Pres­sure build­ing

Matamata Chronicle - - Sport -

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.

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