After one of the most dominant seasons by a jumps jockey in New Zealand history, Shaun Phelan is now looking to conquer Australia.
With one day of jumps racing to go in New Zealand, the Cambridge horseman has an unassailable lead in the jumps jockey premiership. He has won 19 races, 10 more than defending champ Shaun Fannin.
He's also clearly ahead in terms of prizemoney, but what is most amazing has been his dominance of prestige jumping races. New Zealand has 13 such races, and Phelan has won a staggering nine of them.
“I've been told it's not a record for number of wins in a season, but it's definitely the most prestige jumps wins in a season,” said Phelan, who is winning the title for the first time.
“It's been a pretty unreal season.”
Not only did Phelan win nine prestige jumps races, he also finished in the top three in three others and only missed a placing in one race, where his mount did not finish.
Seven of his nine prestige victories were on jumpers trained by Paul Nelson and Corinna McDougal in Hawke's Bay, and Phelan was quick to acknowledge their contribution.
“I would always pick up the odd ride for them when they had two horses in a race when Aaron Kuru was their number one rider, and when he went to Australia I thought I'd better have a go there with Paul, and it's just been a dream come true really,” Phelan said.
“They have an amazing hill and amazing schooling facilities on their property. When his horses get to the races they're fit, and I think they really look forward to their races as well – since they're not trained on the track it's like they're looking for it more when they get to the track to race.”
Four of Phelan's nine prestige victories were aboard champion hurdler The Cossack, who won the Grand National Hurdle, Great Northern Hurdle, KS Browne Hurdle, and Hawke's Bay Hurdle. He has won 10 of his last 11 jumps races and hasn't been beaten over obstacles since October 4, 2020.
And it's The Cossack who will be giving Phelan a chance to make his mark in Australia, with Nelson and McDougal sending him across the Tasman to contest the Australian Grand National Hurdle (4200m) at Sandown on August 7 and the Australian Grand National Steeplechase (4500m) at Ballarat on August 28.
“I'm really excited to go. Before COVID hit I was going over to Australia quite a bit,” Phelan said.
“I won a couple of races but I haven't won any of the big ones. The best I've done so far was finishing second in the Crisp Steeplechase aboard Slowpoke Rodriguez in 2019.”
Phelan said it was a pleasure to ride The Cossack, who had all the attributes of an outstanding jumper.
“He can switch off, he's versatile – you can ride him back, you can ride him forward – he's good over his fences, and when he comes off the bridle there's always another gear there,” he said.
However, he won't rate The Cossack as the best jumper he's ridden unless he can triumph in Australia. This season he was also partnered with the Kevin Myers-trained Tallyho Twinkletoe when he won the Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton, becoming the first horse to win the New Zealand and Australian Grand National Steeplechase double.
“If The Cossack can match his record you could say he was as good as Tallyho Twinkletoe,” he said.
Phelan has managed his successes as a jumps rider while also training his own team of horses with his father Craig in Cambridge.
“I've usually gone down to school Paul's horses at the start of the season and then ride them in point to points, but otherwise I've just taken the rides on raceday, which has been great,” he said.
“It's allowed me to stay focused on training my own team. Riding over fences has been a bit like others who work during the week who play rugby at the weekend.”
Phelan also attributed part of his success to the decision of New Zealand racing to increase the minimum weight in jumping races to 66kg.
“Our weights for jumps horses have been much lower than in many other parts of the world. It's much better when riders can have a drink and something to eat between races rather than starving their guts out completely and you feel it in your riding for sure,” he said.
“That's been a help. But I've also been riding decent horses for really good trainers so I just turn up and do my job.”
Phelan will have two more opportunities for victories this weekend at Te Rapa, as he is set to ride Rocking Good Time in a restricted open hurdle and Raucous in the open steeplechase, both for Nelson and McDougal.
“They will both be chances,” he said. “With Paul and Corinna you know their horses will be fit and ready to go, and I've just got to get on and give them a chance.”