Wacky weather does nothing to diminish quality

By Dennis Ryan

2 Mar 2023

Wacky weather does nothing to diminish qualityZourion and Opie Bosson headline a dominant day with victory in the Gr. 2 Matamata Breeders’ Stake

Try as it might, the wacky weather that has wrecked the lives of many and blighted countless others, still couldn’t diminish the quality on the final weekend of racing in the New Zealand summer that never was.
At the start of last week, predictions for settled weather in the Waikato but rain in the lower North Island suggested a good track on Matamata Breeders’ Stakes day and a soft track for Otaki’s Group One meeting.
Just about everyone was fooled. Persistent rain up north late in the week saw the Matamata track plummet from a Thursday Good 4 rating to Heavy 10, whereas an opposite forecast reversal brought Otaki in from Soft 5 midweek to Good 4 on race morning.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The sun came out at Matamata and even though the damage had been done (resulting in as many scratchings as starters), the track improved enough for a one-point upgrade and far better ground than anticipated only hours earlier. In the final juxtaposition, intermittent rain at Otaki pushed the track in the opposite direction, out to Soft 6 by the time the field lined up for the Gr. 1 El Cheapo Cars WFA Classic.
Both meetings – calendar highlights for the respective host clubs – had been done no favours by the fickle weather patterns, but the over-riding positive to come out of it all was that no matter how conflicting the weather might have been, the value of the racing itself remained undiminished.
The remaining contradiction was that Levante and La Crique, who fought out the finish of Otaki’s headline race, are both trained in the north (Matamata in fact), as have the last five winners and 14 of the last 20. For longer than it should have, it’s been a perennial argument that Otaki’s Group One drags away northern jockeys who would otherwise be involved in the multi-layered Matamata meeting, but as always I’m told, that clash is a debate for another day.
No matter, Levante made the most of the opportunity as she relished both the step up to 1600m and the underfoot conditions to notch a fourth Group One win to go with her 2021 and 2022 Telegraphs and last year’s BCD Group Sprint.
Her WFA Classic added further lustre to an already massive season for her trainer/jockey connections. In November Ken and Bev Kelso combined with Ryan Elliot for Legarto’s New Zealand 1000 Guineas victory, two months later the trio added the Telegraph with Legarto’s closely connected stablemate Levante and the latter completed a Group One treble on Saturday.
Two weeks earlier Elliot had delivered a special Group One victory to his mentors Graeme and Debbie Rogerson in the Herbie Dyke Stakes on Sharp ’N’ Smart, who he will partner this weekend back at Te Rapa as the odds-on favourite in the New Zealand Derby.
Legarto is now in Melbourne, where on Saturday she will be ridden by expat Mick Dee in the Gr. 1 Australian Guineas at Flemington, while her older stablemate, who last year finished fourth in two Group One sprints at the same track, is booked for the Sydney autumn carnival.
Back at Matamata last Saturday, Mark Walker dominated just as he has everywhere all season with four wins, including the two feature juvenile races. Having just her second start in the Gr. 2 J Swap Contractors Matamata Breeders’ Stakes after a midweek Taupo debut, Zourion was even more impressive as Te Akau stable rider Opie Bosson put his confidence in both the filly and the inside section of the track that he knows so well.
From last in the running in the seven-horse field, Bosson brought Zourion through to challenge with 300m to run, shake off the challenge of Hastings visitor Lowe Flying and score easily, while another visitor, Awapuni filly Pignan, got home late for third. After Vernazza’s Breeders’ Stakes win in 2020, the gold and black-checked colours of Cambridge Stud owners Brendan and Jo Lindsay will be back on the Matamata birdcage jockey mannequin for the next 12 months.
Vernazza was prepared by the Lindsays’ private trainer Lance Noble, while Zourion is shaping as a worthy replacement for their former Te Akau inmate Probabeel. She of course was trained by Jamie Richards, and now back in charge of the country’s most potent stable, Walker has taken his Breeders’ Stakes tally to three after 2008 and 2009 wins by Te Akau Coup and Te Akau Rose. Bosson now has four Breeders’ Stakes, the first of them as a 19-year-old in 1999.
Walker’s record in the other juvenile feature on his home track, the Gr. 3 Fairview Matamata Slipper, is even better at five. With a scintillating burst around the field, Te Akau’s latest Karaka Million 2YO winner took his unbeaten record to four and is the firm favourite to add next week’s Gr. 1 Sistema Stakes at Pukekohe. It was another bumper haul for the Walker-led machine, with four at home and another two at Otaki taking the season tally to 132.
Holding just under half of total starters on the day, Matamata stables played a dominant hand with seven wins that also included an emotional performance by Dragon Queen in the Lisa Chittick Plate. Not only were memories of the lady the race is named after revived, but also tragically lost jockey Taiki Yanagida, whose career-high win came on the same Ballymore Stables mare in last year’s Gr. 2 Westbury Classic.
The third black-type race on the card, the Listed Matamata Veterinary Services Kaimai Stakes, gave a large group of Manawatu visitors plenty to cheer about when the Mike Breslin-trained Colorado Star added to his resurgent record after a previous start win in the Gr. 3 Taranaki Cup. The Alamosa gelding is the headline act for former jockey Tineke Balcombe’s InToWin syndication business.