On a Thursday night last month after Roger James had joined the elite one-thousand winner club of New Zealand trainers, I chatted with the master Cambridge trainer in the process of putting together this tribute to his achievement. In the course of the interview I asked him which was the best of the many good horses he had trained.
James was talking on the phone from Sydney, where he was preparing Silent Achiever for the A$500,000 Ranvet Stakes at Rosehill two days later.
“I've always regarded Zonda as the best I've trained,” he said, referring to the classy Zabeel gelding he saddled to win the 1997 New Zealand Derby in a near five-length romp. “But I'm having to reassess that these days when I look at a horse in my stable right now: Silent Achiever. She has been high class from the start, but in this campaign she has gone to greater heights.”
Five-year-old O'Reilly mare Silent Achiever, herself a New Zealand Derby winner, gave James his 1001st winner at Ellerslie on March 8 – which also happened to be James’s birthday - when she thumped her rivals in the Gr. 1 New Zealand Stakes, 2000m. It was actually The Tidy Express, in the previous race, who brought up the thousand.
Asked how Silent Achiever had travelled to Sydney, James answered indirectly. “The media over here have the Ranvet Stakes as a two-horse war between Fiorente and It's A Dundeel. Well, they're two very good horses, obviously. But I don't think Silent Achiever is only running for third.”
It had been suggested that Fiorente's trainer, Gai Waterhouse, was lining up stablemate Carlton House mainly to ensure a true pace and blunt It's A Dundeel's brilliant finishing sprint, hopefully setting it up for Fiorente's more dogged finishing style.
If so, someone should have told Carlton House his role was to be the bunny. He set the pace, all right, so strongly that all his rivals were off the bit before the turn. And travelling best of them, in second place to the turn, was Silent Achiever. Meanwhile, the “bunny” declined to consider his job done as the field closed on him on the home turn.
Instead, Kerrin McEvoy was only kidding on the Queen's horse. Carlton House kicked clear again and set sail for the post. It's A Dundeel's sprint was indeed blunted, but Fiorente's wasn't there at all. And it was Silent Achiever, the bonny mare from Cambridge, who clawed back Carlton House's lead and grabbed him in the last stride.
No prizes for guessing who is now Roger James' all-time favourite horse. With more Sydney riches still in the offing, Silent Achiever was definitely No. 1 on the hit parade.
That said, James had no easy job in sorting out his favourite, certainly before this latest triumph. Few trainers can ever have brought through as many really good horses as James, as his 27 Group One wins testify. Indeed, few trainers, including James' peers in the thousand-winner club, could claim as many Group wins.
Silent Achiever and Zonda are two of five New Zealand Derby winners to whom James can put his name. The first, Tidal Light in 1987, came when the former young Christchurch man (and former bank teller!) was junior partner to the renowned Matamata trainer Jim Gibbs. James could hardly have had a better mentor, nor a better launching pad to his solo career, after five years with Gibbs.
On his own, or in other partnerships where he was the senior partner, James has saddled a further four Derby winners: Roysyn (1995), Zonda (1997), Hades (1999) Silent Achiever (2012). Only Roysyn of the five James Derby winners didn't go on to win in Australia or (in the case of Hades) in Hong Kong. And history throws a different light on Roysyn's finishing “only” fifth in the AJC Derby; those ahead of him were Octagonal, Saintly, Filante and Nothin' Leica Dane.
Similarly, the horses who contributed to the other Group Ones in James' tally of 27 were all good horses. Of special note were those who (prior to Silent Achiever's latest tour-de-force) had given him Group One success in Australia – Cronus, Giovanna and Sixty Seconds. James himself rates highly a horse who never won a Group One – the freakishly talented Corndale.
“He put up some extraordinary performances and was unlucky not to win the Derby in Surfers Paradise's year,” recalls James. “In fact, he, Kajema and Sixty Seconds could all have won the Derby of their years if they'd had better luck in the running.”
James already shares with Colin Jillings the best Derby record of any trainer of modern times. James has started his second thousand off in style, with two Group Ones, both to Silent Achiever, as 1001 and 1003 (Full Count at Te Rapa coming in between).
Those long-familiar red and white chequers seem sure to be making their mark in the history books for a long time yet.
- John Costello