Roger James was reduced to tears at Ellerslie this afternoon after the hot favourite Silent Achiever had delivered his fifth victory in the New Zealand Derby.
The emotion shown by the Cambridge trainer underlined the anxiety that he has subjected himself to during a Telecom Derby build-up literally clouded by unsettled weather that, as James put it, “threatened to rob me of a Derby I knew my filly could win”.
The sight of the gorgeous daughter of O’Reilly justify the faith of her trainer and punters alike with a consummate win over Rock ’n’ Pop and Carrick proved too much for James, who broke down as he made his way downstairs to the birdcage and only just managed to compose himself for the obligatory Trackside TV interview.
“I knew I had the best horse in the race but the pressure that goes with that, it just got to me,” he admitted. “Now it’s utter relief.”
The other main players in the victory, owner-breeder Kevin Hickman and jockey James McDonald, provided contrasting reactions. Christchurch-based Hickman, founder principal of Ryman Health, was icy calm as the win, by far his most important in racing, sunk in.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said with a poker face. “I was a bit worried when James took off three-wide so far out, but obviously he knew what he was doing and she showed what a fantastic filly she is.”
McDonald, who was pure exhilaration, readily admitted that he had not exactly followed the pre-race plan when he improved wide from his rearward position with only half the 2400 metres completed.
“I know I didn’t exactly ride to instructions but after they had gone so easily I had to get her into the race,” he explained. “I also knew I was on the best horse and she proved that.”
Silent Achiever was in the firing line when the field levelled for the run home but the victory was far from hers. With 300 metres to run Carrick ranged up wide to throw out a serious challenge and marginally head the filly, but McDonald was only biding his time.
When he asked for a final surge the response was generous as Silent Achiever drew clear to score by two-and-a-half lengths, with a head separating dogged finisher Rock ’n’ Pop and a brave Carrick.
In a final result that underlined the relative strengths of the fillies versus the males, Chicharita, running home late, and Zurella, always prominent and in a challenging position with 300 metres to run, filled the next two placings.
James shared his first New Zealand Derby success compliments of Tidal Light with his senior training partner Jim Gibbs in 1986 and after going out on his own, won another three with Roysyn, Zonda and Hades in the 1990s.
He has always rated 1997 winner Zonda as the best horse he has ever trained, but after today’s fifth classic success he conceded that Silent Achiever may have earned her place alongside that immensely talented but unsound galloper.
“Zonda is my benchmark but she’s certainly up there with him now,” he said.
James is already thinking of Silent Achiever’s immediate future, all but confirming plans to send her to Sydney for the fillies’ double of the Storm Queen Stakes and ATC Australian Oaks.
“Sydney has been under consideration for some time but I’d have to say that it’s now a probability.”
Given the emotions of the occasion, Kevin Hickman summed up the outcome succinctly as he said: “The coach was pretty nervous this week, but he got the job done.”
- The Informant