In a desperate three-way finish to the blue riband Gr.1 Vodafone New Zealand Derby (2400m), it was race favourite Rocket Spade who came out on top at the conclusion of a thrilling contest.
The Lance O’Sullivan and Andrew Scott-trained colt had gone into the race off a strong performance to win the Gr.2 Avondale Guineas (2100m) in his final lead-up to Sunday’s feature event at Ellerslie.
That run had hinted the son of Fastnet Rock would thrive on the 2400m of the Derby and so it proved as rider Craig Grylls provided a masterclass in getting Rocket Spade home after the pair were in last position with just 600m to run.
With no natural pacemaker, several lead changes ensued contributing to a steady but muddling pace throughout the contest and there were a number of runners feeling the pinch approaching the home turn. Grylls had Rocket Spade travelling strongly and gambled on a run through the pack as many of his more fancied rivals skirted wide around the bend.
The lengths that Grylls saved proved the difference as Rocket Spade joined Milford and Frontman at the 250m to fight out the final stages. In a slogging finish Rocket Spade dug deep to win by half a length from Milford who just shaded Frontman for second.
O’Sullivan was fighting hard to keep his emotions in check as he praised his training partner, Scott, and the team at their Wexford Stables for their contributions to the victory.
“This is pretty special for Andrew and all the team,” O’Sullivan said.
“Scotty has done a great job with this horse and it’s a great result.
“Paul (O’Sullivan’s brother) found this horse at the sales and he keeps taking credit for it, so good on him.
“They went hard and Craig (Grylls) said he was going to ride him for luck as he believed in the horse.
“It was a no panic, ten out of ten ride, that won him the race.”
O’Sullivan also thanked owners Hermitage Thoroughbreds, a racing and breeding operation headed by Hong Kong businessman Eugene Chuang.
While they came up short in the 2020 New Zealand Derby with the well-fancied Dragon Leap, who finished fourth, Hermitage have had considerable success in New Zealand with the O’Sullivan-Scott team, boasting Group One victories with Willie Cazals and Summer Passage, in addition to multiple elite level placings with Group Three winner Spring Heat.
“Thanks to team Hermitage who let us buy him at the sales,” he said.
“They told us we had five years to buy them a Derby winner and we’ve done it.
“This horse probably has the genes to run further than Dragon Leap, who was a little brilliant for the Derby distance, and showed great stamina today.”
O’Sullivan was also delighted to get his first win in the New Zealand Derby as a trainer after winning the race in 1990 on Surfers Paradise and again in 1993 aboard Popsy, during his storied career in the saddle.
“This is probably more special for me as it is a lot harder to do as a trainer,” he said.
“I’m just thrilled for Craig and the great team we have behind us.
“Andrew told me I could retire now as I’ve won a Derby.”
It was the second win in the race for Grylls, who had been aboard rank outsider Crown Prosecutor when he took out the 2019 edition of the race.
“That was unbelievable,” Grylls said.
“I’m just rapt to get one for Lance and Scotty as throughout my career they have been one of my biggest supporters.
“For them to put their trust in me to ride the horse, I’m just absolutely stoked.
“Lance started helping me when I first went to Matamata and I have a lot to thank him for.
“They weren’t going any real tempo in the race and at the 1300m they put the brakes on and he (Rocket Spade) got going a little bit hard.
“A few of them started going wide so I thought that was my chance to save a few lengths and ride for luck which I got.
“I was thinking don’t get there (the front) too soon, but he is such an honest horse he got the trip nicely.”
Rocket Spade is out of the Stakes placed mare Affairoftheheart and comes from an extended family that includes dual Group One winner Soriano. He has now won four of his 8 starts and over $745,000 in prizemoney.
A decision will be made as to whether Rocket Spade presses on to targets in Sydney, while placegetters Milford and Frontman are both booked to travel across the Tasman on Monday week.