The season that was: Trent Masenhelder's Top 10 stories

13 min read
As we near the end of what has been another incredible season both on and off the track, TDN AusNZ journalist Trent Masenhelder lists his memorable moments.

As the saying goes, ‘You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole’, and that’s exactly how I felt when limiting my highlights to just 10. I guess that is evidence of how great a season it has been and how lucky we, as racing fans, have been.

I embarked on the challenge by going back through the results and news since August 1 and then compiled a 23-point shortlist.

Culling that list down to 10 was a nightmare and I feel uneasy with some of those that have been left on the cutting room floor. For example, I’ve left out the amazing story of Rebel Dane becoming a Group 1-producing sire, as well as the gripping Cox Plate tussle between State Of Rest (Ire) (Starspangledbanner) and Anamoe (Street Boss {USA}). In fact, one could easily make a case for Anamoe’s season to be on the list; after all, he did win two Group 1s in addition to his runner-up finish in the Cox Plate.

And, I really wanted to find a spot for Ben and JD Hayes, who have done a magnificent job at the helm of Lindsay Park, following David’s departure to Hong Kong. The brothers have in excess of 100 wins and landed their first Group 1 together when Mr Brightside (NZ) (Bullbars) took out The Doncaster Mile at Randwick in April. Interestingly, it was the famous family’s first victory in the time-honoured event.

But, as previously stated, you can’t have ‘em all, so here is what I have landed on.

1. Nature Strip’s King’s Stand demolition job

Perhaps there’s a bit of recency bias with this one, given it occurred just last week, but seeing Australian sprinter Nature Strip (Nicconi) thrash his rivals in the G1 King’s Stand S. (1000 metres) at Royal Ascot was a sight to behold.

I’m sure many, like myself, predicted Nature Strip would win the Day 1 feature sprint, but I suspect there would be few that expected he would do so in such dominant fashion. You just knew the race was over at the halfway mark, when James McDonald hadn’t flinched on the 7-year-old, while his rivals were under hard riding.

Nature Strip blew them away to win by more than 4l in what was a stunning display of sustained speed, and in doing so, he joined Choisir, Takeover Target (Celtic Swing {GB}), Miss Andretti (Ihtiram {Ire}), Scenic Blast (Scenie {Ire}), Black Caviar (Bel Esprit) and Merchant Navy as King’s Stand winners from Australia.

2. Verry Elleegant’s Melbourne Cup romp

While my highlight from a sprinting perspective was Nature Strip in the King’s Stand S., the staying performance of the year has to go to the queen Verry Elleegant (NZ) (Zed {NZ}), who produced one of the greatest Melbourne Cup victories I have seen.

Verry Elleegant (NZ), winner of the 2021 G1 Melbourne Cup | Image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

Despite having nine Group 1 wins on her CV ahead of the great race, there was still some debate as to whether Verry Elleegant was a champion. By 3.05pm AEST on the first Tuesday in November, she had her knockers ducking for cover, after winning The Cup by 4l. You are truly great if your can boast Group 1 wins from 1400 metres to 3200 metres, including an ATC Oaks at three, a Tancred S. at four, a Caulfield Cup at five and a Melbourne Cup as a 6-year-old.

Verry Elleegant went into her second attempt at Cup glory after a below-par run in the G1 Turnbull S., where she ran fourth, followed by a good effort in the G1 Cox Plate, where she was third.

The modestly bred mare had never won over the gruellling two miles, but she lapped it up and looked every bit a world-class stayer, despite the import of 57kg.

Sadly, it would turn out that we would only see her in Australia a further four times, but she gave us one more highlight, taking out the G1 Chipping Norton S. in February, and we wait with great interest to see what she can achieve in Europe.

3. So You Think’s big day out

I’ll preface this by saying I am an unabashed So You Think (NZ) fan and he is one of my favourite racehorses of all time. I rate him as the best-looking horse I have laid eyes on (that mane!).

The two-time Cox Plate winner has had a season to remember, and is currently locked in a gripping two-way battle with I Am Invincible to be crowned Australia’s Champion Sire (‘Vinnie’ led him by $510,000, ahead of Thursday’s races).

So You Think (NZ) | Standing at Coolmore

Already enshrined among the greats of Australian racing, So You Think added his name to the nation’s best stallions courtesy of a history-making day on Day 2 of The Championships (April 9), when three of his progeny won Group 1 races at Randwick. The Coolmore Stud-based sire’s day kicked off when Knights Order (Ire) took out the Sydney Cup. Less than an hour later, Think It Over made it a Group 1 double when he was a shock winner of the Queen Elizabeth S. And, bonny mare Nimalee completed the elite-level hat-trick in the Queen of the Turf S.

