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English Gambler jumping into winter

To say that English Gambler has been a challenge for Cambridge trainer Lauren Brennan – and his riders – would be a massive understatement.

But the seven-year-old’s talent is such that he could establish himself as a top-class hurdler this winter, starting with Saturday’s Manawatu ITM Awapuni Hurdle (2900m) at Trentham, and possibly earn a trip back to Australia.

English Gambler showed enough in his first six starts on the flat for Brennan in 2018 that he was sold to head to Australia, where he never settled in and was unable to win in 10 starts.

He returned to Brennan in 2020 and she was able to resurrect his career with some careful training.

“We put up with him because we know him so well and we know he’s got ability, but he’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” Brennan said.

“He’s a very headstrong horse, and he’s been like that since he was a two-year-old. If we were to train him on the track every day he would just bolt for two laps.

“So we do a lot of road work with him, we go to a farm in Cambridge with hills and do hill work once a week, and we go out in the middle of the grass in Cambridge. Basically we stay away from the track.”

After a couple more wins on the flat upon his return to New Zealand, English Gambler was sent hurdling in spring 2021 and made an immediate impact.

In his two hurdle races, both at Te Aroha, the headstrong gelding was allowed to race freely and he established huge leads early in both. In his first nobody could catch him and he won by 8-1/2 lengths, while in the second, as subsequent Great Northern Hurdle runner-up Dr Hank came up to challenge him at the last hurdle, he didn’t lift his legs and dislodged his rider.

“My husband Michael, who was a professional jumps jockey in England, is the only one that schools him because of the way the horse is, and he came back in the other morning and said ‘in my younger days I would be begging to get on a horse like this’,” Brennan said.

“He’s a very nice jumper and he really attacks his fences when he does jump.”

Brennan brought English Gambler back to the stable at the beginning of the year and slowly put the work into him. He returned to the track at Matamata April 20, where he finished second to Taika.

The winter plan is to aim him at the Awapuni Hurdle this weekend, the Waikato Hurdle (3200m) on June 18, and the Hawke’s Bay Hurdle (3100m) on July 2.

If he goes well in those, there is a chance English Gambler could be set for some jumping targets across the Tasman.

“Because he’s half-owned in Australia by Roll The Dice Racing, they’re quite keen to see him in Australia if he’s going to come up to the mark over here,” Brennan said.

“If he does, we’d bring him over for a hit-and-run type mission ourselves. It all depends on how he goes – he’s going to have to be extremely competitive in these three races we are targeting. We’ll know more after Saturday.”

Hamish McNeill, who rode English Gambler at Matamata on April 20, will ride him at Trentham.

Apart from English Gambler, Brennan’s team is likely to be fairly light over winter. Among those likely to be campaigning are Darci’s Queen, a maiden winner at Avondale on Anzac Day, and a group of two-year-olds. Brennan had four two-year-olds trial at Avondale last week, two of which were winners – an Iffraaj gelding and a Turn Me Loose gelding.

Meanwhile, Brennan’s two good open-class gallopers Packing Rockstar and Vigor Winner have just returned to the stable after a two-month break, getting ready for spring targets, possibly in Hastings.

Packing Rockstar and Vigor Winner both have ratings in the 90s, which can make them difficult to place in New Zealand, so there is a chance they could also head to Australia in spring.

“I wouldn’t go over and target any of the big races – we’d have a look at some of those lower tier races which still have good prizemoney up for them,” she said.

“It all depends on the weather – Australia’s weather conditions have been pretty wet in Sydney and Queensland. We were thinking of taking Packing Rockstar to Queensland but thank God we didn’t. He wouldn’t have gone a yard in it.” 

Fursdon holding Virtuoso Lad to high standards again

Karen Fursdon is excited about phase two of a three-step plan for Virtuoso Lad on Thursday when he lines-up in the Steriline Racing 1200 on the Riccarton polytrack.

