Hawke's Bay thoroughbred breeders have been starved of a commercial stallion in the district for many years but that looks set to change with the pending importation of Niagara, a horse with an outstanding race record backed by an exceptional pedigree.
Greg and Jo Griffin, who have successfully operated Lime Country Thoroughbreds as an agistment, pre-training and yearling preparation operation from a 12ha piece of the historic Hawke's Bay Okawa Stud for the past five years, have now decided to stand a stallion on the property.
Jo Griffin says much time and thought has gone into selecting the right stallion to stand in the Hawke's Bay district and believes everything has come together at the right time with Niagara, who was a genuinely classy racehorse with commercial potential that should appeal to all breeders.
"Niagara is a cracking individual and he fits the bill perfectly for us. He's from a fantastic Australian group one-performing family, by a champion sire and himself a classy group winning racehorse at three in Australia."
As a racehorse, Niagara had 11 starts from the stable of top Sydney trainer Gai Waterhouse for two wins, four seconds and a third.
His two starts as a 2-year-old were in top company and he finished second behind the highly rated Detours in one of them, over 1250m, beating Mental.
As a 3-year-old he scored a maiden win over 1550m at Canterbury by six lengths before blitzing a field of older horses in the group 2 ATC Ajax Stakes (1500m). He was then beaten a nose when second in the group 2 Sandown Guineas (1600m) and was also runner-up in the listed ATC Eskimo Prince Handicap (1200m).
Jo Griffin says the highlight of his racing career was his 3 length win in the Ajax Stakes, where he was a 3-year-old up against older horses and proved a class above them.
After that win, Gai Waterhouse was quoted as saying: "I've always had a great opinion of this colt. He was the most magnificent yearling, he is by Encosta de Lago, and he's got a physique to die for.
"He just jumped and said 'see you later'. He was too strong for them today."
Niagara had a Timeform rating of 121 for his 3-year-old season, giving him a higher overall rating than the likes of exceptional group 1 winners Ocean Park (120) and Sangster (119).
He was the fifth leading Australasian 3-year-old colt of his year, on Timeform ratings, behind Sepoy (129), Foxwedge (128), Helmet (125) and Smart Missile (124), most of whom are now commanding sizeable fees as stallions at stud.
Niagara is a son of champion sire Encosta de Lago out of the unraced Fusaichi Pegasus mare River Song and comes from the family of champion Australian sire Redoute's Choice.
River Song is out of the Danehill mare Twyla, who was a winner over 1250m and is a three-quarter sister to Redoute's Choice and two other successful Australian sires in Al Maher and Platinum Scissors.
A colt by Fastnet Rock out of another daughter of Twyla in Celebria, by Peintre Celebre, topped the premier session at this year's Karaka yearling sales when fetching $1.975 million.
Encosta de Lago is the sire of 93 stakes winners and his progeny has already amassed more than $118 million in prizemoney.
He is the sire of outstanding performers such as Racing To Win, Alinghi, Princess Coup, Sacred Kingdom, Aloha, Northern Meteor and Manhattan Rain, all group 1 winners.
The importation of Niagara to stand at stud in New Zealand has come at an opportune time given the outstanding success at stud of another of Encosta de Lago's sons in Northern Meteor. The Coolmore Stud-based stallion has left seven individual 2-year-old stakes winners from his first crop this season, including the unbeaten group 2 winner Zoustar.
Sydney-based Chris Waller prepares Zoustar and that colt and another son of Northern Meteor in Romantic Touch, trained by Gai Waterhouse, are vying for favouritism for tomorrow's group 1 A$500,000 ($596,000) JJ Atkins Stakes (1600m) at Eagle Farm in Brisbane.
Greg and Jo Griffin have built up a strong client base already with their Lime Country Thoroughbred operation and say they now want a serious and marketable stallion prospect to launch the next stage of their business.
"It has always been the plan for us to stand a stallion," Jo Griffin said. "We've been offered plenty of lesser horses over the years which we've said no to. It takes time, capital and a secure client base to get a horse of this calibre and this time we have been able to pull it all together and get the job done."
Niagara stands at 16.1 hands and is a strongly built individual with the stamp of Danehill in his appearance.
He will stand his first season at a very competitive fee of $5000 plus GST.
"We see his fee being outstanding value, given his racetrack performance and pedigree, compared with other stallions standing in New Zealand," Griffin said.
"There are still a limited amount of shares available in the horse and we would like Hawke's Bay breeders to consider that option."
Niagara is expected to arrive at Lime Country Thoroughbreds about the middle of next month, ready to commence stud duties in the spring.
Veteran to fore
Waipukurau-owned and trained Belfast Lad brought up the 12th win of his career when he again led his rivals a merry chase in last Saturday's $25,000 Foxton Cup (2040m) at Wanganui.
The Colombia gelding was completing back-to-back victories after also leading all the way over 2100m at Awapuni a fortnight before.
Regular rider Buddy Lammas rated the horse perfectly, letting him stride to a big lead in the early stages and then giving him a breather at the 600 before kicking him clear again in the home straight.
At the line, they were 2 lengths clear of Chapinta, with Josephine of a length back in third place.
Penny Ebbett, who owns and trains Belfast Lad in partnership with her husband, Tony, said this week the 8-year-old seemed to be getting better with age.
"People have been saying that we should be looking at retiring him but he is just thriving at the moment," she said.
"Buddy said he was just cruising going down the back straight in Saturday's race and the horse took off himself when it was time to quicken and no one was going to catch him."
Ebbett said the Wanganui track, which was rated a slow 9, was made to order.
"He doesn't like a track that is too deep because he's only got little feet and struggles when it's really heavy. As long as he can get through it, he's right and that track was perfect."
The Ebbetts are now looking at one of two races for Belfast Lad in the coming weeks, either a $25,000 open 2100m event at Awapuni tomorrow week or the $50,000 Kiwifruit Cup (2100m) at Tauranga a week later.
Belfast Lad's record now stands at 12 wins, five seconds and eight thirds from 94 starts and he has won in excess of $137,000, a tremendous return on the $2500 he cost the Ebbetts to buy as a yearling.
Hastings-owned and trained 3-year-old Survived is favourite on both sides of the Tasman for tomorrow's group one A$500,000 ($724,000) Queensland Derby in Brisbane.
The John Bary-trained gelding has been at the head of the New Zealand and Australian betting markets for the 2400m feature at Eagle Farm since his unlucky second in the group 3 Rough Habit Plate (2200m) on the same track on May 11.
That has been the son of Zed's only Australian lead-up race before the Derby but Bary is confident the horse is fit and ready to produce another top effort in tomorrow's feature event.
A strong training gallop on the course proper at Doomben last Saturday pleased Bary and the horse's regular jockey, Jonathan Riddell.
"Jonathan was delighted with his work on the weekend and I'm confident he is right where we want him leading into the race," Bary said.
"He seems to have come right in the coat and is thriving over here, so hopefully, he will be able to put it all together on Saturday."
Survived, who is owned by his Hawke's Bay breeder Don Gordon, has had eight starts for five wins and two seconds.
He won a group 3 double in New Zealand _ in the Manawatu Classic (2000m) and Hawke's Bay Cup (2200m) _ before heading to Queensland.
Young Hastings thoroughbred trainer James Bridge is transferring his operation to Woodville from this weekend. He has taken over the barn stabling complex on the Woodville racecourse where he will have room for up to 15 horses.
"I'll be taking 10 with me for a start and will be looking to get some more once I get set up," Bridge said this week.
Bridge began his training career in Hastings three years ago and has notched up five wins from 52 starters.