4. Gai the great bags her 150th Group 1

Just like her father, the late TJ Smith, Gai Waterhouse is a legend of Australian racing, and I was chuffed when one-time cult hero Alligator Blood (All Too Hard) returned to his best to claim Queensland’s greatest race – the G1 Stradbroke H. – which saw Waterhouse notch her 150th top-level success (134 in her own right, 16 in partnership with Adrian Bott).

It’s a phenomenal achievement, but hardly surprising, given Waterhouse is such an outstanding horsewoman with an incredible work ethic and great attention to detail.

In a sport that often finds it hard to cut through into the mainstream, the vivacious and enthusiastic ‘First Lady of Australian racing’ is one of the best ambassadors the sport has.

Gai Waterhouse | Image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

Her first winner – Gifted Poet (A Gift {USA}) – came in March 1992, then in October, Te Akau Nick (NZ) (Grosvenor {NZ}) handed her a maiden Group 1 success when he was victorious in the Metropolitan H.

Since gaining her licence in 1992, Gai has been breaking barriers, and when Fiorente (Ire) won the 2013 Melbourne Cup, Waterhouse became the first Australian woman, and just the third female ever, to train the winner of the ‘race that stops the nation’.

Gai truly is one of a kind.

5. Hitotsu’s Victoria Derby triumph

The flood of money for Hitotsu (Maurice {Jpn}) in the week of the G1 Victoria Derby suggested he would take a power of beating, but I was prepared to risk him. My rationale was that it was his third run of the campaign and he was stepping up from the 1600 metres of the Caulfield Guineas, where he ran a credible fifth, to the 2500 metres. Boy, was I made to look silly, and I should know better than to doubt Ciaron Maher and David Eustace (lesson learnt!).

Three-time Group 1 winner Hitotsu | Image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

With Irishman John Allen in the saddle, Hitotsu had just one runner behind him with 600 metres to run, before slicing his way through a field of beaten or tiring rivals. Allen pushed the button at the 350-metre mark and the colt responded in the manner of a topliner, sprinting home to win by 1.75l.

Four months later, Hitotsu won the G1 Australian first-up, and in doing so, he became the first 3-year-old since the brilliant Mahogany (Last Tycoon {Ire}) in 1994 to win the Victoria Derby-Australian Guineas double. He added a third Group 1 when ploughing through the slop to take out the ATC Derby a month later.

A month ago, it was revealed Hitotsu had suffered a suspensory injury and his racing future was up in the air, however, it has since been announced that he is progressing well and may even have a run in the spring.

He could be anything, this colt, and I really hope we get to see more of his exploits on the track before he goes to stud.

6. Ollie rides his way into the history books

Damien Oliver is the greatest jockey I have seen and I believe he is a legend of Australian sport, not just racing.

He has won Group 1s aboard many of my favourite horses, including Northerly (Serheed {USA}), Alinghi (Encosta De Lago), Testa Rossa, Schillaci (Salieri {USA}), Naturalism (NZ) and Whobegotyou (Street Cry {Ire}).

‘Ollie’ added another chapter to his glittering career in April when he partnered Nimalee (So You Think {NZ}) to his 127th Group 1 success (123 in Australian four in New Zealand), breaking the legendary George Moore’s mark.

Damien Oliver rode his way into the history books when he partnered Nimalee to his 127th Group 1 victory | Image courtesy of Ashlea Brennan

The Western Australian’s first elite-level success was as an 18-year-old way back in 1990 when he guided Submariner (Sea Anchor {Ire}) to victory in the Show Day Cup (Sir Ruper Clarke S.) for the late, great Bart Cummings.

Oliver has been at the top of his game for a long time and, while he may have just turned 50, I still rate him in the top half-dozen riders in the country.

7. Broodmare sales break new ground

For so long it has been the colts that have made big money at our public auctions, but as one experienced and respected industry participant recently told me, “Finally, we are catching up to the US and other countries when it comes to broodmares”.

At the Inglis Chairman’s Sale in Sydney in May, five mares brought seven figures. Dual Group 1 victress Shout The Bar (Not A Single Doubt) topped the Sale at $2.7 million, while the beautifully bred Sia (Fastnet Rock), who is in foal to Snitzel, made $1.6 million.

The sale grossed $33,430,000 at an average of $470,845 and median of $350,000, with a clearance rate of 85 per cent.

Later that month, Magic Millions hosted its National Broodmare Sale on the Gold Coast. Remarkably, 557 mares sold grossed $124,552,500, with the average $223,613, the median $135,000 and the clearance rate of 85 per cent.

