Mates combine for another highlight

Despite a slipped saddle, Zy Nor Azman guides first-starter McCullum to a strong win at Tauranga today.

Despite a slipped saddle, Zy Nor Azman guides first-starter McCullum to a strong win at Tauranga today.

The old firm was back in the winner’s stall together at Tauranga today, but for one of them it was in a different role.

Trainer Ralph Manning and another Cambridge local, retired successful jockey Gavin McKeon, started the new season off on a high when combining forces to win the first thoroughbred race of the 2016-17 term with McCullum, who made a long-awaited debut in the Ultimate Motor Group 1200.

Manning trains McCullum and McKeon, along with his wife Emma, his father-in-law David Read and family friend Steve Cross, bred and races the Shinko King five-year-old gelding named in honour of one of New Zealand’s greatest cricketers Brendon McCullum.

McKeon enjoyed his greatest thrills as a jockey riding the Manning-trained Seachange to seven Group One wins, including two editions of both the Stoney Bridge (now Makfi) Stakes and Windsor Park Stakes and the 2008 Telegraph Handicap – Waikato Draught Sprint double.

Seachange was unbeaten in her first five starts with McKeon aboard, culminating in the first of her seven Group One wins, in the 2005 NZ Bloodstock 1000 Guineas at Riccarton.

Seachange won her sixth start with then-apprentice Craig Grylls aboard and McKeon missed out on just two more of her 14 wins. Manning and owner Dick Karreman again opted for an apprentice claim when Seachange resumed in a Hastings sprint and entrusted Jayne Ivil with the task and earlier that same year (2007) Michael Rodd won the Gr. 3 Mannerism Stakes in Melbourne on her.

McKeon won several other races for Manning until a couple of racedays falls, including a serious one, ended his riding career. The two have been friends since the Seachange days and it was therefore no surprise Manning was the chosen trainer for McCullum.

McKeon has also a further link with Manning through being a mentor for the stable apprentice Zy Nor Azman and he was justifiably proud of his protégé after a fine display of riding on McCullum after the saddle slipped in the early stages of the race.

McCullum disputed the early pace before Nor Azman, riding to instructions, eased him into a trail and that’s when the saddle slipped.

Despite being perched up on McCullum’s wither, Nor Azman didn’t panic and kept him balanced and continued to ride his race, moving him out to challenge early in the run home.

McCullum soon gained control and Nor Azman rode him along to maintain his advantage, winning by a length from Fort Knox, a last-start runner-up.

McKeon was quick to praise the 28-year-old apprentice on his ride, “He did a great job,” he said.

McCullum started a warm favourite on the strength of being unbeaten in his two trials, albeit as long ago as December 2014 and May last year.

It has been a long, rocky road to success with McCullum with his connections having to endure a serious of setbacks.

“It was just a big relief to see him win,” said McKeon. “We’ve always known he had the ability, but something always went wrong.

“After he won his first trial there was a fair bit of interest in him (from bloodstock agents) but we put him straight into the paddock.

“He then fractured a shoulder. It was only a minor fracture but he was back out for 12 months. Then he came back and won another trial (at Cambridge) and was all set to go to the races at Te Teko but had to be late scratched. He had a crack in his other shoulder.”

Finally, 20 months after winning his first trial at Te Aroha McCullum made it to the races today and he justified the faith his connections have always had in him.

“He’s been in work a long time, building up, and Ralph has been pleased with him. He’s always liked him,” said McKeon. “He grew and grew and now hopefully he can go on with it.”

The biggest concern for both McKeon and Manning today was the testing footing.

“We were terrified with the heavy 11, hoping he could get through it,” said McKeon. ”He should be more suited on better ground. He won his first trial on a good (dead) track.”

McCullum’s win is indeed a welcome change of luck for the McKeons, Reid and Cross after having bad luck with his dam, Emma’s Dilemma.

A daughter of Danroad, Emma’s Dilemma looked very smart when winning her juvenile debut from the Riccarton stable of Terri Rae, but unfortunately injury cut her racing career short.

McKeon and his partners have also had little luck with her as a broodmare with her producing just two foals and losing two from four matings, But now the first of those foals, McCullum, could make up for all that heartbreak.

He certainly put a smile on the group’s faces today and the manner in which he won suggested there is more in store.