Five-time New Zealand Derby winning-trainer Roger James is refusing to buy into talk that Saturday’s Classic at Ellerslie is down to a two-horse race between his star filly Two Illicit and boom gelding Dragon Leap.
James will produce Jimmy Choux filly Two Illicit, Redwood gelding Reggiewood and He’s Remarkable gelding Monlula in the Gr.1 Vodafone New Zealand Derby (2400m) at Ellerslie.
Having won the Derby with Tidal Light when training in partnership with Jim Gibbs in 1986, Roysyn in 1995, Zonda in 1997, Hades in 1999 and Silent Achiever in 2012, James knows what it takes to win, but he has several hard luck stories as well.
“It all comes down to a horse that can get the mile and a half the best,” James said.
“I don’t think it’s a race in two at all. You can make a case for several other runners and who knows, the two favourites might not get the trip.
“However, I’m pretty confident my filly will see it out strongly.”
James only needs to recall Corndale’s luckless second to Surfers Paradise in 1990, Sixty Seconds flashing home too late for third in 2001, and Kajema going down a neck to St Reims in the 2002 Derby after sitting three-wide for the trip, to know the Derby is never cut and dried beforehand.
“I sent out Kaatoon a screaming hot favourite in the New Zealand Oaks one year fully expecting her to win and she didn’t run the trip, so it’s never that easy,” said James, who trains in partnership with Robert Wellwood.
“But I’m excited. We’ve been lucky that with all three of our runners that the preparation with each one has gone perfectly.”
TAB bookmakers have the Lance O’Sullivan and Andrew Scott-trained Dragon Leap, a last-start Gr.2 Avondale Guineas (2100m) winner on the track, as a narrow $2.40 favourite ahead of Two Illicit at $2.50, with Reggiewood at $19 and Monlula at $81.
Two Illicit goes into the Derby as a winner of four of her six starts, claiming the Gr.2 Royal Stakes (2000m) at Ellerslie and the Gr.2 David & Karyn Ellis Fillies Classic (2000m) at Te Rapa eased down to score by 7 1/2 lengths in her last two starts.
She also inflicted Dragon Leap’s only defeat when she claimed the Listed Trevor Eagle Memorial (1500m) at Ellerslie in November last year.
James describes Two Illicit as a “special filly”.
“She’s done everything right. She’s a fit filly and I can’t fault her,” James said.
“She relaxes beautifully in her races. Her first run over ground (in the Royal Stakes) really showed she could stay because she was asked the question when Vinnie (Colgan, jockey) went forward at the half-mile and she kicked again at the 200.
“She’s by a horse (2011 Derby winner Jimmy Choux) that got 2400m no problem so everything says the trip shouldn’t be a problem.”
James was also optimistic Reggiewood and Monlula would both run well.
“I just wish Reggiewood (barrier 13) had drawn better. He’s an exciting horse. He’s only learning his trade but he’s still winning impressively. He’s had a different lead-up path with a month off but I’m confident he’ll really run the trip.
“With Monlula, I get the feeling the Derby has come six months too soon for him. He was stiff last start but he was still finding the line nicely once he got clear. We’ll ride him for just one run. His trackwork has been good and he looks magnificent.
“I haven’t won a Derby for a while so maybe I’m overdue but seriously I’d love to win it again and it would be lovely for Robert to get his first Group One as a trainer in a race as prestigious as the Derby.”
James wanted to get through Saturday before making any further plans but said Two Illicit and Reggiewood were in consideration for Australian campaigns, Two Illicit pencilled in for the Gr.1 Vinery Stud Stakes (2000m) at Rosehill on March 28 and the Gr.1 Australian Oaks (2400m) at Randwick on April 11.
Reggiewood is entered for the Gr.1 Rosehill Guineas (2000m) on March 21 and the Gr.1 Australian Derby (2400m) at Randwick on April 4.
James and Wellwood have a strong hand on the undercard too with Amal Rose contesting the Gr.3 McKee Family Sunline Vase (2100m), Hasstobegood and Madam Hass tackling the Listed Mufhasa Fasttrack Stakes (1300m) and London Banker rounding out the day in the Barfoot & Thompson 2100.
“In Amal Rose’s first run over ground (in the Oaks Prelude at New Plymouth), she did all the donkey work and went down three noses so she’s got to be a good chance of getting black-type this weekend,” James said, adding he was unsure whether she would try and emulate her granddam Bramble Rose in attempting to win the Gr.1 New Zealand Oaks (2400m) at Trentham on March 14.
“Hasstobegood and Madam Hass are both chances in a strong field. Both have good ability but I’d probably give Hasstobegood the edge on professionalism. London Banker is a good horse in the making and his work has been enormous this week.”