Marie Leicester says she's never had a horse look at her so haughtily.
The Taupo owner-breeder was inspecting her yearlings ahead of the upcoming sales when she encountered the look from an O'Reilly filly hailing from her famous Belle family lineage.
''I can remember she looked at me so haughtily, as if to say 'you sell me at your own peril','' Leicester recalled yesterday.
Even so, Leicester remained stoic and still planned on sending the filly to the sales.
That was till the filly's dam, Diva Belle, died while foaling and Leicester not only lost a vital link to the Belle family but also the foal.
Leicester immediately recanted her decision to sell the filly, a move that led to one of her most memorable moments in racing at Te Rapa on Saturday.
Named Annie Higgins, after Leicester's late mother's maiden name, and conditioned by Matamata trainer Lance Noble, the grown-up filly again unfurled her haughty glare, but this time it wasn't in Leicester's direction - it was focused on fellow Matamata mare Better Together as she repelled her challenge and claimed the Gr III $100,000 Waikato Times Gold Cup (2400m).
"This is something out of this world. It's so special,'' Leicester, 74, said after the race.
''My thoughts at this moment go to my mother, who she's named after, Annie Higgins. It's the first time I haven't put Belle into the name of one of the Belle family but I think it's justified.
''I can think of nothing better than coming back to the Waikato, where I grew up as a young lass, and winning the Waikato Cup today.''
Leicester's parents, James and Annie Sarten, developed the Belle family, one of the New Zealand stud book's most successful families, after they borrowed a mare, Belle Star, from New Plymouth butcher George Tremlett and sent her to champion sire Foxbridge.
The resultant foal - the first horse they had bred - was Belle Fox, who won several races and became the foundation of a dynasty of top-class performers, among them Star Belle and Tri Belle, the granddam of Annie Higgins.
A winner at her second start, Annie Higgins was among the best of her year at three, placing in the Gr II Eight Carat Classic (1600m) and Gr II Royal Stakes (2000m), both at Ellerslie, and the Gr II Sir Tristram Fillies Classic (2100m) at Te Rapa, before winning the Listed Sunline Vase (2100m) at Ellerslie and finishing a gallant fifth in the Gr I New Zealand Oaks (2400m) at Trentham.
However, in that race she suffered buffeting that left her sore and when she returned the following season Noble notice the mare was tender in her hindquarters.
Noble had his vet run the ruler over her and a hot spot deep in her pelvic area was identified, which led to the mare being confined in a box for 10 weeks.
She returned to training this year and won at Hastings in the autumn before a letup ahead of spring and summer racing.
She won at Ellerslie last month, then ran a gallant fourth in the Counties Cup, having been asked to sprint twice, in her Waikato Cup leadup.
Ridden by Leith Innes on Saturday, Annie Higgins settled worse than midfield from a wide draw but coasted up to her rivals full of running on the turn, hitting the front inside the last 200m and holding off a late rally from Better Together to score by a half head.
There was 2 1/4 lengths back to third-placed Arcenciel and three-quarters of a length to Dolmabache, who was a long neck ahead of Boninsky.
"She had a pretty nice trip in the run. They went quite hard and I thought I might have got there a bit soon but she outstayed them,'' Innes said.
"She travelled pretty keenly in the race but to Lance's credit, she was really fit. In a year's time, she's going to be a good two-mile horse."
Noble is hoping it might be in four months' time - rather than 12 months - that Annie Higgins is ready to win a 3200m race, as he has March's Gr I Auckland Cup in mind for his mare.
The win was momentous for Noble, who has enjoyed one of his best starts to a season this year and currently sits seventh on the trainers' premiership.
He has Annie Higgins - now a winner of five of her 19 starts and stakes of more than $177,000 - entered for the Gr II City Of Auckland Cup (2400m) at Ellerslie on New Year's Day but has yet to finalise her summer programme.
He preferred to deflect praise for Annie's Higgins' win on Saturday.
"I'm just so thrilled for Marie Leicester. She's just such a wonderful owner and she deserves this,'' he said.
''I'm really proud of how the mare has run. Leith has ridden her a treat and it's all come together.
"She got hurt in the Oaks and took her a year to come right. A lot of work and a lot of patience and she's back now. It's a big team effort and for all the staff at home, it's a wonderful result. All wins are great but this is right up there. I'm just over the moon.''
Annie Higgins' win was something of a filip for Leicester, who has lost two Zabeel mares during foaling and had to retire promising filly Meleka Belle through her second bleeding attack in recent weeks.
Leicester had sold an Encosta de Lago colt from one of the mares, Liberty Walk, for $500,000 at Karaka in 2010.
Of the beaten runners behind Annie Higgins, there were few excuses.
Jockey Matthew Cameron tracked Counties Cup winner Jeu de Cartes into the race on Better Together but hit the front sooner then he wanted.
"Jeu de Cartes gave me a good track into the race but I needed her to carry me further into the race than she did. We cruised up into it but she hit a flat spot, then got going and really hit the line late. It was a good, tough effort."
Opie Bosson said carrying the topweight of 59kg had told on Jeu de Cartes. "I had plenty of horse coming to the turn but when I went to let her down, there was nothing left," he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News