Top jumps rider Shelley Houston doesn't often get excited – but after just a couple of rides on old favourite Climbing High, she says she's starting to get shivers down her spine.
Houston had hardly dismounted from the 11-year-old after winning the Ken and Roger Browne Memorial Steeplechase at Te Rapa yesterday when she started gushing superlatives.
"I can't say enough about this horse – he's the best I've come across in my time riding. He doesn't even need me, you could put a sack of potatoes on his back and he'd go out and do it."
Houston and Climbing High had only three-quarters of a length over the fast-closing Volkswagin at the finish but she said she had plenty left, content to let the old-timer cruise to the line under his topweight of 69kg.
Houston, who has ridden Climbing High in the last nine of his 13 wins, said as soon as she got on to the horse's back in a recent schooling session at Ann Browne's premises, she knew he was feeling fantastic.
It was there, at his favourite training spot the famed Browne hill, that the bond between the pair resurfaced, explained co-trainer Mark Weal.
"He saw Shelley walk round the corner and he pricked his ears – they have a good relationship."
So tractable is the gelding, Weal says the only way he can dodge a tricky debate about his future is to keep racing him.
"Shelley would love him to go hunting when he's retired but my daughter Melanie wants him as a show jumper.
"A lot of people have said to me why don't you retire him, but while he's enjoying it, he'll race on. He just loves what he's doing and, if anything, he seems freer this year."
Weal said that in a remarkable turnaround in attitude, Climbing High had shed his loner tag and befriended a couple of foals.
"He's really cottoned on to the foals this year and there's one pony foal across the race that if you shift, he'll fret. I think he's just enjoying life."
Climbing High had become a real family pet and this year was enjoying the regular feed of carrots his wife and daughter gave him.
Bill Weal, now in his mid 80s and quite frail, had been kept going by the deeds of Climbing High, he said, even though he was not well enough to watch him on track.
"But he's still the brains behind the training and he gets round on a motorbike and feeds the horse every night."
Mark Weal said Climbing High would follow basically the same path as last year, trying to catch good tracks.
"Winning another Waikato Steeplechase and Hawke's Bay Steeplechase would be the dream, but he has nothing else to prove.
"He is going to have to carry big weights but that's what good horses have to do."
A quiet couple of weeks and some TLC from his physio will hopefully help bold jumper Borrack find the winning post first in the Waikato Hurdles.
That's the hope of regular rider Cody Singer, who kicked the chestnut home to a hollow 6 3/4-length win over Insignificant and El Marino in yesterday's Minibus Hurdle at Te Rapa.
Freewheeling in front on one of the firmest tracks for the meeting in years, Borrack clocked a slick 2:38.43 for the 2400 metres, nearly 5s faster than High Season recorded in winning the race 12 months ago on a dead track.
Singer said Borrack's bold style, that sees him hit the ground hard, means there's always a risk of injury. "Last year he had back and shoulder trouble and after a lot of flat racing this time he might start to feel it a bit. But I'll get the physio in and we'll just keep him ticking over quietly."
Yesterday's win was Singer's fourth on Borrack and third over fences – and it could have been five had he not been sidelined last season with concussion when two wins went the way of caretaker rider Matthew Gillies.
Singer said the decision on a start in two weeks would rest with trainer Adrian Bull and planning cohort Kevin Myers – "but you'd be silly not to come back. "He's just beaten last year's Waikato Hurdles winner."
That horse, Karlos, ran only fifth yesterday, 12.8 lengths away, but trainer Sheryl McGlade was well satisfied, saying all the horse needed was rain.
Both McGlade and rider Lance MacFarlane said they believed Karlos was going as well as last year when she downed Mount Sinai and Cape Kinaveral on a slow track. Another needing soft footing was Joerok, fourth.
- Sunday Star Times