The Sale-topper was Away Game (Snitzel), who, despite not having won a Group 1, was knocked down for a cool $4 million. Four-time Group 1 heroine Tofane (NZ) (Ocean Park {NZ}) went for $3.1 million, while Group 2 victress Madam Rouge (Zoustar) realised $2.4 million. And veteran Tasmanian trainer Bill Ryan sold Still A Star (Toronado {Ire}), who he bought for just $13,000 before she won $873,190 on the track, for $700,000.

In total, 18 mares made the magical seven-figure mark.

8. Tarzino puts hand up to take on the mantle

It’s been a while since there has been a staying sire that has captured my attention as much as Tarzino (NZ) has, and I have high hopes that he can fill the huge void left by his ill-fated father Tavistock (NZ).

Tarzino (NZ) | Standing at Westbury Stud

Tarzino has had a remarkable second season, headlined by two Group 1 winners – Jungle Magnate (NZ) and Gypsy Goddess (NZ). A dual Group 1 winner, Tarzino sits seventh on New Zealand’s Second Season Sires’ table (with six winners tallying six wins from 15 runners) and 10th in the same category for Australia (with 12 winners notching 23 wins from 32 runners).

I’m all-in on the Westbury Stud resident.

9. Unbeaten youngsters show star potential

There’s a host of horses I’m looking forward to seeing return in the spring, but there’s two unbeaten runners - one a colt, the other a filly – that I’m particularly excited about.

The colt is Illation (So You Think {NZ}), who has notched three wins. He blitzed his rivals on debut at Pakenham over 1400 metres, before again winning as he pleased in the Listed Nitschke S. at Morphettville. Illation’s margin was just over a length at his most recent win in the Listed Adelaide Guineas, but he had to overcome some trouble.

He’s a serious horse, this guy, and co-trainer Mick Price has even thrown up the Cox Plate as a possibility for him in the spring, although, the affable handler has since backtracked somewhat on his bold call.

Exciting juvenile colt Illation | Image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

The $10 million Golden Eagle looks to be an ideal target for this talented son of So You Think.

Meanwhile, over in the west, there’s a brilliant filly by the name of Amelia’s Jewel (Siyouni {Fr}). She also has three wins to her credit.

The Simon Miller-trained filly won at Listed level on debut, before taking out the G3 Gimcrack S. She rounded out her juvenile season with a jaw-dropping victory in the G2 Karrakatta Plate, which was one of most visually impressive wins of the year, in my opinion.

Exciting juvenile filly Amelia's Jewel | Image courtesy of Western Racepix

Amelia’s Jewel has one of the best assets a horse can have, an electric turn of foot.

She looks destined to be a major player during the Perth Summer Racing Carnival and we may see her in the eastern states next autumn.

10. Exciting 2-year-old crop gives us much to look forward to

It gets said every year, and sometimes it doesn’t come to fruition, but I strongly believe we have a good group of top-end juvenile talent, and I’m confident many of them will go on with the job at three.

Fireburn (Rebel Dane) had an incredible campaign, winning two legs of the Triple Crown and placing second in the other, and is likely to be crowned Champion 2-Year-Old. Her Golden Slipper victory was quite superb.

She’s Extreme (Extreme Choice) is by the hottest stallion in the land and seems to have untapped ability. Her consistent season was rewarded with a Group 1 triumph in the Champagne S., where she got the better of Fireburn. A mini-rivalry between that duo has developed, thanks largely to their respective jockeys Tommy Berry (She’s Extreme) and Brenton Avdulla (Fireburn).

Coolangatta (Written Tycoon) may have been beaten as favourite in the Slipper, but she certainly wasn’t disgraced, especially given the race was run on a Heavy 9 (I believe she appreciates firm footing). Her debut win in the Gimcrack S. was one of the most impressive juvenile victories of the season and I reckon she can be the stable’s replacement for gun sprinter Loving Gaby (I Am Invincible).

Blue Diamond S. hero Daumier (Epaulette) was another 2-year-old to enjoy a successful juvenile season, and like Coolangatta, I believe the heavy tracks he had to contend with in his two Sydney starts weren’t to his liking. I loved the way he staved off Revolutionary Miss (Russian Revolution) and Jacquinot (Rubick) in the Diamond.

Bubble Palace (Rich Enuff) is one from left field, and while she didn’t contest any black-type races, she was ultra-impressive in her two wins from as many starts. She has a high cruising speed and makes her own luck on pace, which is a great asset.

Nature Strip
Verry Elleegant
Extreme Choice
She's Extreme
So You Think
Damien Oliver
Magic Millions
Golden Slipper
Gai Waterhouse