A reminder of what drew me to racing

Watching Saturday’s racing from Trentham I was reminded of what it was that first got me hooked.

There were some great moments from the champagne turf last weekend, as befitting a premier race meeting.

There was Emily Margaret toughing it out to dominate the boys in the Group Two Norwood Family Wellington Guineas in the closest of photo-finishes.  That was a win made even more significant with her owners, Rodger and Emily Finlay, donating their winnings to the repair of the Canterbury mosques.

The Roger James-Robert Wellwood trained Concert Hall lived up to her favouritism as she stormed to victory in the Wentwood Grange Cuddle Stakes (Gr 3) and added to her sire Savabeel’s ever-expanding roster of Group performers.

Volks Lightning added another black type win to her earlier Group Three victory in the Sweynesse Stakes when taking out the gavelhouse.com Lightning Stakes.  The six-year-old mare has been a consistent performer in our top sprints over her career and few would have begrudged her that win.

The day’s feature race also provided plenty of opportunities for those looking at the Al Basti Equiworld Dubai New Zealand Oaks to generate media opportunities.  The Group One fillies feature maintained the female theme with the two Lisas – Latta and Allpress – combining in a sterling win with Sentimental Miss.

That was one angle.  Adding to this it was the first (and well-deserved) Group One for Westbury Stud stallion Reliable Man; the win also contributed to the on-going success which is Albert Bosma’s Go Racing; and there was the added fact that one of the Go Racing syndicate members just happened to be a former jockey and trainer of some note.  Former Fairfax journalist Tim Barton has written a great piece on part-owner Merv Andrews which you can read here.

That lot on its own would have added up to a fairly sensational race day however, it was in an earlier race where I was transported back to my formative racing memories.

Race three on the card was the Yealand Family New Zealand St Leger over 2600m.  After 120 runnings of the race, which was initially for three-year-olds and later extended to include four-year-olds, was opened to older horses this season.  That left the way open for the evergreen stayer Sampson, at the grand age of nine, to take his place in the field.

A little bit of history – the St Leger, that is the English original, is the oldest of the five classic races and, as the final leg of the English triple crown remains restricted to three-year-olds.  Other iterations such as the Irish St Leger, the Prix Royal-Oak in France and the Deutsches St Leger are no longer restricted to three-year-olds.  In fact three-time Melbourne Cup runner Vinnie Roe made the Irish St Leger his race, winning it from 2001-2004.  Just for good measure he also took out the Prix Royal-Oak in 2001.

So back to the New Zealand version on Saturday.  With 1400m left to travel the brakes had gone on up front and tactics came into play.  Johnathan Parkes on Sampson took the initiative and sent the big, bold gelding forward and from the 1200m had the field at his mercy.

What transpired was a breath-taking staying performance which the crowd at Trentham obviously appreciated.  While Parkes rode the length of the not-inconsiderable Trentham straight craning his neck as he looked for potential challengers, Sampson romped away to an effortless eight-length win.

Watching online two things were evident – Sampson was having a blast, and the crowd was loving it aided by a Tony Lee race call to match the occasion.

It epitomised everything I love about horse racing.  A horse at the top of his game, maybe not the “name” horse of the day but doing what he is bred to do and doing it in style.

Sampson on Saturday reminded me of the horses of my youth – the ones which might not have made the headlines but the ones through their exuberance and joy in competing captured my imagination and led me on this life-long journey.

As the oldest St Leger winner in the world, Sampson now has a special place in history and perhaps his effort on Saturday managed to attract a few more life-long devotees to racing.