Melody Belle Breaks New Ground
Clockwise from left Melody Belle, Ocean Park, Veandercross, and Rough Habit
Star mare Melody Belle is the first horse to win five Group I races in New Zealand in a single season.
The group system has been operating in New Zealand since the 1977-78 season and it is rare for any horse to record more than three domestic Group I wins in a season. Seachange, another mare, is the only other galloper to have notched four.
Melody Belle has had a near faultless season, with five Group I wins, a Group II win and a Group I-placing from eight attempts and more than $700,000 in earnings.
Her Bonecrusher Stakes win at Ellerslie last weekend also meant that she joined Ocean Park (2012-13), Veandercross (1992-93) and Rough Habit (1991-92) as New Zealand-trained horses to record five Group I wins in a single season. Ocean Park, Veandercross and Rough Habit all recorded at least three of their wins in Australia.
Ocean Park also won the Bonecrusher Stakes during his stellar four-year-old season and like Melody Belle had just eight starts that season. He recorded a hat-trick of Group I wins at the Melbourne spring carnival, including the Cox Plate, and his only unplaced run came in Dubai. He raced exclusively in Group I company that term and topped $3 million in earnings.
Veandercross also had a memorable season as a four-year-old, with eight wins, two seconds and two thirds from his 12 starts. Four of his Group I wins came in Australia – in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Sydney), Mackinnon Stakes, Australian Cup and Ranvet Stakes – and he was also runner-up in both the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups.
His New Zealand wins that term included the Group I Waikato Sprint and he also won the Kelt Stakes at Hastings, which was then a Group III race. Veandercross earned $2.5 million that season and any horse who had the same record in the 2018-19 season would earn more than $7 million.
Rough Habit, who had a career tally of 11 Group I wins, won five Group I races as a five-year-old. He won the Captain Cook Stakes at Trentham, before winning the Queen Elizabeth Stakes and All Aged Stakes in Sydney and completing the Stradbroke-Doomben Cup double in Brisbane.
Sunline, the winner of 13 Group I races and unbeaten in New Zealand, never managed five Group I wins in a single season but was a multiple Group I winner in Australia for four successive seasons and twice recorded four Group I wins in a season, as did Bonecrusher.
Bonecrusher won his last seven starts as a three-year-old, four of them Group I races and his three Group II wins that term included the Waikato International and Bayer Classic, races which were later promoted to Group I status.
Dundeel, Mufhasa, Surfers Paradise, Horlicks and Poetic Prince are among the other Kiwi gallopers to record four Group I wins in a single season and Sunline and Horlicks both had the distinction of winning Group I races in three countries in a single season.
All of Melody Belle’s five Group I wins this term came at weight-for-age, which was not possible in the early years of the group system in New Zealand.
Initially, there were 17 New Zealand races with Group I status but just three of those were run at weight-for-age and the bulk of the Group I open races were run under handicap conditions, which made it difficult for any horse aged four or above to record multiple wins.
There were still just five weight-for-age races among the 19 races with Group I status in the 1988-89 season. The elite list did not include any of the races that now make up the Hastings Triple Crown and the Bayer Classic, Waikato International (Herbie Dyke), and New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes had Group II status and the Otaki WFA (Haunui Farm) was a Group III event.
It is a very different pattern in the current season, with not a single handicap race having Group I status. The 21 Group I races now comprise 10 weight-for-age races, seven which are restricted to two or three-year-olds and four that are run with set weights and penalties.
Races that have been downgraded from Group I since the introduction of the group system include the Wellington Cup, New Zealand Cup, Avondale Cup, Easter Handicap at Ellerslie and New Zealand St Leger.