Verry Elleegant lands the big one for New Zealand

By Dennis Ryan

3 Nov 2021

Verry Elleegant lands the big one for New ZealandJames McDonald is overcome by the moment as Verry Elleegant crosses the line for a special Melbourne

This was one for New Zealand, the day that champion expats Chris Waller and James McDonald combined for their most famous of countless victories with a mare who can rightfully take her place amongst the greats of the turf with her Melbourne Cup demolition.
Verry Elleegant’s four-length defeat of the hot favourite Incentivise was a win for many more than the record-breaking trainer-jockey duo. For her octogenarian breeder Don Goodwin, for long-time family friends and fellow owners John and Mark Carter and their close associate Tim Barry, for original trainer Nick Bishara who first tapped into the lanky filly’s talent and his teenaged stablehand Connor Harrison, and for the team at Grangewilliam Stud, home to the Cup winner’s sire Zed.
There’s also no forgetting the Australians who bought into the recently crowned Australian Horse of the Year as a spring three-year-old. They have since shared in her incredible tally of 10 Group One wins and stakes now in excess of A$14 million. Foremost among them are Ozzie Kheir and Brae Sokolski, virtual unknowns in racing until a few short years ago but whose portfolio now also includes Cup runner-up Incentivise.
That horse lined up as the shortest priced favourite since Phar Lap more than 90 years ago in the belief that his winning streak would continue despite a 57-kilogram impost. But over the final stages there was only one horse in this Melbourne Cup finish, the six-year-old Kiwi-bred mare also lumbered with 57 kilos, who went up to challenge Incentivise with 300m to run and then strode clear to win in a canter.
McDonald admitted afterwards that his mind was a virtual blank over the last 100m, but that still afforded the luxury of standing high in the irons with one hand masking his face as the enormity of what was happening hit home. After being confronted with barrier 18 in the 23-horse field, his genius had enabled him to slot Verry Elleegant ahead of midfield in clear running that would allow him to make his move when the time came.
“I wanted to be positive and as it worked out she got into the perfect spot,” McDonald said. “I couldn’t believe how well she was travelling at the two-furlong pole.
“It doesn’t always happen like that, you have to take the good with the bad, but we’ve been lucky enough to win the Melbourne Cup!
“She’s been so good to me and now I can safely say she is a champion. I can’t believe what’s happened but that’s what dreams are made of. I just love her to bits.”
A major part of 29-year-old McDonald’s domination of Australian jockey ranks has been his relationship with fellow New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame member Waller. Their ultimate victory in the Melbourne Cup took Waller’s Group One tally to 129 and McDonald’s to 57.
“This mare is trained by someone who’s just a master,” McDonald added. “He’s a genius. We get on like a house on fire and it’s an honour and a privilege to ride for the stable.”
McDonald had navigated Covid protocols in time to join the Victorian carnival action on Cox Plate Day, only to be denied his chance in the weight-for-age feature when the favourite Zaaki was scratched on race morning. Further bad news followed four days later when his Melbourne Cup mount, English stayer Away He Goes, was ruled out with a tendon injury.
Victorian jockey Damian Lane had ridden Verry Elleegant into third in the Cox Plate and was expected to retain the mount if plans for a Melbourne Cup went ahead. However, with Waller guarded about starting his mare, Lane made the decision to switch to New Zealand stayer The Chosen One, who he had ridden through his spring campaign.
That cleared the way for McDonald to get back on Verry Elleegant, but only after she was confirmed for a start by Waller shortly before final declarations on Saturday afternoon. Having combined two weeks earlier with the Waller-trained Nature Strip to win Australia’s richest race, the A$15 million Everest, McDonald showed he was on song with a record-equalling four wins on the first-day Flemington card.
While McDonald has been racking up the wins during Victoria’s richest week of racing, Waller left it to his Flemington stable staff to manage proceedings and watched the Melbourne Cup at home in Sydney with his family.
Australia’s champion trainer was typically modest when interviewed towards the end of his momentous day.
“We’re the lucky ones that get to work with these great horses and seeing them come home safe and at the front of the field safe is pretty special,” said the man who also master-minded the career of the incomparable Winx.
“People don’t really understand what goes into these great horses and great races. This is a very special reward.”