She couldn't have been more pleased with Virtuoso Lad's South Island debut run when he came from near last to score handsomely by 3-1/2 lengths under apprentice Sanu Toolooa on opening day a fortnight ago.

"It was really great because it confirmed our thoughts that he'd just love a synthetic track - and he did," Fursdon said.

"He'd had a trial at Cambridge over 1300m and he loved it that day and won his heat pretty easily, so we'd done our homework.

"Sanu did exactly what he was told: not to chase him out of the gates, give him clear air and let him run home. He was pretty impressive."

It was Virtuoso Lad's fifth win from 52 starts and has him on track for his campaign target at Riccarton on June 3.

Connections had debated the merits of staying in the north for polytrack racing at Cambridge or heading south but Fursdon said heading south made much more sense.

"The first Cambridge meeting wasn't till this week and if he won there, there was nothing else for him so the decision was made probably four weeks ago to go down to Riccarton," she said.

"The drawcard was the high stakes race on the third of June. It was a no-brainer. The owners told us it was a great idea and they really enjoyed the win the other day. Two of them are first time owners and they just loved it."

Virtuoso Lad has been stabled with Riccarton trainer Andrew Carston since heading south and while Fursdon will be trackside for Thursday's meeting, she has relied on Carston to provide her with updates on his condition.

"Andrew said he's just a box of birds. He can't fault him. He said he's a very happy horse," Fursdon said.

"He's had a big season but he's handling it really well. At this stage he'll stay in work next season. He'll be a nine-year-old but he's got young legs because he only started racing when he was four. It will depend on how he goes in these next two starts on what he does next."

Virtuoso Lad has drawn barrier three for Thursday's race in which he will again be ridden by Toolooa.

"We'd expect Ihu to get out and go forward and if our bloke got out of the gates all right, he could possibly sit on his tail," Fursdon said.

"But he can sometimes just stroll out of the gates and wait for the other ones to get going first - and if that happens, hopefully he can just find a way through late. We're hoping he can run well again."


Multiple Group winner retired

Group One performer and Group Two winner Beauden has been retired from racing.

The seven-year-old son of Bullbars was a model of consistency throughout his career, winning 12 of his 42 starts and placing on a further 12 occasions.

His biggest win came in last season’s Gr.2 Awapuni Gold Cup (2000m) following which he headed south to Riccarton and won the Gr.3 Canterbury Gold Cup (2000m).

The handsome gelding also placed third in the 2019 Gr.1 Zabeel Classic (2000m) where he was close-up behind True Enough, while he also finished fourth on multiple occasions at the elite level.

The Team Rogerson-trained Beauden showed an affinity for Awapuni, winning eight times on the Palmerston North track, including twice in the Listed Marton Cup (2200m).

Originally destined for the sale ring, owner breeder Joan Egan decided to retain the smart chestnut after being advised he was unlikely to fetch a decent price at auction.

“I was going to put him in the Ready To Run sales,” Egan said. “But Brent Taylor (of Trelawney Stud) said I wouldn’t get much for him. I watched him trot and canter around in the paddock and I did like the way he moved so I thought damn it, I’ll keep him myself and look at the wonderful ride he has given us. As Brent once commented, who would have thought?

“He has been with Graeme and Debbie Rogerson all along and they spared no efforts keeping him happy. Winning 12 races is an achievement for any horse, if he keeps going he would have to carry too much weight and he will be well-looked after for the rest of his life.

“Beauden is a lovely natured horse who liked people and loved racing. He was a great traveller too.

“I loved the way he bounced out of the gate onto the track to get going with his ears pricked.

“Ryan Elliot rode Beauden for most of his career and had great relationship with him. You’re lucky if you’re an owner and have a jockey that the horse trusts and they work well together.”

Beauden retires having earned over $427,000 in stakes.

Laxon memorial on Thursday

Family and friends will gather to celebrate the life of New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame trainer Laurie Laxon on Thursday.

