The Hastings training combination of Guy Lowry and Grant Cullen produced Xpression for a close second in last year's Group 3 Hawke's Bay Breeders Gold Trail Stakes and now have a horse with a royal chance of going one better in this year's feature at Hastings tomorrow week.
Riva Capri shot into calculations for the 1200m event with a game win in last Saturday's Listed $50,000 The O'Leary's Fillies Stakes (1200m) at Whanganui and looks a filly headed for much bigger things.
Raced in the colours of well-known Wellington owner-breeder Lib Patenga under his JML Bloodstock banner, Riva Capri had shown a glimpse of her ability when finishing second on debut in an 800m 2-year-old race at Hastings on July 18.
Riva Capri was then given an easy 1200m jumpout at Hastings on September 2, finishing third without being pressured and her connections were quietly confident of a bold showing from the filly last Saturday, despite her 23 to one odds.
"You never know because it was her first time on a heavy track but I thought, if she handled it, she would be hard to beat," Lowry said.
Riva Capri was overlooked by the punters who sent out the much better-performed pair of Flaunting and She's A Lady as favourites along with Trifolium, who was unbeaten from two starts.
Jockey Craig Grylls made the most of Riva Capri's number two barrier to have her travelling comfortably behind the leaders before moving into contention on the point of the home turn, as Trifolium took over from the pacemaking Miss Sweet Pee.
Trifolium and Riva Capri then set down for a neck-to-neck battle in the home straight, with the latter just managing to get her head in front on the line for a half-head decision.
Sorrentina, another 3-year-old raced by JML Bloodstock, kept up a strong finish after being caught wide in the running to get third and they were clear of the rest.
Co-trainer Lowry said he was not only concerned about the heavy track for Riva Capri but also the fact that she had missed a run at Taupō on August 21, when the races were abandoned midway through the programme.
"We were a little bit worried after missing a run at Taupō," he said.
"I think her condition probably told in the last 50m today but she was gutsy enough to hang on.
"We will back up in the Group 3 Gold Trail Stakes at Hastings and then we will go from there."
Riva Capri was bred by Lib Patenga and is the first stakes winner for the ill-fated stallion Atlante, who died in 2016 after completing his second season at stud.
Instant success for HB owner
Hastings woman Chrystel Jager has had several years of involvement with thoroughbreds but to actually own a share in a race winner gave her the ultimate thrill last weekend.
Jager has a small 2.5 per cent share in Cool Aza Beel, the horse that took out the first 2-year-old race of the season at Whanganui on Saturday.
The Savabeel colt, owned by the Te Akau Sassy Beel Syndicate and managed by Karen Fenton-Ellis, is raced by a syndicate of 10 and most of them have a much bigger shareholding than Jager. But she made a special trip from Hastings to Whanganui to watch the race and was just as excited as any of them when her horse passed the post in first place.
"I've now got a 100 per cent winning record as an owner," she quipped this week.
Cool Aza Beel, ridden confidently by Troy Harris, took a clear lead early in the home straight in the 800m event and managed to hold out the fast-finishing De La Terre by a short neck.
Jager has been involved with horses since her childhood and spent four years working for former Hastings trainer Marlene Todd, regularly riding trackwork at the Hastings track.
She had a yearning to race a horse and was so impressed by what Te Akau Racing had to offer that she initially took up a 10 per cent share in a Burgundy 2-year-old that David Ellis bought from last January's Karaka yearling sales for $20,000.
That horse has since been named Bordeaux Le Rouge and is close to having a barrier trial.
"I then went up to the Te Akau establishment and when I saw this colt (Cool Aza Beel) I thought I should take a share in him too," Jager said.
Ellis had also purchased the Savabeel colt from the Karaka sales but had outlayed $150,000 for him so the shares were considerably higher.
"The smallest shareholding Te Akau usually let you have is 5 per cent but, because I already had a 10 per cent share in the Burgundy 2-year-old, they let me take a 2.5 per cent in him," Jager said, adding that she is the only Hawke's Bay person involved.
Cool Aza Beel is the first foal out of the Testa Rossa mare Cool 'n' Sassy and is prepared by Te Akau Stud's trainer Jamie Richards. He preceded his debut win with two barrier trial wins, over 630m at Te Teko and 650m at Te Rapa, and will now be given a freshen up for a couple of weeks before being aimed at the $50,000 Wellesley Stakes (1000m) at Trentham on October 26.
Being a graduate from the Karaka yearling sales he also qualifies for the Karaka Million (1200m) at Ellerslie in January next year.
