The step up from group one New Zealand company to a comparable level in Australia can be a massive gulf, but it made no difference to the new star of racing when he made his debut in Melbourne last weekend.
The horse I refer to of course is Matamata’s very own Ocean Park, who Gary Hennessy has moulded from a $150,000 Karaka yearling into one of Australasia’s best.
On Saturday at Caulfield Ocean Park staked his claim to the race regarded as the weight-for-age championship of the southern hemisphere, the A$3 million W S Cox Plate.
Weight-for-age racing is the global standard by which the very best horses are measured and the late October race staged annually at Melbourne’s unique Moonee Valley racecourse is considered the ultimate test in this part of the world.
As a three-year-old last season Ocean Park was in the top bracket of his agegroup without being the very best. His career had begun inconspicuously with an early summer dead-heat maiden win at Gisborne, but by autumn he had proven that he was indeed a serious racehorse.
Along the way he had been desperately unlucky not to win the Great Northern Guineas, showed what he was made of with a runaway Wellington Stakes victory and signed off by running second in the Rosehill Guineas.
His three-year-old record could have been better but for a wet track that ruled out a start in the New Zealand Derby and an injury that forced his race morning withdrawal from the AJC Derby.
Subsequent events have made any of that bad luck academic.
As it stands, with wins in his first two starts as a fouryear-old, Ocean Park is the only horse in Australasia to have claimed a group one double in the season to date.
His brilliant performance at Hastings in the Makfi Challenge Stakes confirmed that he had come back even better and when he hit the Melbourne spring carnival with a defining performance last Saturday, there was no denying this was the real deal.
The Underwood Stakes win took Ocean Park’s stake earnings past $600,000, but that is only a fraction of his real worth, based not so much on potential prizemoney but more significantly on his value as a stallion. That is already into the seven-figure bracket and if he was to win the Cox Plate you could add another nought.
It could be described as mind-boggling stuff that Ocean Park is now nudging favouritism for one of Australasia’s iconic races and will be the outright favourite if he completes a spring hat-trick in the Caulfield Stakes on October 13.
Which begs the question as to how Gary Hennessy, who had not trained a group one winner less than a month ago, is coping with the pressure, perceived or real.
‘‘The whole thing was bit nerve-racking to start off with – everyone wanting a piece of me,’’ Gary said when I spoke to him on Sunday.
‘‘But it’s settled down now and if I feel the pressure’s getting a bit much I’ll just turn the phone off and do my own thing. I’m here with OP and he’s my focus.
‘‘I’ve always had faith in him and now he’s doing what I thought he was capable of. As a four-yearold he’s mentally mature and everything is falling into place.’’
On Sunday morning Gary was a special guest on Melbourne’s TVN racing show – ‘‘I could have done with my reflective shades,’’ he joked – but he’s soaking up all the attention.
‘‘I’m getting asked all kinds of questions by the media and everyone but the main thing is the way the horse fronted up yesterday and how he’s come through it. Last night I gave him three slabs of lucerne and an extra dipper and he’s pretty much cleaned it all up this morning.
‘‘He can have an easy week and then build him up towards the next run,’’ he added.
‘‘That’s over 2000 metres so it will be a natural progression from the 1800 metres yesterday. The twoweek gap between the Caulfield Cup and the Cox Plate fits nicely too. He should be hard fit once he’s had his third start.’’
The last – and only – Matamata-trained horse to win the Cox Plate was the O’Sullivans’ Surfers Paradise back in 1991, while the last New Zealandtrained winner was the great mare Sunline when she completed a double with a memorable performance in 2000.
It’s a formidable challenge facing Gary Hennessy, jockey Glen Boss and Gary’s Hong Kong coowners Steve Yan and Andrew Wong, but there’s no denying their right to feel confident as they count down the weeks to October 27.
Back on the home front last weekend all eyes were on the second day of the Hawke’s Bay carnival where Matamata horses book-ended the big card and added another in the middle of the programme.
The horse with all the apostrophes, I’ll’ava’alf, opened proceedings for the Karen Fursdon-Gemma Sliz training partnership to score. This four-year-old, who is raced by Karen and her husband Kevin in partnership with long-time stable supporter Peter Stanaway, has a decent win in him as he develops.
Brave Centaur put up a big effort to win over 1400 metres in his first start since June, for which in normal circumstances trainer Lance Noble could take a bow. The master of Easdon Lodge has been relying lately on foreman Richard Waru, lead trackwork rider Sean Dowling and other staff while he has been recovering from hip replacement surgery.
The Noble team’s form hasn’t suffered, however, well enough in fact to guarantee that the spring will soon be back in Lance’s stride as soon as he throws away his crutches.