A - Z of New Zealand greats - Xcellent
His name was Xcellent and he had the talent to match the name.
The Matamata galloper had only 13 starts, spread over four seasons, but that was enough to show that he was an exceptional racehorse.
Xcellent won eight of those starts, four of them at Group I level, was placed in a Melbourne Cup, earned more than $1.6 million in stakes and was twice named the New Zealand Horse of the Year.
He was beaten only once – by a long head – in nine starts in New Zealand, with six of those eight wins coming in group races.
The Pentire gelding won the 2005 New Zealand Derby at his third start, an extraordinary achievement that made him the least experienced horse to win the race in the modern era.
His Group I wins represented the cream of New Zealand racing, coming in the Derby and New Zealand Stakes at Ellerslie and the Mudgway (Tarzino) Stakes and Kelt (Livamol) Stakes at Hastings.
His one defeat at home came when he was held up for a run, before just failing to overhaul Sir Slick in the Group I Zabeel Classic at Ellerslie.
Xcellent had just three unplaced runs, all in elite company in Australia, and there was a genuine excuse for each of his failures. He started a $2.85 favourite for the Australian Derby but was undone by a heavy track, while a slow track, a wide barrier and luck in the running were all against him in the 2005 Cox Plate.
His other unplaced run came in the 1400m Group I Stradbroke Handicap in Brisbane, when he was having his first race for more than 18 months and carried the topweight in a 20-horse field. However, the fact that trainer Mike Moroney was prepared to set Xcellent such an ambitious assignment, was an indication of his regard for the horse.
Sadly, Xcellent’s career was just an indication of what he might have achieved had he remained sound.
He went amiss twice, the first time when preparing for an autumn campaign as a four-year-old, resulting in stem cell surgery in both front legs, and there were other setbacks which restricted his opportunities.
Xcellent did not race between November 2005 and June 2007 and had only four more starts in his career, which finished when he pulled up with a significant leg injury after winning the 2008 Trentham Stakes.
He never had more than four starts in a single campaign and his busiest season was as a three-year-old, when he had five starts. He still had a spectacular record, but it is reasonable to assume that injury robbed the slow-maturing galloper of his best years as a racehorse.
Moroney has had a stellar training career on both sides of the Tasman and won almost 50 Group I races. These include a dozen classic races and a Melbourne Cup, but he has no doubt that Xcellent is the most talented horse he has trained.
The NZ Derby, Mudgway Stakes and Melbourne Cup were probably Xcellent’s three standout runs.
His Derby performance was extraordinary on more than one level. In addition to his lack of experience, the horse tweaked a muscle during the week before the Derby and had to be walked, rather than ridden, during the last few days of his preparation.
He was also having his first start for a month and was tackling a 2400m Group I race with just a 1600m maiden and a 2000m intermediate-class run under his belt but won with ease.
He produced a stunning performance fresh-up as a four-year-old, in the 1400m Mudgway, after being slow away in the 16-horse field. He was second last on the turn but produced a dazzling sprint to comfortably gather in the multiple Group I winner Miss Potential.
Xcellent was having just his ninth start when he tackled the Melbourne Cup and had only three leadup races and none past 2040m. He finished a brave third behind Makybe Diva, on a track that had been affected by over-watering.
Moroney reflected on Xcellent’s career with LOVERACING.NZ in 2018. "He's the best horse I've ever trained,” Moroney said. “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.”
Xcellent, who cost $45,000 as a yearling, was from the Centro mare Excelo and helped make names beginning with X more fashionable in New Zealand.
Only one horse with a name beginning with X raced in New Zealand in the 1960s and there were only a handful over the next two decades. The Tapestry of Turf, the book which covered the history of NZ racing up till the 1986-87 season, does not have a single index entry under X.
But other examples in recent times include Xtravagant, Xanadu, Xpression and Xbox, who have all been Group I or Group II winners.
Xcellent, who will turn 19 next month, has spent most of his retirement at his old home, at Ballymore Stables, in Matamata, allowing him to keep an eye on any pretenders to his throne and be pampered by the stable staff.
“He’s old but he’s getting two feeds a day and an occasional brush and he’s in good condition,” Ballymore’s New Zealand trainer, Pam Gerard, said. “He usually has at least one photo shoot a year. There is normally someone who wants to do a story or get a photo of him around Derby time.”