Rich Hill Stud principal John Thompson (left) with John Fiteni and Kathy Stewart, owners of Surprise Baby. Photo credit: Supplied
Margaret Falconer’s focus will go from one end of the scale to the other on Tuesday as she switches between Ellerslie and Flemington.
The Cambridge trainer will be at Ellerslie hoping to win a maiden race with the five-year-old Drake Bay, who has been placed in six of his 11 starts.
Like every other racing fan, Falconer’s attention will then zero in on the Gr.1 Melbourne Cup (3200m), but she has more interest in it than most people, having played a significant part in the education of one of the leading hopes, the New Zealand-bred Surprise Baby.
A five-year-old gelding by 2009 Melbourne Cup winner Shocking, Surprise Baby was bred by Rich Hill Thoroughbreds and burst into prominence for the famous Flemington race when guaranteeing a start with his win in the Gr.3 Bart Cummings (2520m) at Flemington last month.
Horsham trainer Paul Preusker has guided Surprise Baby from a successful debut over 1200m on his home track just over 12 months ago to be tackling the Melbourne Cup in just his 11th start with prize money of A$723,735 to his credit.
Surprise Baby has won five times and has already proven himself over two miles, having won the Gr.2 Adelaide Cup in March when defeating Top Of The Range, Mike Moroney’s talented stayer who won Wednesday’s Gr.3 Bendigo Cup (2400m).
Falconer is amazed by Surprise Baby’s incredible climb to the top to contest the holy grail of Australasian racing, remembering the wayward young horse sent to her two years ago by Rich Hill Studmaster John Thompson.
“I got him for one prep after he had been passed in at the Ready To Run Sale,” Falconer said.
“He wasn’t easy to steer and when you look at his breeze-up for the Ready To Run Sale you can see why he wasn’t sold.
“He wasn’t an easy horse to handle when we got him. He was never dirty, he just needed to be taken along quietly.
“He didn’t have a good mouth and we ended up re-mouthing him and virtually going back to scratch with him.
“The boys spent a bit of time and we got him to the track, up doing half-pace. We never really galloped him, but he always had a good action.
“We probably had him for about three months and he had done enough and needed a break. The next I knew he had been sold.”
Surprise Baby had originally been passed in by Rich Hill Stud at the 2016 New Zealand Bloodstock Select Yearling Sale with a $20,000 reserve and he failed to meet a $35,000 reserve at the 2016 Ready To Run Sale when again offered by the Walton nursery.
“He didn’t breeze up well,” Thompson said. “I put him in work with Margaret Falconer with the idea of winning a trial and getting him sold.
“He proved a bit difficult and he never got to the trials early in his three-year-old season, so I thought we’d missed the boat.”
That’s when Surprise Baby was listed on gavelhouse.com in November 2017 and bought by his Australian part-owner John Fiteni for a mere $5500. Fiteni then got Preusker to come to New Zealand to inspect him and the rest is history.
“I watched his first race and he was pretty erratic that day, too,” Falconer said.
“His trainer has done a great job with him and he has obviously had someone very good to ride him in work and keep him going forward.
“He was a nice, scopey type of horse and was always going to keep developing. He was just mentally immature and needed time.
“We gave him the break when we did because, if we’d kept going, we could have blown his brain.
“He’s obviously an amazingly tough horse. I never imagined he would be running in the Melbourne Cup this year.”
Falconer and her partner, Richie Whitworth, are kept busy with 15 horses in work, five of their own racehorses (headed by recent winner Red Sky At Night) and the remainder being pre-trained.
As well as training, Falconer is a breeder and shareholder in Shocking with a three-year-old filly, three two-year-olds fillies and a yearling colt all by the Rich Hill Stud-based sire waiting in the wings.
“It’ll be great for the New Zealand breeding industry and especially for Shocking if Surprise Baby can emulate him and win the Melbourne Cup,” she said.