In fact, with 100m to go in the R2million SA Derby over 2450m, it looked like Abashiri, the 1-6 favourite’s Triple Crown dream, would be snuffed out by one of the biggest outsiders in the field, 40-1 shot Rocketball.
But, like all great champions, the son of Go Deputy dug down deep and kept his rival at bay to win by a long head. Just 0.70 lengths back in third was 10-1 second favourite Samurai Blade with Stebbins claiming fourth place, just two lengths behind the winner.
Abashiri joins Horse Chestnut and Louis The King as the only SA Triple Crown champions and Michael Azzie joins two former champions – Mike de Kock and Geoff Woodruff – as the only trainer to earn the R2-million bonus for the connections.
Champions Day had a lot of short-priced favourites and in the Pick 6 all the good things arrived so, despite the Pick 6 pool reaching close to R6 million, well above the R5 million prediction, the final payout was just R359.80.
Champion trainer Sean Tarry also had a great day with four feature-race winners, including those of three of the four Grade 1 events. He scored a one-two in the R4-million Premier’s Champion Challenge with Legal Eagle and French Navy respectively, won the Computaform Sprint with Carry On Alice and the SA Nursery with Cloth Of Cloud.
As promised by Abashiri’s owner, Adriaan van Vuuren, the course was awash with supporters of the favourite, with many members of the public supporting the call to dress in orange and black, the Van Vuuren colours.
The atmosphere on course was electric, with the call “Aba, Aba” being roared from the fans as the horses paraded before the race.
The race is run and money is in the bank but the analyses of the will go on for quite a while. One thing that is certain is that the race did not go according to plan for jockey Karl Zechner.
Trainer Mike Azzie had given Zechner instructions to hold up Abashiri in the straight and not move too early. However, with the horse missing the start marginally from No 11 draw, Zechner used the opportunity to drop him out and move to the inside rail. With stablemate Scheme Of Things setting a decent enough pace it was not of much concern that Abashiri was some 12 lengths off the leader with just Rocketball and Samurai Blade behind him.
“When I put him away to bed behind the field, I thought, ‘Did you do the right thing here?’,” said Zechner. “Then I thought, ‘You’re there anyway and you just have to do what you can to overcome it’.”
When the field turned for home, Warren Kennedy on Rocketball moved ahead of Abashiri and found a split down the middle. Zechner pulled his horse out and switched to the outside of the track, with Samurai Blade following him.
By his own admission, Zechner “pressed the button kind of early. But things weren’t working out during the race. We turned for home and he goes from niggling to the front in an instant.”
With more than 500m to run Abashiri had gone from last to first and his staying power was about to be tested. When Rocketball moved alongside, and even went past him, it appeared Abashiri had shot his bolt. “He hit the front and looked for something to challenge.
“When I saw the horse coming up next to me I thought Abashiri would tread water and was scared he would put his head down just before the line and not get there,” said Zechner.
“But it was real courage from my mount, even though he got there too early he just kept fighting off the other horse.
“He is a champion and you will never see good horses getting beat. They always put their heads down at the right moment.”
The crowd went crazy and the scene in the winner’s enclosure was effervescent. Van Vuuren and his wife Rika kissed and hugged Abashiri as friends and family all arrived to lead the horse into the No 1 box.
“Words are hard to find,” said an emotional Van Vuuren. “Today we expected him to win by further but Abashiri proved to all of us what team work is about. Today he had to scratch deep in the barrel to find that last mile. That head that he pushed in front to win was for every supporter believing in a dream, that your dream can come true.”
Rika described the scene as surreal and added: “I think Abashiri should become a household name now.
Azzie had a little piece of poetry for all Abashiri’s detractors. “We went to the Guineas and they said he couldn’t win the mile. He did that with grace and style. Then came the Classic and what he did there was Jurassic. Today was the Derby and I wanted him to leave them wobbly, but he didn’t. Now maybe for the July and let’s hope he can fly!”
Gavin van Zyl, trainer of Rocketball, was gracious in defeat. “I have no problems with the result. We got beaten fair and square but racing was the big winner on the day.”
Extract from Tab News