It might have taken 11 months, but top jockey Noel Harris finally achieved his goal when guiding Marea Alta to an easy win in the Listed $50,000 Amcor Kiwi-LRK Trays Kiwifruit Cup at Gate Pa on Saturday.
Harris, the elder statesman of the jockeys' room, sets himself the task of winning at least one stakes race each season and he has achieved the goal almost every term on the racing calendar.
But this season he had found the goal elusive, though he was quietly confident that would change aboard Marea Alta last Saturday. And his judgment proved spot on as Marea Alta surged clear of the brave topweight Indikator to take the 2100m event by two and a quarter lengths.
"I don't feel good until I get a stakes win and it's great to get it out of the way," said Harris. "It's like winning a million dollar race to me. And it was special because it was for my old mate, ARA [Alexander Fieldes]."
Fieldes prepares Marea Alta for the horse's breeders, Awapuni trainer Mark Oulaghan and his mother, Pam, and the stakes win is the second for the group. Last July Harris rode Marea Alta to a strong win in the Listed Taumarunui Gold Cup at Te Rapa.
The Taumarunui Gold Cup is again on the agenda for Marea Alta, but beforehand Harris and his wife, Kylie, will enjoy a week-long holiday in Rarotonga. The couple headed abroad yesterday, happy to again have another trophy in the cabinet.
Harris is 57 but he was quick to comment that he felt like an 18-year-old after Marea Alta's win.
"But it was a bit of a worry for a while," said Harris. "She was floundering in the ground and doing nothing for most of the race. It wasn't until I hooked her out wider and gave her a crack with the whip about the 800 that she got going."
Marea Alta went from seemingly struggling to travelling like a winner in a matter of strides and improved wide to be the big threat turning for home. Though Indikator gave his best, Marea Alta always looked likely to run him down, especially with her 5kg advantage in the weights.
Marea Alta has now won seven races and almost $140,000 in prizemoney, going from a maiden performer when joining Fieldes' small stable. "When I got her I was just hoping to win a maiden race with her, but she's kept improving," said Fieldes.
Fieldes gave plenty of credit to his partner, Kara Oulaghan (sister and daughter of Marea Alta's owners). "Without Kara's help I would never be able to be training and doing my other job [as a meat inspector at Wanganui Freezing Works]," he said. "And it's great to get another big win with Harry [Harris] aboard. He gave me my first winner."
Harris is in the twilight of his riding career and an autobiography on his life (Harry - The Ride of My Life) will be released in early August. But this doesn't mean he is ready for retirement yet.
"I'm still riding winners and I've got some good rides coming up for next season," said Harris. "I'm not ready to retire yet."
After watching Harris' display on Marea Alta, it was evident the master horseman has lost none of his skill.
Meanwhile, Jason Collett left the Gate Pa racecourse in a far better condition than he did when he last rode on the track.
The Pukekohe apprentice guided the Cambridge filly Innovation to her first stakes win in the Listed $50,000 Team Wealleans Tauranga Classic and it was a riding performance from the top drawer. "This is the first day I've ridden here since my fall last December," said Collett after the presentation. "It took me a long time to come right and it's great to be back riding winners."
Collett suffered a head injury in the fall and spent four months on the sideline recovering. Collett earned praise from Innovation's trainer, Ralph Manning, and Rick Williams, general manager of The Oaks Stud (owners of the Keeper filly) for his ride on Saturday.
"It was a beautiful ride," said Williams. "He's ridden a lot of winners for us and we like to use him when we can."
Collett settled Innovation at the rear and had her a shade closer with 800 metres to run. He then angled her to the outside for a run, but coming into the home straight it looked to be a risky decision.
Innovation charged down the extreme outside of the track to win by a length from Rememba Howe with Happyto Keepa earning her first black type when third, a long head away. Sacha and Art Beat, past winner, were the next pair home.