Legends of the Te Rapa Turf

Tim Barton
11 February 2021

The stars of the turf have come to Te Rapa in February for more than 50 years.

The Waikato Racing Club will host the club’s Legends day on Saturday, featuring two of New Zealand’s leading weight-for-age races in the Herbie Dyke Stakes (2000m) and BCD Group Sprint (1400m).

The first running of the International Stakes - now known as the Herbie Dyke – at Te Rapa in 1970, featured a group of leading Australian riders, including Peter Cook, Harry White, Mel Schumacher, Midge Didham, Darby McCarthy and John Stocker.

The equine contenders included Game, Il Tempo, Bardall, Mayo Gold, Kalgoorlie, Honey Belle and three-year-old Far Time, who won the 2200m race in what was claimed to be a world record time.

It was an impressive debut for the weight-for-age feature, but even bigger stars were attracted for the second running, two years later. The Waikato RC reached for the sky and attracted Englishman Lester Piggott, who was universally regarded as the world’s premier jockey, along with champion Australian rider Roy Higgins.

The mounts were allocated by ballot and Piggott, who was having his first ride in New Zealand, had the mount on top mare Sailing Home, who started favourite, with Higgins on Game, a renowned weight-for-age performer. The race had a perfect climax, with Sailing Home beating Game by a neck, in an enthralling finish.

Piggott made another appearance in New Zealand in 1980, at the age of 44, and provided the star turn on New Zealand Stakes day at Ellerslie, with four wins and a second from six rides, including a nose victory in the big race, on Arbre Chene.

Piggott, who won more than 5300 races, retired from riding in 1985 and took up training in England but was jailed for tax evasion in 1987. He was sentenced to three years jail but was paroled after 366 days.

He made a shock return to riding in 1990, just before his 55th birthday, and less than a fortnight after resuming won the Breeders’ Cup Mile, in New York, on Royal Academy. Piggott won 30 classic races in England and Ireland, including nine Epsom Derby victories.

The International Stakes ceased to be an invited riders’ race from 1977 but has continued to attract quality horses, though it did not gain Group I status till 1992.

Other notable winners in the early years included Battle Heights, Oopik, Good Lord, La Mer and Shivaree, who were all top-class gallopers.

Revered trainer Noel Eales won the race six times from his Awapuni base, including three successive wins with Commissionaire, from 1983. Commissionaire did not win a Group I race – bearing in mind that the Waikato International then had Group II status – but won 21 races, including 15 black-type features. Eales was also successful in the International Stakes with Fun On The Run, The Phantom and Greene Street and won the Waikato [BCD] Sprint with Surface.

The Phantom’s victory was also notable for the fact that he was an eight-year-old and his win came the year after his younger brother The Phantom Chance had won the race as a three-year-old.

The Phantom Chance, Bonecrusher and Great Command all completed the NZ Derby-International Stakes double in the same season.

The Phantom, who had his share of injury setbacks, raced till he was a 10-year-old but had just 40 starts in his career and never more than 10 in a single season.

He won the Mackinnon Stakes in Melbourne as an eight-year-old, in 1993, and was placed in the Melbourne Cup (twice), Caulfield Cup (twice) and Cox Plate. His Caulfield Cup placings came four years apart and he might have lost his best chance to win a Melbourne Cup, from three attempts, when the rain came in 1993.

Taranaki galloper Abit Leica, who won the International Stakes in 1987, has a special niche in Te Rapa history, as he also won the Waikato Sprint, as a three-year-old, in 1984. He is the only galloper to have won both the Herbie Dyke and BCD Sprint, though Melody Belle will have a chance to join him, when she tackles the Herbie Dyke on Saturday. Melody Belle won the Sprint two years ago.

If Avantage wins the Sprint on Saturday, it will complete a hat-trick for trainer Jamie Richards, who has won the race for the past two years, with Melody Belle and the ill-fated Te Akau Shark.

The Waikato Sprint, which was first run in 1974, has had Group I status since the group system was introduced, in the 1977-78 season.

The early winners included Soliloquy, who beat Balmerino in 1977, Mop and Copper Belt, while Courier Bay (twice) and Poetic Prince were among the winners in the 1980s.

Mr Tiz, Veandercross and Snap were successful in the 1990s while champion mare Sunline attracted enormous crowds when winning in 2001 and 2002. Sunline won 25 Group I or Group II races but her two Te Rapa triumphs were her only Group I starts in New Zealand.

Sedecrem and Start Wondering have been other two-time winners, while the recent honour roll also includes Darci Brahma, Seachange, Mufhasa, Veyron, Final Touch and Xtravagant.

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