(By John Jenkins)
Comeback jockey Matthew Gillies enjoyed another high point this winter when he steered Gagarin to victory in today’s $75,000 Grant Plumbing Wellington Steeplechase.
Gillies, 33, has been one of New Zealand’s best jumps jockeys for a number of years but took a two and a half year break from race-riding after taking a heavy fall from Gargarin in the Wellington Hurdle at this same Trentham winter meeting three years ago.
He suffered severe concussion and a gash to his head in that fall and was side-lined for several weeks. He moved to Cambridge and entered into a training partnership with Graham Thomas in August 2017 and had all but given race-riding away.
However, he decided to make a comeback this year and had his enthusiasm renewed when finishing second on Gagarin in an open steeplechase at Wanganui on May 1 before a win aboard Wilijonmcbride in the Signature Homes Hurdle at Te Rapa three days later.
He has kicked home a further six winners since, including a home track Awapuni Hurdle-Manawatu Steeplechase double last month, on Gallante and Gagarin.
Gillies was chalking up his first success in Trentham’s prestige jumping race today and was having his 17th race-ride on Gagarin, the pair having also combined to take out the 2015 Great Northern Hurdle (4900m).
Gagarin is prepared by Wanganui jumps maestro Kevin Myers, who has claimed most of the feature jumping races in both New Zealand and Australia but was also recording his first Wellington Steeplechase triumph.
The 10-year-old Gargarin was recording his 10th win and took his stake earnings past the $300,000 mark for his owner-breeders Sam Trotter and John Norwood.
By design, Gillies let Gagarin drop out to the back of the field in the early stages of today’s 5500m feature and just bided his time until starting the last round of the figure-eight circuit in the centre. He then began to move the horse into the race and they quickly took the lead with 1200m to run.
Gagarin had a three length advantage over Kipkeino as they joined up with the course proper at the top of the home straight and, although the latter tried hard to bridge the gap, he could only get to within 2-1/4 lengths of the winner at the line.
Gillies said he and Myers had discussed race tactics and the plan was to let Gagarin drop out and to get him to settle in the early stages.
“That was the plan that Kevin set, as when he is amongst the field, he pulls a bit,” he said.
“It’s such a long way and he’s that good a jumper he can make his way up. He saved a lot of ground in that final bit so it was a credit to Kevin, who I have to thank for putting me on.
“He used to love that kind of heavy (track) but now it’s a test for him. It just about found him out but he had the guts to carry on.”
Kipkeino was game in defeat for jockey Emily Farr and finished 17 lengths ahead of third placed Perry Mason (Aaron Kuru).