,” Walker said.

“But as I say, it was very difficult today with the track conditions. Some horses surprised me with how well they went and some I thought they might have gone a little bit better, but today the main thing was to just ‘bring them on’ [with a barrier trial].”