Racing: Excalibur draws first blood

By Mike Dillon

Excalibur draws clear to win at Ellerslie on Saturday to stake his claim for the NZ Derby. Photo / Trish Dunell
Excalibur draws clear to win at Ellerslie on Saturday to stake his claim for the NZ Derby. Photo / Trish Dunell

The $100,000 Retina Specialists Avondale Guineas at Ellerslie on Saturday was going to provide us with the perfect guide into the Vodafone Derby next month.

It didn't, but perhaps Ellerslie's last race on the card did.

Excalibur might have pushed his handsome frame into the Derby field with a stylish victory against the older horses in the $22,500 Auckland Eye 2100.

It was only a R65 event, a couple of grades below that a handful in the Guineas aspire to, but Excalibur won it like a good horse and, more importantly, one that is about to step up to the top ranks as a stayer.

In a depleted field, Excalibur sat third behind the speed for Jonathan Riddell before moving forward to challenge approaching the home bend.

The pair settled into what looked like being a desperate battle before Excalibur's staying potential entered the fray and he powered away late to score easily. The impressive part was how strong the 3-year-old was through the line.

There had been a fair level of pressure for trainer Shaune Ritchie, as Excalibur ran a series of minor placings, mainly as favourite, over short courses through the spring and early summer before being tested in longer races.

"Jonathan said he worried that he might have gone too soon on the horse this time, but he was worried that he would lose concentration if he had waited any longer."

Riddell is as strong a rider as we have in New Zealand and exactly the right type for Excalibur who, like some colts, can have their mind somewhere else during a race.

"He's a beautiful moving horse," says Ritchie. "He has a long stride and he was always going to get better as the distances increased. He's going to be a very fit horse come the Derby."

The ARC run 18 in the Derby and as the order of entry sat on Saturday night Excalibur was at No 18. But if the connections of surprise Guineas winner Gingernuts pay the $30,000 late entry fee, which includes the final acceptance, Excalibur goes to first emergency as the field sits, but Gingernuts' stablemate Shocking Luck, scratched from Saturday after being sold to Hong Kong, will not run and with one or two others considered unlikely, he should make the field.

Co-trainer Stephen Autridge said the decision on Gingernuts will be today or tomorrow. "It's entirely over to the owners and David Ellis, and I'd say at this stage it's at least 50-50. A lot depends on how he has come through the race, but at this stage that looks fine."

Gingernuts raised just about every eyebrow watching Saturday's Guineas. He was coming off a lowly R65 Te Teko victory and his chances looked hopeless when he gave the rest of the field five or six lengths out of the barriers.

He sat last until the home turn then sprinted past the entire field to score, not effortlessly, but almost untouched. The bunch he ran past included all the Derby favourites.

"We knew that being out of a mare by Generous he was going to handle the rain-affected track and that he would stay, but you have to say it was a surprise the way he did it," said Autridge.

That is true, even if the footing - better than most expected it to be, but still testing - hampered most of the leading chances.

Charles Road ran well in finishing second, looking all over the winner until Gingernuts produced an extraordinary finish, and Mongolian Wolf and Redeen The Dream were close up next.

Stewards requested a follow-up report from trainer Tony Pike on the favourite Sacred Elixir, who finished three lengths away in seventh, just ahead of the well fancied Camino Rocoso.

Both horses looked to be badly hampered by the testing footing.

Phillip Devcich is one of racing's nicest guys. However, if he had told you last Friday that 10-year-old El Soldado is probably better than when he made punters cry by winning last year's Auckland Cup at better than $120, you would have had to hide your laugh.

Well, after a similar upset in Saturday's $100,000 Go Racing Syndications Avondale Cup, this time at a mere $69 on the tote, you might have to give that statement a little more credibility.

As he did in the Auckland Cup a year back, El Soldado led them up Saturday and several top fancies in the race had their chance to run him down and couldn't. "Well, that's how he races," said Devcich yesterday, almost oblivious to the shock he had once again provided for the industry and ready to go back to his main occupation as a fencer.

El Soldado clearly likes leading because he finished last at Te Rapa at his previous start after settling mid-field.

Confusion reigns

• The NZ Derby has been thrown wide open after the moderate efforts of several of the likely favourites in Saturday's Avondale Guineas.

• Surprise winner Gingernuts gave his rivals a start and a sound dunking in the lead-up event.

• Excalibur threw down the gauntlet with a strong win in a minor race.

- NZ Herald

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