Although racing strategy fell apart at the start, favorite Puccini still pulled off a convincing win for an injured jockey in the New Zealand Derby (NZ-I) March 1 at Ellerslie.
Trainers Peter and Jacob McKay and jockey Michael Walker planned to send Puccini to the front when the gates opened and expected him to lead all the way. But the Encosta de Lago colt got shuffled back to near last along with Rising Romance, the second choice.
Walker hurt his lower back three races earlier on the card but felt well enough to make the Derby, thanks to massage, Australia's Associated Press reported. He was still feeling some discomfort after the Derby.
The rider settled Puccini into a steady gallop as Habitual Offender took charge and set a slow early pace. Walker made the winning move when he got his mount rolling on the outside with about 1,000 meters (about five furlongs) left to run in the 2,400-meter (about 1 1/2-mile) classic, just at the point where Rising Romance encountered traffic.
In the clear turning into the straight, Puccini picked off rivals and picked up speed. He drew away nearing the finish line to win by two lengths and with plenty of energy in reserve.
Walker was amazed by the colt's victory.
"Horses don't do that, and I was still at full steam at the winning post," he said. "He could have gone another lap."
Guided to running room on the outside, Rising Romance finished well to take second, with Glorious Lad 4 1/2 length back in third.
With the strong victory, Puccini earned consideration for the Australian Derby (Aus-I) April 12 at Royal Randwick. The New Zealand Derby marked a third consecutive win for the colt, who won the Darci Brahma Waikato Guineas (NZ-II) Feb. 1 and Auckland Eye Avondale Guineas (NZ-II), defeating runner-up Rising Romance, two weeks later. He also won the Lindauer Great Northern Guineas (NZ-II) in December.
Puccini, who has a 5-1-3 record from 14 career starts, is a Monovale Holdings homebred and a half brother to New Zealand champion Sir Slick. His dam is stakes winner Our Miss Paris, by Paris Opera.