From the Commentary Box – Monday, 3 March 2014

Michael Walker has always been a prodigious talent.

Ever since he burst on to the NZ racing scene as a 16 year old whizz kid apprentice, Walker has hogged the limelight.

His outstanding success on the track, coupled with at times, a turbulent lifestyle away from it has ensured Walker is never far from the headlines.

With his success has come his fair share of admirers and, for that matter, detractors too.

I will declare now I’m firmly in the camp of the admirers.

Those of you who are in the other camp may want to flick over to the next page.

I have always admired Walker not only for his brilliant natural horsemanship skills, but also for his ability to overcome adversity during his star studded career.

Much of that adversity has been self inflicted to be fair, but regardless Walker will always bounce back.

Central to that is his unwavering confidence in his ability to get the job done.

He will always back himself.

If there was a Michael Walker Fan Club, I’ve got no doubt he’d nominate himself for President.

All of this came home to roost last Saturday at Ellerslie.

Walker again showed the confidence and flair that has typified his career when winning the TV 3 NZ Derby aboard Puccini.

Puccini had dominated the lead up races to the NZ Derby with wins in the Waikato and Avondale Guineas to his credit.

On both occasions, Puccini had dominated his rivals with bold front running tactics, leaving them gasping in his wake.

After drawing barrier three in the 2400m blue ribbon event, everyone assumed Puccini would again try and dominate from in front.

Even Walker had admitted after his Avondale Guineas win that Puccini would lead and if anyone took him on, “they did so at their own peril”.

What is that saying about the best laid plans?

Those tactics went out the window virtually as the gates opened.

Puccini missed the kick, and instead of landing in front, Walker found himself 4th last leaving the straight the first time.

“Obviously I hadn’t planned on being so far back, so I had to revert to Plan B” said Walker later.

Walker will never admit if there actually was a Plan B, but what he did do was a combination of confidence, flair and unwavering belief in his horses’ ability.

Walker had rubbed a few people up the wrong way when appearing on a Derby Preview Show on Trackside last Thursday.

When asked to assess the chances of several of the opposition Walker candidly said they lacked the class to trouble his mount.

As the field entered the back straight, Walker allowed Puccini to stride forward around the capacity field.

To many it looked a scatter brained thing to do, especially in a NZ Derby.

But for mine, it was the winning of the race.

Walker summed up the situation beautifully when he realised there was no pace on.

So, even though it looked as if Puccini was working overtime going around the field, he actually wasn’t going that quickly.

It looked that way because the leaders were just walking.

Eventually, Puccini landed outside the leader before being set alight by Walker with 300m to run.

The pair bounded clear by several lengths and although runner up Rising Romance made up many lengths, she was never going to catch Puccini.

Third was the Shaune Ritchie trained Glorious Lad.

Puccini is trained at Matamata by father and son training partnership of Peter and Jacob McKay for local breeders and owners Paul and Cushla Smithies.

It was one of the more remarkable wins I have seen in a Derby, and it stamped Puccini as a colt of outstanding quality.

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t leave the last word to Michael Walker.

In his victory speech, Walker told the crowd what he thought of Puccini.

“I don’t care what anybody says, this is the best horse I have ridden” said Walker.

Just telling it as it is.

I’ll catch you next week.