Ritchie eyes next year’s Cup with his star mare Zurella
Next Tuesday’s A$6.2 million Melbourne Cup came up 12 months too soon for Cambridge mare Zurella but that isn’t dulling trainer Shaune Ritchie’s hopes of success in the Flemington showpiece next year.
Ritchie has outlined plans to return to Melbourne next spring with the multiple Gr II-winning Zabeel mare, with owner Dick Karreman’s racing manager Rick Williams already identifying next year’s Cup as a long-term goal.
Zurella will head to Karreman’s The Oaks Stud for a late spring and early summer spell before returning to Ritchie’s stables to prepare for a late summer and autumn campaign targeting Gr I weight-for-age races such as the Darci Brahma International Stakes (2000m) at Te Rapa on February 9 and the New Zealand Stakes (2000m) at Ellerslie in March.
‘‘She’ll have a break at The Oaks Stud and how long she’s off will depend on how much weight she’s carrying,’’ Ritchie said this week.
‘‘There’s lots of options for her. She’s a three-time Group winner and the logical next step is to try and nail that elusive Gr I prize. I believe she’s up to the best 2000m weight-for-age horses, certainly in New Zealand, apart from perhaps Ocean Park and Silent Achiever, and you’d think they would be in Sydney in the autumn anyway.’’
Zabeel four-year-old mare Zurella was second in last season’s Gr I New Zealand Oaks to stablemate Artistic, having earlier won the Gr III Eulogy Stakes at Awapuni and the Gr II Sir Tristram Fillies Classic at Te Rapa.
She resumed as a four-year-old with a brilliant win in the Gr II Let’s Elope Stakes (1400m) at Flemington in February but failed to flatter in her next three starts in Melbourne, prompting Ritchie and Williams to call her spring campaign to a halt.
‘‘Her win in the Let’s Elope was superb but probably in hindsight, it just took the edge of her and racing her two weeks later, on a Caulfield Cup mission, was perhaps the mistake we made,’’ Ritchie said.
‘‘She raced a little flat that day and she didn’t return to her best form after that. I don’t doubt she’s up to the quality of the horses there but she’s probably still 12 months away.
‘‘Maturity-wise and breeding-wise, being by Zabeel, as a five-year-old you’d expect her to be better again and I think in 12 months’ time she may well be up to it.’’
Ritchie is likely to steer clear of next year’s Gr I Auckland Cup (3200m) as a potential qualifying race for Zurella for the Melbourne Cup, with the former trainer of the year backing the mare to return to Melbourne in far superior form next spring.
‘‘I’ve always been of the opinion that the second time around in any given place travelling, they always go so much better,’’ he said.
‘‘That was her first trip away and certainly in her first run she proved she was right up to the mares over there and that she wasn’t far off - when she was clearly not at her best - from those Cup aspirants.
‘‘I think she’s a little too brilliant for an Auckland Cup. She’s a genuine stayer perhaps but I’d like to see her running in weight-for-age races more than running in two-mile races.
‘‘She’s got an exceptional pedigree and she’s going to make a lovely broodmare and I’d prefer to tackle the weight-for-age races - in the autumn anyway.’’
Taking the same approach, Ritchie plans on having Artistic back in Brisbane next winter with her target the Gr II Brisbane Cup (2400m) to qualify her for next year’s Melbourne Cup.
Zurella kick-started something of a Kiwi-trained renaissance of spring success in Australia.
Her Gr II win in Melbourne was the forerunner to a barrage of feature race scalps to Waikato gallopers.
The Gary Hennessy-trained Ocean Park has been the star, winning the Gr I Underwood Stakes, Gr I Caulfield Stakes and last Saturday’s Gr I Cox Plate.
He will start a short-priced favourite in today’s Gr I Mackinnon Stakes at Flemington.
The Murray Baker-trained Dundeel won the Gr III Gloaming Stakes and Gr I Spring Champion Stakes to assume favouritism for today’s Gr I Victoria Derby, while the Roger James-trained Silent Achiever chimed in with a Gr II win in last Saturday’s Crystal Mile at Moonee Valley.