Southern bonds to the fore in New Zealand Oaks triumph

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Belle En Rouge

With three premierships, countless big-race triumphs, more than NZD$30 million in prize-money and Hong Kong beckoning, Jamie Richards has come a long way since taking out his training licence in 2015 – but it was a nod to his southern roots that played a big part in landing Saturday’s Group 1 Al Basti Equiworld Dubai New Zealand Oaks (2400m) at Trentham with Belle En Rouge.

The least-fancied of three runners in the prestigious classic for Richards and the all-conquering Te Akau Racing team, Belle En Rouge was ridden by Jason Laking, whose last Group One victory came almost 20 years ago when The Jewel won the 2002 running of the New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m). At that stage Laking was an apprentice based at Wingatui, where Richards was growing up nearby.

“Jason did his time at Hec Anderton’s place, which was just down the road from Mum and Dad’s house where I was growing up,” Richards said. “He might have even driven Dad to and from the races a few times when he was an apprentice.

“I’ve known Jason for a long time, and he’s been a quality jockey all the way through. He gave that filly a great ride today.”

The New Zealand Oaks had previously been a frustrating race for Laking, who finished second on The Jewel in 2003 and was declared a non-runner on pre-post favourite Justine Coup a year later.

“It means a lot to win the Oaks,” he said. “I’ve only had two rides in it before – I got beaten on The Jewel, and then Justine Coup reared and went over backwards when the gates opened. I’m just happy to have another ride in the race, but to win it is bloody awesome.

“I remember Jamie from my apprentice days. When I was in the sauna, he used to sneak in and turn the bloody thing off on me!

“But he’s a terrific guy and a terrific trainer, and I hope he does well when he heads over to Hong Kong. He gives me rides whenever he can, and I really appreciate that. I’m happy to repay him for it today.”

This year’s Oaks was expected to be a coronation for the +110 favourite Self Obsession, who came into the race with a commanding lead in the New Zealand Bloodstock Filly of the Year Series. She had 24 points, with Belle En Rouge the closest challenger on 19. Remarkably, the points earned from that pair’s first and second placings mean that they now end up joint winners with 31 points.

Belle En Rouge was a quality performer in the spring and early summer, placing in the Group 3 Soliloquy Stakes (1400m) and Group 1 New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) before winning the Group 3 Eulogy Stakes (1600m) and Group 2 Eight Carat Classic (1600m). But after a few weeks on the sidelines, she slipped from the radar with sixth placings in the Group 2 David & Karyn Ellis Fillies’ Classic (2000m) and Group 3 Sunline Vase (2100m). She started Saturday’s Oaks as a +2570 outsider, but she crashed her stablemate’s party.

Laking took advantage of an inside gate and put Belle En Rouge in a perfect position, just ahead of midfield and travelling smoothly behind a solid pace set by Flash Mary. Belle En Rouge peeled out wide coming up to the home turn and went for gold a long way out, surging forward and thrusting her head in front with 250 metres to run.

Self Obsession responded gamely along the inside, with Aspen Colorado flashing home late after struggling to find clear running in the straight, but Belle En Rouge was too strong and scored by half a length. Self Obsession edged out Aspen Colorado by a nose for second, with the other Richards-trained runner, The Perfect Pink, close up in fourth.

“I got a nice run, four back and one off the fence, and she just went to sleep,” Laking said. “All credit to Jamie and the staff, they put in hours and hours of work, and he said to me that she would be a big chance today.

“I got her out into the open, and I wondered if I might have gone a bit too early, but she toughed it out and won bloody well.”

Raced by the Te Akau Beautiful in Red Racing Partnership and bred by Te Akau’s David Ellis and Karyn Fenton-Ellis, Belle En Rouge has now won four of her 10 starts and NZD$391,680 in stakes.

Her Oaks triumph capped a remarkable day for Richards and the Te Akau team, who had previously won the Listed Barneswood Farm St Leger (2600m) with Leaderboard and saddled the first four placegetters in the Group 1 Wellington Seamarket Levin Classic (1600m) with Imperatriz, On The Bubbles, I Wish I Win and Mohawk Brave.

“We were 50/50 whether we were going to run this filly after her performance at Ellerslie, but she’s just got so much toughness about her,” Richards said. “She was able to overcome a few little things that haven’t been going her way.

“To get these two Group One wins today is a great result, and full credit to the team at home. We’ve been under the pump a little bit, with everything that’s been happening with COVID and all that. The staff have done an amazing job. They’ve stood up to be counted when we’ve needed them – as they have done all season, and as they have done ever since I took over the licence. So a big thank you to everyone at home.”

Richards was also far from disappointed with Self Obsession, who added an Oaks second placing to her Group Two treble in the Royal Stakes (2000m), David & Karyn Ellis Fillies’ Classic (2000m) and Lowland Stakes (2100m).

“She tried hard,” Richards said. “She’s been up for a long time and has had a few little aches and pains to deal with along the way, so she’s done a wonderful job.”

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