Derby talking points

Tim Barton
5 March 2021

Grant Cooksley and Lance O’Sullivan both have an opportunity to complete a rare double this weekend.

They are attempting to join Nigel Tiley and Chris McNab as the only horsemen in the modern era to both ride and train a New Zealand Derby winner.

The pattern of the New Zealand classic races changed in the 1973-74 season, when the NZ Derby and NZ Oaks, which had previously been run at Riccarton, were transferred to Ellerslie and Trentham respectively, and replaced at Riccarton by the Two Thousand and One Thousand Guineas.

Between them, O’Sullivan and Cooksley rode five NZ Derby winners and are now seeking a training win in the $1 million Vodafone Derby, New Zealand’s richest race.

Both have form runners. O’Sullivan, who trains in partnership with Andrew Scott, will be represented by favourite Rocket Spade while the Cooksley-Bruce Wallace partnership will run Jason Belltree.

Both horses have potentially awkward barrier draws but filled the first two placings in the Avondale Guineas in their final lead-up race.

Wallace is seeking a different Derby double, as he attempts to emulate his father, Ray, who trained the 1974 Derby winner Mansingh.

Cooksley rode the Derby winners Tidal Light (1986), Cavallieri (1991) and Look Who’s Talking (1994), while O’Sullivan was successful on Surfers Paradise (1990) and Popsy (1993).

McNab rode Jolly Jake to win in 1984 and trained the 2002 winner St Reims, while Tiley rode Ring The Bell in 1980 and had an early success as a trainer, with Look Who’s Talking.

Richest prize

The $600,000 first prize for the NZ Derby is the richest on offer in New Zealand.

The Karaka Million 2YO and Karaka Million 3YO also have a $1 million stake but, with vendor bonuses included, the prize money distribution is different from that of the Derby.

The winner of the Karaka Million 2YO earns a stake of $550,500, with $530,500 for the winner of the three-year-old race.

Aussie hat-trick?

The New Zealand thoroughbred breeding industry has produced a plethora of Derby winners in Australia, most of which are duly celebrated, so we should also acknowledge that results can flow in the opposite direction.

If either Rocket Spade (by Fastnet Rock) or Grip (Exosphere) win the Derby this weekend, it would cap a remarkable recent record for Australian-bred horses.

Australian-bred horses have won the last two editions of the NZ Derby and four of the last six. Mongolian Khan (2015) and Rangipo (2016) began the run and Crown Prosecutor and Sherwood Forest have been the most recent winners.

The 2007 winner Redoute’s Dancer and the 2009 victor Coniston Bluebird were both bred and trained in Australia.

Redoute’s Dancer was the first Australian-bred winner since 1932 but, as a reminder that there is little in racing that hasn’t happened before, four Australian-bred horses won the NZ Derby – then run at Riccarton – during the 1880s.

There were four Australian-bred runners in the 2020 Derby, six in 2019 and four the previous year.

Australian-bred fillies have won the One Thousand Guineas five times in the last decade and 15 of the 21 Group I races held in New Zealand have had at least one Australian-bred winner in the past 10 years.

Colgan and the Derby

Vinnie Colgan, who rides Jason Belltree this weekend, has an extraordinary NZ Derby record.

Colgan, 45, has won the race six times and partnered the runner-up Two Illicit last year.

Colgan’s first Derby win came in 1995, on Roysyn and was followed by Zonda, Hades, Redoute’s Dancer, Habibi and Rangipo.

Colgan won the Group I Zabeel Classic at Ellerslie on Boxing Day, on Concert Hall, and has won more than 225 races on the track, including 15 at Group I level.

The other riders who have won the Derby previously with mounts this year are Craig Grylls (Rocket Spade), Opie Bosson (Perfect Scenario), Leith Innes (Milford) and Jonathan Riddell (Tannahill).

Mike Moroney, Andrew Scott, Jamie Richards, Stephen Marsh, Murray Baker, Andrew Forsman, and Shaune Ritchie are trainers represented this year who have won the race before.

Marsh and Ritchie are also second-generation winners, following on from their fathers, Bruce Marsh and Frank Ritchie.

From $24,000 to $425,000

The auction ring appears to be the place to find a Derby runner.

Eleven of the 14 NZ Derby contenders this year were sold at auction, as either as a yearling or two-year-old, with all bar one sold at Karaka.

The most expensive was Rocket Spade, who cost A$425,000, at the Sydney Easter yearling sale, and Tannahill was the least expensive, at $24,000.

Four others – Milford ($360,000), Edge Of Wonder ($260,000), Perfect Scenario ($165,000) and Grip ($100,000) – cost a six-figure sum.

No stallion is represented by more than one runner this year.

Frontman (Makfi-Imposingly) is a brother to the dual Oaks winner and dual Horse of the Year Bonneval. Frontman was entered in the national yearling sale but later withdrawn and is now raced by his breeders.

Fillies in the Derby

Two fillies – Tokorangi and Il Affare – will contest the Derby this year.

Only two fillies have won the race in the past 25 years, but they have been sparsely represented over that period and most have run well.

Silent Achiever (2012) and Habibi (2013) won in successive years and another 11 fillies have finished in the first three since Popsy’s Derby triumph in 1993. Two other fillies – Tidal Light (1986) and Our Flight (1982) – have been successful since the race was transferred to Ellerslie.

The last two fillies to contest the race – Two Illicit and Danzdanzdance – were placed and Habibi and Fix provided a fillies quinella. A filly finished in the first three in the Derby for five successive years from 1997. 

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