Yahabeebe, Legend of the Ellerslie Christmas Carnival
Yahabeebe had a catchy name but her rivals invariably found her hard to catch.
The flying filly, who raced in the late 1950s, was trained at Ellerslie and excelled on her home track.
Yahabeebe won nine feature races at Ellerslie including successive wins in the Railway Handicap, the premier open sprint staged on the course.
She usually set the pace and earned a big following among the racing public while recording 13 wins and six seconds from 22 starts in New Zealand.
Her other major wins at Ellerslie came in the Foal Stakes, Champagne Stakes and Royal Stakes as a two-year-old, and two wins apiece in the King’s Plate and the now discontinued Great Northern Challenge Stakes.
The Royal Stakes is now a 2000m race for three-year-old fillies but in Yahabeebe’s era was open to two and three-year-olds and run over 1200m.
The Railway has been a feature of the Christmas carnival at Ellerslie for more than 130 years.
The Auckland Cup and NZ Derby were also staged at the Christmas meeting for many years but in 2006 were switched to a March date, leaving the Sistema Railway and the Zabeel Classic as the only Group I races at the meeting.
Yahabeebe was first aimed at the Railway as a three-year-old but had to bypass the meeting through illness. She made amends by winning the Railway in the next two seasons, setting the pace both times.
She broke the 1200m track record at Ellerslie when winning the 1957 Railway in 1:10.2 and a year later had to carry the equivalent of 60.5kg, from an outside barrier. Even her regular rider, Grenville Hughes, doubted that she could win and switched to another mount.
Bill Smith replaced Hughes on the topweight and Yahabeebe quickly established a sizeable lead and was still a length and a half clear at the finish. It is one of the biggest weights carried to victory in the Railway and Yahabeebe was giving the runner-up 13.5kg.
The top horses in that era were often set testing tasks and Yahabeebe, who had been freshened after a Sydney campaign in the spring, had three starts at the 1958-59 Christmas meeting, spread over just seven days.
Three days after her Railway triumph, she stepped up to 2000m in the Clifford Plate. The task proved too much, and she was unplaced, though she had still started favourite.
However, she bounced back in spectacular fashion over 1600m on New Year’s Day, beating the high-class three-year-olds Fountainhead and Up And Coming to record her second win in the weight-for-age King’s Plate.
She had had her first start at 1600m in the King’s Plate a year earlier, winning by seven lengths in 1.25.
She set a New Zealand record when winning the 1400m (seven furlong) North Island Challenge Stakes at Trentham and lowered the record again when recording her second win in the Great Northern Challenge Stakes. That record was still intact when New Zealand racing changed to metric distances in 1973.
Yahabeebe made three trips to Australia but pined for home and never displayed her best across the Tasman. However, she still won an open sprint in Sydney, with 60.5kg, and was runner-up, under 57kg, in the 1958 Stradbroke Handicap in Brisbane and was placed in a Craven Plate.
A daughter of the Epsom Derby winner Mid-day Sun, who stood in New Zealand late in his career, Yahabeebe was trained by Merv Ritchie and raced by Auckland businessman Lou Fisher, a brother of Ra Ora Stud founder Sir Woolf Fisher.
Ritchie was brought up in Southland but was based at Ellerslie for more than 40 years, riding over fences before taking up training.
In particular, he trained many winners for the Fletcher family and famed administrator Dr Alex McGregor Grant.
Top juvenile Blyton and Wellington Cup winner Rustler wore the Fletcher colours and Not Again and the fine stayer Terrific were among Grant’s flagbearers. Terrific won seven races as a three-year-old and another six the following season but was beaten a nose in the Auckland Cup and by half a head in the Great Northern Derby and also ran second in a Cox Plate.
Merv Ritchie also started a training dynasty, with sons Frank and Gary and grandchildren Shaune, Craig and Julia Ritchie all making a mark as trainers.
The O’Sullivans are another renowned racing family with a rich Railway record. Dave O’Sullivan recorded his biggest win as a jockey in the 1953 Railway and won the race six times as a trainer.
His son, Paul, did even better with eight Railway wins. Paul won half a dozen in partnership with his father and added two more when training on his own. Paul’s brother, Lance, chimed in with five Railway wins as a jockey.
The star Railway performer for the O’Sullivan family was the champion sprinter Mr Tiz, who won the race three years in a row, including a dead heat at his first attempt.
Mr Tiz won seven Group I races and completed the Railway-Telegraph double in successive years. More remarkably, he dead-heated for first in both the Railway and Telegraph – with different horses – in 1989, before recording outright wins the following year.
He also matched the leading sprinters in Australia, with a memorable win in the 1100m Galaxy at Randwick, with the topweight of 58.5kg.