Somervell sniffs a maiden Gr I success with Fleur De Lune
Cambridge trainer Lee Somervell is used to working with champions.
As ringmaster of the New Zealand Horse Magic Show for tourists at Cambridge Thoroughbred Lodge, Somervell works with gallopers the quality of Rough Habit and Xcellent, as well as former star pacer Christopher Vance.
But as satisfying as that is, Somervell would love nothing more than to get his own turf champion - and a Fleur De Lune win in Saturday's Gr I $200,000 New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders' Stakes (1600m) at Te Aroha would get him on well on the road.
Fleur De Lune finished third to Barinka and Smoulder in the same race last year as a three-year-old filly and comes into this year's race with just as good a formline.
"I've had horses placed in Gr I races, won Listed races and Cups races but the fact is I haven't actually won a Gr I race,'' Somervell said yesterday.
"It was quite a punt for me putting her in this race last year. She was only beaten a head and a neck at her sixth start and we haven't even planned that race.
"For her do have done what she did last year on an unscheduled preparation was huge.We learned a lot about the preparation and we know her so much better now.
"Right from the time she came back into work this year, this race has been her aim and everything has been aimed at having her ready for Saturday.''
Fleur De Lune's preparation didn't start ideally when she was locked up on the fence and couldn't get a clear run at a vital stage in a six-horse Ellerslie field resuming.
But she has since finished second to Fazzle in the Listed Westbury Classic (1400m), beaten in a head-bobber, before she scored a clinical 1400m open handicap win at Te Rapa.
"She's very well - as well as I can get her,'' Somervell said.
"It is a very good, even field and a lot will depend on the run. We took her to Te Aroha last Saturday - Jason [Jago, jockey] came over to ride her - and she had a lovely gallop on the course proper and that just topped her off beautifully.''
TAB bookmakers yesterday opened Fleur De Lune as a $6 favourite on their final field market, ahead of Xanadu, who only made the field with the scratching of Cissy Bowen yesterday, at $7, Lady Kipling and Say No More at $7.50 and last-start Gr III Cuddle Stakes winner Floria at $10.
However, it hasn't all been plain sailing for Somervell and Fleur De Lune, who was earmarked for a Cox Plate tilt last year.
Fleur de Lune had placed in the Gr III Foxbridge Plate at Te Rapa and the Gr I Makfi Stakes at Hastings at the beginning of the season but she suffered a setback when sixth in the Gr I Windsor Park Plate at Hastings.
"In that race she drew two, with Mufhasa in barrier one and Wall Street was on her outside in barrier three, and they squeezed her up a bit at the start,'' Somervell said.
"She's only 15.2 [hands] and it definitely affected her, far more than I realised at the time. When I took her to Hawera [for the Taranaki Breeders' Stakes] where she looked a proverbial certainty, right from the time we saddling her up, she was a nervous wreck and she didn't want to be at the races.
"We had to spell her after that. This time back, she just had to get some confidence back and those last two runs have been great in that respect, and she's proved she doesn't have to lead.''
From barrier three on Saturday, Fleur De Lune was still likely to press forward, Somervell said.
"Sometimes I worry about her being drawn in but her last two starts since she's got her confidence back she's hit the ground running and she's come back to Jason very well.
"The good thing with her is she's got the speed to take up a position and because she's only small I don't want her in amongst the field. I often say to Jason if she covers more ground and gets beaten that's my fault, but if you get caught on the fence that's your fault.
"It would be just huge if she could win - the best Easter present ever. It would be great for the owners - Ada [Parnwell] and the Duncans - John and Colleen. They've been totally supportive of everything I've done.''
Somervell has enjoyed a diverse career with his horses, spending two years in the horse department of the Lord Of The Rings movies, which led to him getting not only a part in that movie but also in King Kong, having earlier gained a bit part in Anna and the King.
"That was a huge experience with Lord Of The Rings - it's certainly a different world to racing,'' said Somervell, who has been the ringmaster with the Horse Magic Show for the past five years and relishes the contact with the past stars of racing.
"Even though Rough Habit is 25 now, we saddle him up as though it's raceday and it's great working with a horse like him, and with Xcellent and Christopher Vance.''