Number One: Opie Bosson acknowledges Melody Belle after her fantastic Bonecrusher Stakes win.
This is not an exercise in definitively comparing horses from different eras, but there’s no denying the evidence that Melody Belle deserves her place amongst the very best New Zealand gallopers at least of recent decades.
When she won last Saturday’s Bonecrusher New Zealand Stakes after a titanic battle with fellow four-year-old mare Danzdanzdance, Melody Belle took her career tally of Group One wins to six. That still places her behind various other great Kiwi gallopers of the past 30-odd years, among them the horse known as “Big Red” after whom the Ellerslie weight-for-age race is now named.
Bonecrusher won 18 of his 44 starts, with half of those successes at Group One level and amongst them the 1986 and 1988 editions of the Air New Zealand Stakes which has since morphed into the Bonecrusher NZ Stakes.
Fast forward a decade from that champion’s time at the top and the next we come up with is Sunline, who won 32 of her 48 starts, 13 of them at Group One. From her first Group One victory in the Flight Stakes as a 1998 spring three-year-old to her last in the All Aged Stakes back at Randwick in the autumn of 2002, she emulated Bonecrusher in dominating her contemporaries on both sides of the Tasman.
For his efforts Bonecrusher claimed both the Australian and New Zealand Horse of the Year titles at the end of his three-year-old season, but Sunline eclipsed that with three Australian and four New Zealand Horse of the Year awards.
At the tail-end of last decade another mare from the top drawer emerged by the name of Seachange, whose 28-start career produced 14 wins, seven of them at Group One. After winning the New Zealand 1000 Guineas at three, the following spring she added the Mudgway Partsworld Stakes and Stoney Bridge Stakes, then repeated that Hawkes Bay carnival double at five as well adding the Telegraph and Waikato Draught Sprint in the first two months of 2008.
Like her high-profile predecessors, Seachange claimed end-of-season honours with New Zealand Horse of the Year titles in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
The next multiple New Zealand-bred Group One winner to claim a Horse of the Year title was Ocean Park, whose track career spanned 15 starts over less than 18 months but was of such quality that it included five Group One wins in his total of eight.
“Melody Belle doesn’t have the aura of a Bonecrusher or a Sunline, but there’s no denying the big plain bay is the consummate racehorse.
After a highly promising three-year-old campaign that ended as runner-up in the Rosehill Guineas, he swept all before him the following spring with an unbeaten sequence comprising the Makfi Challenge Stakes at Hastings and the Underwood Stakes, Caulfield Stakes and Cox Plate at the Melbourne carnival.
Ocean Park’s four Group One wins in the opening half of 2012-13 equalled the best single season haul by Bonecrusher, Sunline and Seachange, but in the autumn he eclipsed that trio with a fifth, the New Zealand Stakes. And just as each of those great horses had been recognised, Ocean Park was rewarded with the Horse of the Year title.
Now we have another to match Ocean Park’s five Group One wins in a season. Melody Belle doesn’t have the aura of a Bonecrusher or a Sunline, and unlike that pair and Ocean Park, none of her Group One wins has been in Australia. But there’s no denying the big plain bay is the consummate racehorse.
As a two-year-old she took age-group honours after wins in the Gr. 1 Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes, Gr. 2 Queensland Sires’ Produce Stakes and Karaka Million. Her second season was nowhere near as productive but like many before her, she has bounced back as a four-year-old to eclipse any previous achievements.
Melody Belle’s season began by winning the Gr. 2 Foxbridge Pate at Te Rapa and within a month she had added the Gr. 1 Tarzino Trophy and Windsor Park Plate. With any luck she could have added another when she resumed from a break but had to settle for third in the Sistema Railway, then followed a mysteriously poor effort in the Telegraph.
While connections scratched their heads, in her no-fuss manner Melody Belle went through the motions on the training track and refound her best form with an off-the-canvas win in the Gr. 1 BCD Group Sprint. Two weeks later she scored the easiest of any of her big wins in the Gr. 1 Haunui Farm WFA Classic, appropriately the race sponsored by the stud that reared and prepared her for the sale on behalf of breeder Marie Leicester.
That performance inspired one more throw of the dice, a step up to 2000 metres in the Bonecrusher Stakes. Professionalism has been the common denominator in Melody Belle’s career, from her purchase as a Karaka yearling by David Ellis for just $57,500, to her syndication by Te Akau associate Fortuna, to her training initially by the Stephen Autridge-Jamie Richards partnership and this season by Richards alone.
And there’s no better word to describe the horse herself; everything she does has that professional touch about it. Richards would be the first to admit that she makes his job easy, as would stable rider Opie Bosson, strapper Teina Walters and others directly involved.
Before she arrived earlier this week at Te Akau Stud for a thoroughly-earned spell, Ellis knew exactly how it would play out.
“She’ll walk right round the paddock checking things out, then she’ll go back to her feed bin and her head won’t leave it until it’s empty,” he said. “She’s so predictable, everything she does is measured, she really is the true professional.”
Ellis was understandably glowing with pride after Melody Belle’s season finale in the Bonecrusher Stakes. Like multiple premiership winner Mark Walker before him, he identified Richards at a young age and gave him the opportunity of a lifetime off the Te Akau platform.
Likewise Bosson, whose connection to Te Akau goes back to his mid-teens when he signed up with his godfather, Stephen Autridge, during the latter’s first stint with Ellis. Bosson’s weight battles have been well documented, several times in the past decade forcing him away from race riding and requiring real dedication to return. His latest comeback from a winter high of 71 kilos was largely the result of daily workouts alongside Ellis in the Te Akau gymn.
All the more remarkable then, that despite not being able to ride below 55 kilograms, Bosson’s Bonecrusher win on Melody Belle, coming immediately after Yourdeel had won the Sistema Stakes, broke the previous 62 Group One win record held by Lance O’Sullivan, a natural lightweight.
Likewise Richards is setting his own milestones. Less than four years after becoming a licensed trainer, he has already prepared in excess of 340 winners at a strike-rate of less than 5.5, with 57 of those wins at black type level and a remarkable 19 of them Group Ones.
After the weekend Richards was locked with arch rivals Murray Baker and Andrew Forsman on 76 wins in his quest for a second premiership. His back-to-back Group One double with Yourdeel and Melody Belle trumped all other previous achievements and allowed him a ticket to celebrate in Auckland on Saturday night.
“It had been a long day and even though I was feeling pretty good at how it had played out, the eyelids were getting pretty heavy early in the night,” Richards told The Informant.
And where does his big double fit? “Huge I suppose,” he says. “The thing is, I’ll probably never have another day like that in my life.”
Don’t bet on it young man.