The Melbourne Cup-winning trainer passed away last July, however, due to COVID-19 restrictions there has been no opportunity to mark his passing appropriately until now.

The commemoration at 2pm on Thursday May 19 will take place fittingly at Takapoto Estate, 90 Finlay Rd, Karapiro, adjacent to the unique training grounds established by Laxon in the late 1980s.

Laxon’s career began from stables on the banks of the Waikato River at Ngaruawahia, and he gained further fame from his property at Karapiro, likewise bordering New Zealand’s longest waterway.

He went on to dominate Singapore training ranks with nine premierships as well as being the first to achieve 100 wins in a season. He remains the only trainer to prepare more than 1,000 winners on the Kranji track.

Cunneen hoping for case of second time lucky

Riccarton trainer Meg Cunneen will make her second venture to the North Island this week with high hopes of turning her fortunes around.

The experienced horsewoman will be represented at Trentham on Saturday by Group performer Seriously in the Listed James Bull Holdings Rangitikei Gold Cup (1600m) and Mamma Sans in the Speirs Finance Handicap (1400m).

It was with the Tavistock mare Mamma Sans that Cunneen made her first trip north earlier this year only for circumstances out of her control to make it a forgettable exercise.

“I took Mamma Sans up for the Wairarapa Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes (Listed, 1600m), but that plan went pear-shaped when the race was moved to Hastings,” she said.

The January meeting set down for Tauherenikau was abandoned due to an issue with the track and transferred to the Hawke’s Bay.

“The whole point of going up there was to go to Tauherenikau as I thought she was better on a turning track, stepping up to open company,” Cunneen said.

“On a bigger track, she’s probably not good enough for open class but good enough for the Rating 74 grade.”

Stablemate Seriously has been a flagship performer this term for Cunneen and finished runner-up in the Gr.2 Coupland’s Bakeries Mile (1600m) in the spring. He has since run a further four placings, including a third in the Listed Easter Cup (1600m).

At his most recent appearance, the son of O’Reilly finished midfield in the Gr.3 Canterbury Gold Cup (2000m) in his first run beyond a mile. He will be ridden on Saturday by Brett Murray.

“Brett rides him in his work and hasn’t had the opportunity to ride him on race day yet, but with limited options as far as lightweights go he put up his hand,” Cunneen said.

“He said he would be quite happy to waste all week to ride him (at 53kg) and he knows him very well.”

The six-year-old Seriously has been relatively lightly raced with three wins and 12 top four finishes from 23 appearances.

“He’s one of those horses that it’s taken a wee while to all click for him. He is relaxing better and showing steady improvement,” Cunneen said.

“I think next season will be his go and he will put everything together, although he has been a great horse for me this season.”

Murray will also be aboard Mamma Sans, who was a last-start seventh when resuming from a three-month break.

“She ran here at Riccarton two weeks ago in a Rating 74 over 1200m and she needs a bit further so 1400m on a wet track should be right up her alley and I’ve been very happy with her work,” Cunneen said.

Cunneen is in her second season of training, but has a wealth of stable and stud experience to draw on.

She previously worked for the late Riccarton trainer Neill Ridley for four years and comes from a racing background.

“My Dad Paul has always raced and bred horses with Peter and Dawn Williams in the early days and more so lately with Shane Kennedy and Anna Furlong,” Cunneen said.

“I worked for Shane and Anna at the weekends while I was at school and then moved north and worked at Mapperley Stud, at Te Akau and at Ballymore Stables.

“I came home to study beauty therapy and was working for Neill at the same time. Dad tried to steer me away from the racehorses a bit and said you’re better off getting a job and then you can afford to race your own, but I really love being hands-on and it’s great fun.

“I’ve got five here at the moment and over the summer I got up to nine. It’s a bit quieter now, but I’ve got a few babies to come in and go through their educational stages and that will keep me busy.” 
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