Otaki trainer Howie Mathews and his wife, Lorraine, have never been more proud of their evergreen galloper Sampson than at Hāwera last Saturday as he clawed his way to victory.
As an 11-year-old with 60.5kg on his back, he gave age and weight to all his rivals, but that didn't stop him from showing his will to win over the final stages for rider Chad Ormsby to score by a nose from Hi I'm Nikkita in the Egmont Cup (2100m), his first win since he took the Listed New Zealand St Leger (2600m) at Trentham in March last year.
Howie says he's a 'great old' horse.
"I did think I was selfish bringing him back into work this year, but then what do you do? He's a professional racehorse and he loves it. He's a happy horse and basically the only one I have in full work so he gets one on one.
"He gets the royal treatment. We're lucky he's been sound right through and he just loves racing."
Howie says although he is 11, it doesn't show.
"He proved that on Saturday. He just wanted to win. I think Chad was really surprised how well he went."
Sampson is the oldest horse Howie has kept in training.
"I can't remember having one older than maybe Doyle, who won 12 races and retired at 9, and I think Coshking, who won nine, retired as an 8-year-old so this boy has certainly outlasted them," Howie says .
Howie's highlight with Coshking came when winning the 1989 Gr.1 Brisbane Cup (3200m) and the 1989 Gr.2 Dalgety Handicap (2500m) in Australia and being runner-up in the 1989 Gr.1 Sydney Cup (3200m), while Doyle's best wins came at Group Three level.
Doyle was raced by Peter and Nancy Izett and he was originally trained by Richard Dee (father of prominent Melbourne jockey Michael Dee) then handed over to Mathews when Dee retired from training.
The Izetts went on to purchase Sampson from the 2011 Festival Yearling Sale at Karaka for $20,000 and now he has matched Doyle's number of wins with the Egmont Cup victory.
Sampson is raced on lease by Mathews' wife and an Otaki friend, Janice Street, and the pair have had the ride of their lives with the old warhorse, who has gathered more than $560,000 in his 83 starts.
Sampson's list of victories is headed by the 2017 Gr.2 Awapuni Gold Cup (2000m), the 2017 Gr.3 Trentham Stakes (2400m), the 2019 Listed Marton Cup (2200m) and the Listed New Zealand St Leger (2600m), while his 18 placings have included the Awapuni Gold Cup and Gr.3 Wellington Cup (3200m) and Gr.3 Manawatu Cup (2200m).
Last year after Sampson followed up his New Zealand St Leger win with a close second in the Awapuni Gold Cup, Mathews and his wife decided "have horse will travel" and the couple headed to Australia with the son of Dubai Destination.
After two runs in Melbourne they headed to Queensland where in five starts Sampson ran second in the Listed Ipswich Cup (2150m) and rounded off with a fifth in the Listed Queensland Cup (3200m) last July.
Sampson resumed on the New Zealand scene last November and three starts later he showed a glimpse of his best form when second to Beauden in the Listed Marton Cup (2200m) at Awapuni, but then he disappointed Mathews next start when ninth in the Wellington Cup.
"After the Wellington Cup I was a little bit disappointed," Howie says.
"The way the race was run he could have run better. He'd been having foot problems since he returned from Queensland. I kept him boxed and tried different products in his feed and just before lockdown his feet improved."
By that stage Sampson had been placed in each of his three starts, the latest effort being a third in the New Zealand St Leger, then when the Covid-19 lockdown came Mathews, like most trainers, had no option but to give his star a break.
"Because we train on the Otaki racecourse, we just had to dead stop for four to six weeks and put him out in the paddock," Howie says.
Fortunately Sampson only took a couple of trials and two lead-up races to hit winning form in the Egmont Cup, an event he first won in 2015 and contested for the next three years.
Sampson has become a bit of a country cups king and the Listed Feilding Gold Cup (2100m) at Awapuni on October 31 will again be the next stop for Sampson.
"He's come through last Saturday's race really well," Howie says.
"While he's happy and while he's going good races we'll keep going with him.
"We'll just space his races out a bit and three weeks to the Feilding Gold Cup is ideal.
"He won't be going down to Christchurch, but maybe he could get to the Wellington Cup again. It will all depend on him."
Mathews knows Sampson will never match the deeds of his half-brother, dual Group One winner Kolding, but he showed last Saturday he certainly isn't ready to retire just yet.