Living Legend - Xcellent
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Michael Coleman doesn't expect to ride another one as good.
"He's one out of the box and I'll probably never ride one as good as him again," the 49-year-old Matamata jockey said, as he was reunited with former star racehorse Xcellent this week.
"He won the [New Zealand] Derby at his third start and that's pretty much unheard of but that's how good he was. We didn't get to see the best of him but even so, what we did see showed us he was a pretty special horse."
Coleman couldn’t remember the previous time he saw Xcellent but it's clear there remains a chemistry between horse and rider.
Xcellent raced just 13 times for eight wins, four at Group One level. Thomas Russell had the mount at Xcellent’s debut but Coleman was the rider in every other start.
After winning the NZ Derby (2400m) at Ellerslie on Boxing Day in 2004, Xcellent was spelled and given the onerous first-up task of taking on the older horses in the Gr.1 weight-for-age New Zealand Stakes (2000m) at Ellerslie in March.
He won that to stay unbeaten in four starts but was below his best in the Australian Derby (2400m) in Sydney three weeks later.
He returned the following season to gain "megastar" status, according to commentator Tony Lee's unforgettable commentary of the Gr.1 Mudgway Stakes (1400m) at Hastings and then won the Gr.1 Kelt Stakes (2040m), also at Hastings to take his record to six wins from seven starts, four of them at racing's elite level.
"That Mudgway, he bungled the start badly, was last early and only had a couple of horses behind him on the turn. He must have run incredible sectionals to win," Coleman recalls.
"That was probably his best performance, along with his Derby win and his third in the Cup." The Cup placing was the Melbourne Cup in which Xcellent chased Makybe Diva home in the third of her Cup triumphs.
At that point, Xcellent looked capable of reaching rare heights. But just days after an invitation to race in Dubai, Xcellent was found to have strained a tendon and it was 18 months before he raced again.
After an unplaced run in the 2007 Stradbroke Handicap (1400m) at Eagle Farm, Xcellent spelled ahead of a summer campaign that was to be his last.
He won a Group Three 1600m fresh at Ellerslie in December then tasted his only defeat in New Zealand when Sir Slick pipped him in the Gr.1 Zabeel Classic (2000m) at Ellerslie on Boxing Day.
He then won the Trentham Stakes (2400m) but faltered on pulling up, with a suspensory ligament injury, and was retired.
"He's on top of every horse I've ridden,” Coleman said. “He's the yardstick and while every season I'm on the lookout for the next good horse, I am never looking for another Xcellent.
"He had a great personality too. The thing about riding him in the big races was he always so calm. Before the Melbourne Cup, he was just walking around the birdcage like it was just another day.
"He could reel off sectionals that a lot of good horses can't. He was a back-runner but he could change gears and pick them up pretty quickly. He was just a special racehorse."
A dual Horse of the Year, Xcellent enjoys a retirement fitting of a galloper of his stature.
After his initial rehabilitation, he was based at Cambridge Thoroughbred Lodge and was a star attraction of the Horse Magic show alongside other racing stars such as Rough Habit, Holmes DG and Christopher Vance.
But in recent years he's returned to Ballymore Stables, where he was trained, and is looked after by Michael Moroney and Pam Gerard's staff as though he was still part of the racing team.
For Moroney, it's imperative his former star galloper is well looked after in retirement.
“It's great having him around. He looks great and he's well looked after - spoiled more like it," Moroney says.
But what Moroney, who has won a host of major races, really sees each time he visits Xcellent is what could have been.
"He's the best horse I've ever trained. It was just a shame he didn't last long enough for the world to see how good he was. He did extraordinary things as a young horse.
"He was just freakish. He was never fully mature while he was racing. We ran him in the Melbourne Cup but we didn't really give him the right preparation, so for him to run third was a huge effort for a young, immature horse.
"And going into the New Zealand Derby, he didn't have a saddle on for five days going into the race, yet he came out and won that race so strongly."
Xcellent was a horse who became a fan favourite and Moroney says just how much he was adored became apparent after the Trentham Stakes. "It was a bloody sad day. You could see the last furlong something had gone wrong, but he still stuck his head out and won the race.
"For a horse that had such a short time racing, he was so popular with the crowds.”
It was certainly a tough day for strapper Chrissy Clements. She had become Xcellent's closest companion and their bond became even stronger as she supervised his rehabilitation.
"I spent a lot of time with him in rehab, just making sure he didn't hurt himself and you can't help but become attached to a horse under those circumstances," Clements says.
"I always looked after him anyway, but I didn't like going to the races, so he had a raceday strapper for the first half of his career.”
These days a Matamata Racing Club employee, Clements was thrilled to be reacquainted with Xcellent this week and as with Coleman, the bond between horse and strapper was unbroken.
"He looks great. I can't believe how good his legs are,” Clements says. "He's 17 but he's in great condition and he's still his usual self, his personality still shines through. You can tell he's well looked after."