The lessons learned from losing a Derby last year helped the Rocket Spade team win the $1 million New Zealand Derby at Ellerslie today.
After a week of Derby uncertainty on so many levels, the favourite came out on top, downing Milford and Frontman courtesy of some smart training and a beautiful Craig Grylls ride.
Grylls was last on the inside at the 600m in the classic run on a slow track after rain fell during the meeting but didn't panic, cutting the final corner before edging to the middle of the track.
That meant Rocket Spade covered less ground than the placegetters and he was holding them at the line to give his sire Fastnet Rock his second Derby winner in succession at Ellerslie.
Rocket Spade is trained by former champion jockey Lance O'Sullivan and Andrew Scott, who was brought to tears of relief by the victory.
"[The tears] are partly because of what happened last year when we got beat with Dragon Leap," said Scott. "It was for the same owners and there is a lot of pressure when people entrust you with these nice colts and you get them as far as the Derby with a huge chance.
"Last year, Dragon Leap was probably too brilliant for the 2400m, but we learned from that. We tried to train this horse to settle and were also more relaxed about the week ourselves and didn't let it get to us as much. And that extended to Craig's ride. He said he wanted to ride him for luck and we told him we were comfortable with that."
Scott and O'Sullivan also took the gamble of giving Rocket Spade two starts over distance (2000m and further) in his build-up, willing to teach him to settle and stay, knowing it might cost him some of his natural speed. In a wet and wild Derby, it proved a masterstroke.
Rocket Spade may eventually end up in Hong Kong, where he is owned, but before then, he could head to another Derby in Sydney, with the ATC Derby next month often run on a rain-affected track.
"We know he can handle the wet track now, so Sydney is an option, but we want to enjoy this first."
Runner-up Milford and third-placed Frontman are also likely to head to Sydney, and both are still new and could improve further, while favoured runners Montre Moi and Tokorangi got back and never looked winning hopes, although any horses beaten today are worth forgiving.
One of those was almost Amarelinha, who only just justified her hot favouritism in the $70,000 Sunline Vase, grabbing Needle And Thread right on the line after covering lengths more ground and not looking happy on the slow surface.
"She had to be good to win that because the race didn't go our way but she showed real fight, which is a good sign for the Derby," said jockey Opie Bosson.
The most graphic victory came from Entriviere in the $100,000 Kings Plate. She made it five wins from six starts with a dazzling burst of speed to power past some of New Zealand's elite sprinters in a display that had even trainer Jamie Richards, who won five races, wondering how far she might go.
"She is a very fast mare and I am certain she is up to Group 1 level," said Richards.
● Ellerslie bosses are hoping to confirm by Wednesday their intention to hold Saturday's huge Auckland Cup meeting fully open to the public.
"Obviously we are guided by the Government but we would love to able to welcome everybody who wants to be here back to the races for Cup Day," said ARC chief executive Paul Wilcox.