Melody Belle dominant winner
Glamour galloper Melody Belle, part-owned by Waipukurau couple Trevor and Debbie Walters, has added the New Zealand Horse of the Year title to her growing list of achievements.
The Jamie Richards-trained mare was an almost unanimous choice for Horse of the Year, which was announced at the New Zealand Thoroughbred Horse of the Year Awards, in Auckland last Sunday night.
Of the 61 votes cast for Horse of the Year, Melody Belle received 59, with Te Akau Shark and Bostonian awarded one each.
Melody Belle certainly warranted the title after recording six black-type wins from eight starts last season, five of them at Group 1 level, and at distances ranging from 1200m to 2000m.
The Commands mare was purchased by Te Akau principal David Ellis for $57,500 at the Karaka yearling sales and is raced by the Fortuna Melody Belle Syndicate, of which the Walters own a 10 per cent share.
Melody Belle was also named Champion Sprinter-Miler for the 2018-19 season and was narrowly beaten by Danzdanzdance in the middle-distance category.
Yourdeel, a stablemate of Melody Belle, was named champion 2-year-old, with Madison County (3-year-old), Glory Days (stayer) and Jackfrost (jumper) taking out the other horse categories.
Opie Bosson, who won six Group 1 races last season, headed off premiership winner Lisa Allpress by four votes in a tight battle for champion jockey while Aaron Kuru was a comprehensive winner of the jumps jockey title, receiving 58 of the 62 votes.
Champion trainer Murray Baker, who had trained the previous five horse of the year winners, received the prestigious contribution to racing award. Baker has had a long and successful career and has won more Group 1 races in Australia than any other New Zealand trainer.
Baker and his training partner Andrew Forsman have won almost 600 races over the past five seasons and set new benchmarks in terms of wins, stake earnings and black-type wins. They have won 105 black-type races over that period, including 23 at Group 1 level. The stable's stake earnings for the period have topped $25million.
Wellington owner Lib Patenga, who races under the JML Bloodstock banner, was voted owner of the year for the fourth successive year. Patenga had 14 winners or stakes-placed horses, from 26 runners, including two Group 2 winners and three Group race placegetters.
The deeds of champion Hong Kong galloper Beauty Generation were reflected in the two major breeding awards. Nearco Stud, which bred Beauty Generation, was breeder of the year and Beauty Generation's dam, Stylish Bel, was broodmare of the year.
Beauty Generation, a son of Road To Rock, was unbeaten in eight starts in Hong Kong in the 2018-19 season and was crowned Hong Kong horse of the year for the second successive year.
HB-born pair to the fore again
Hawke's Bay-born jumps jockeys Shaun Fannin and Aaron Kuru were to the fore again at last Saturday's Auckland meeting at Ellerslie.
Fannin, 23, produced a masterful ride to lead all the way aboard Wise Men Say in the day's feature event, the $125,000 Great Northern Steeplechase, while Kuru brought up his 100th New Zealand win aboard Bee Tee Junior in the $10,000 Maiden Hurdle.
For Fannin, it was his second success in what is regarded as New Zealand's most gruelling race, a 6400m energy-sapping staying test where runners have to negotiate the famous Ellerslie hill three times.
He also took out the 2016 running on Kick Back while Wise Men Say was also recording his second win in the event, after also being victorious in 2017.
Few horses have led throughout to win the Great Northern but Wise Men Say took control from the start last Saturday, opening up a sizeable break on the rest of the field. He not only set a good tempo but also measured his fences well and Fannin said later he was happy to let the horse bowl along.
"I was just happy to have him up there as there looked to be no speed in the race on paper," Fannin said.
"He was happy in his action out in front, jumping nicely and he is a very dour stayer so it was catch me if you can.
"He was really relaxed and I didn't think I was going too hard. I gave him a squeeze coming down the hill the last time and he quickened nicely."
Fannin, who has now chalked up 86 New Zealand wins, went close to scoring the coveted double on the day after being narrowly beaten aboard Laekeeper in the other feature jumping event, the $125,000 Great Northern Hurdle (4190m).
The best placing Kuru achieved in last Saturday's two features was a third on No Tip in the Great Northern Hurdle but he brought up a personal milestone aboard Bee Tee Junior in the 2760m maiden hurdle.
Ellerslie has been a happy hunting ground for Kuru, with the former Black Sox softball representative winning his first-ever race there as an amateur rider back in August, 2011.
"Today's win meant a lot," Kuru said. It was enjoyable because I won my first race there on a horse called D'Goldie for John Bary. Ninety-nine wins later, it is pretty satisfying."
D'Goldie was raced by Bary in partnership with Hastings-based Alan Chapman and his win at Ellerslie that day was the last of his seven victories.