For the second year running, Hermitage Thoroughbreds has a three-year-old with a huge chance to win the Group 1 Vodafone New Zealand Derby (2400m).
Rocket Spade confirmed his spot at the head of the male classic crop with a tough victory in the Group 2 AJC Avondale Guineas (2100m), hitting the line strongly to defeat Jason Belltree and On Display.
In doing so, Rocket Spade followed the path of Dragon Leap, who like Rocket Spade had also won the Group 2 Auckland Guineas (1600m) on New Year’s Day.
Both are trained by Lance O’Sullivan and Andrew Scott and raced by Hermitage Thoroughbreds, a racing and breeding operation owned by Hong Kong businessman Eugene Chuang.
A retired banker and financier, Chuang and his wife Karen devote much of their time to philanthropic pursuits, particularly in the area of childhood development and education.
“They deserve every success,” O’Sullivan said. “They have put a bit of money into racing, in Australia as well as New Zealand, so it’s great to see them getting the rewards.”
Hermitage Thoroughbreds is probably best-known in Australia for racing the multiple Group One-winning colt The Autumn Sun, in addition to Group 1 Queensland Oaks (2400m) winner Egg Tart and Group 1 Coolmore Stud Stakes (1200m) winner September Run – all trained by Chris Waller.
But O’Sullivan and Scott have also enjoyed good success with the Hermitage colours (dark green with red chevrons), boasting Group One victories with Willie Cazals and Summer Passage, in addition to multiple elite level placings with Group Three winner Spring Heat.
Unlike last season’s pre-post Derby favourite Dragon Leap, Rocket Spade raced between his Auckland and Avondale Guineas triumphs, finishing second in an open handicap against older horses at Te Rapa in early February, which O’Sullivan said reflected the different natures of the two horses.
“They’re two totally different sorts of horses. We’re thinking Dragon Leap is probably a miler now, whereas Rocket Spade is more dour,” O’Sullivan said.
“He’s still got to run 2400m. You don’t know until you actually try them, but we think he will. Certainly his style of racing suggests he would get further.”
Rocket Spade is currently second favourite for this year’s Derby with TAB bookmakers behind the filly Amarelinha, who has yet to be nominated for the race.
Dragon Leap went on to finish fourth in the Derby, failing to stay the 2400m after hitting the lead 400m out in a taxing contest.
He hasn’t raced since finishing eighth of 11 in the Group 2 Tramway Stakes (1400m) at Randwick last September, suffering a minor injury which stopped his spring campaign.
“He’s probably done about 10 weeks of rehab with us so he’s probably not far away from picking up in his work. He has another scan this week, and if we have the all-clear, we can speed him up. He should be racing again this season.”
Rocket Spade wasn’t the only winner for Hermitage Thoroughbreds at Ellerslie, with Cha Siu Bao winning a rating 74 event over 1600m.
Cha Siu Bao wasn’t far off the best three-year-olds four seasons ago, finishing fourth in the Group 1 New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m), Group 2 Great Northern Guineas (1600m), and the Group 2 Waikato Guineas (2000m). He’s found it hard to bridge the gap to the top horses since then, and Saturday’s victory was his fifth from 34 starts.
“He’s got above average talent, but he mixes his form and he’s got to want it. We were fortunate to have Opie (Bosson, jockey) on board on Saturday.”
Ellerslie wasn’t the only place O’Sullivan had success last Saturday, as he is one of the owners of Defibrillate, winner of the Listed Neds Mornington Cup Prelude (2000m) at Caulfield.
O’Sullivan is a close friend of fellow Matamata trainer Graham Richardson, the main owner of Defibrillate. Richardson prepared Defibrillate to win two of his three New Zealand starts before sending him to Victorian trainer Patrick Payne.
“I’m just a small shareholder but it’s certainly a lot of fun being involved,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s really exciting for Richie. He’s won nine from 13 now, and he’s running in good company.”