The running of this year's WS Cox Plate (Aus-I) at Moonee Valley Oct. 27 proved as stunning as the equine influenza problem in Australia has been devastating.
The Australian Weight For Age heavyweight championship, this year worth AUS$3 million and run over its usual 10-furlong distance, was taken out by the brilliant El Segundo (Pins-Palos Verdes), who was ridden a treat by Luke Nolen. And he did it quite comfortably in the end after reeling off a final four-furlong finishing burst in a staggering 46.5 seconds. It is little wonder none of the others could withstand his final charge.
Last year he came home very quickly, too, only to fail to win the race by a nostril. This year he faced the starter as a heavier horse, a year wiser, and more gifted, revealed his trainer, Colin Little, after the race.
"I have been pretty bullish on him for over a week now," said Little. "I knew he faced the starter a better horse than last year, and I also knew my horse would out-sprint everyone. My only concern was that Luke would take off too soon. He didn't, as it turned out, and I would say this is the happiest moment of my career. When you grow up in Melbourne you dream only of ever winning two races: the Melbourne Cup and the Cox Plate. So yes, I'm very happy.”
El Segundo, a gelding with astronomical wheels once he gets rolling, cost just NZ$140,000 as a yearling when purchased out of the New Zealand Bloodstock sale. He has been a star galloper in Australia from day one and like most champions, seems to get better with every passing year.
His final few furlongs to run down Wonderful World (by Agnes World) and Haradasun (by Fusaichi Pegasus ) left punters and horsemen breathless as he came from sixth at the three-furlong pole.
Nolen -- who was so very tempted to take off early when he saw his favorite old buddy Wonderful World make a pronounced forward charge at leader Haradasun coming near the bend -- held his cool.
"Wonderful World was so brave. I didn't panic when he moved, though I could see he was really running today. But I had made a commitment to El Segundo, and it is a rare thing to get on a such a high-class horse like this. I'm just overwhelmed by it all," said Nolen.
Nolen is the regular rider of Wonderful World and last year won the Caulfield Guineas (Aus-I) on him. This campaign he has placed twice in group I races on him, and it was a tough choice to sack him for this race. But it was a winning choice.
Haradasun, the horse Coolmore bought 50% of three months back for AUS$25 million, was gallant in defeat. His rider, Damien Oliver, used him up out of the gates and assumed the lead after the cracking field had gone just two furlongs.
"It was definitely not our plan to lead," said his trainer, Tony Vasil, after the race. "I could see where Olly was after they reached the post with a lap to go, and I knew he really had no other option but to press to the lead then. So under the circumstances it was a brave effort to hang on for third.”
Miss Finland, the reigning Queen of Australian racing, was game throughout, winding up a solid fourth just behind Haradasun. She is still on track for a tilt at the AUS$5 million Melbourne Cup in November. None of those who finished in front of her are headed to the Cup.
Said David Hayes, who trains Miss Finland: "I don't think the early tempo of the race suited her, and she seems like she is looking for further now. The two miles of the Cup may be perfect."
Still, she was a beaten favorite yet again, and punters are running out of faith in her -- but not with El Segundo, who has been troubled all his life with a sore fetlock joint.
"(El Segundo) has been soft and it flares up occasionally, but I have been planning on winning this race with him for 12 months," said Little. "Ever since he went down by a nose last year, and although I don't want to get ahead of myself, he does seem to like Moonee Valley. So we'll start planning again for next year."
Nolen was highly complimentary of El Segundo, who has now won AUS$3,791,850 in purse money. "Any jockey in the room could have won on him today. He was traveling that well at the mile I knew he was going to run them down."
It was El Segundo's 12th win from 26 starts and the second week in a row that a stallion standing at New Zealand's Waikato Stud had claimed a major Australian group I race. His sire, Pins, stands alongside O'Reilly, the sire of last week's Caulfield Cup winner, Master O'Reilly.