(By John Jenkins)
Comeback jockey Mathew Gillies achieved a dream double when taking out both the $50,000 Manawatu ITM Awapuni Hurdles and $50,000 L J Hooker Manawatu Steeplechase at Awapuni on Saturday.
Gillies, 33, was born in Palmerston North and has had a burning ambition to win a feature jumping race on his home track since he first started riding over fences more than a decade ago. To win both on the same day was an outstanding achievement and ‘a dream come true’ for the talented horseman.
Gillies came close to winning the Awapuni Hurdles in 2016 when second aboard Ngario, beaten three-quarters of a length by My Magician and rider Michael Mitchell.
He had also finished third aboard Finito in the 2009 running of the Awapuni Hurdles, a horse trained by his father Stephen, and had chalked up two third placings in the Manawatu Steeplechase in the past, on Palemo in 2014 and Snowdroptwinkletoes in 2016.
Gillies piloted the hot favourite Gallante to win Saturday’s Awapuni Hurdles (2900m) and, two races later, he steered the well supported Gagarin to victory in the Manawatu Steeplechase (4200m).
Gallante, a former top-class flat performer, demonstrated his undoubted jumping ability when he ploughed through the Awapuni mud for a runaway 12 length win over Max, with Jochen Rindt a further 2-1/2 lengths back in third.
Gallante, whose five previous wins had included the 2016 Group 1 Sydney Cup (3200m), joined the Hamilton-based Team Rogerson training partnership in late 2017 after being purchased from former owner Lloyd Williams.
The Montjeu gelding showed his prowess over fences when winning his hurdle debut at Te Aroha last August before finishing fourth in the Great Northern Hurdles (4200m) in just his second jumping start.
This season the eight-year-old was expected to play a major role in the hurdle features and demonstrated he will be a force to be reckoned with as he led throughout to score a hollow victory on Saturday.
Despite being taken on by fellow open-class flat performer Jochen Rindt for most of the contest, Gillies was in no doubt he had his rivals well-covered the further the race went.
“It was effortless really,” Gillies said.
“Emily (Farr on Jochen Rindt) keep kicking up and taking me on but he wasn’t having any of that.
“He kept pulling himself up there and I didn’t want to get stuck back on the fence.
“He’s done a great job to finish off and I didn’t really ask him to be fair, so it was a really good effort.”
Gillies capped his memorable day with a ten out of ten ride aboard the Kevin Myers-trained Gagarin in the Manawatu Steeplechase.
Gillies bided his time on the Pentire 10-year-old who has been in good form this winter, including a runner-up finish in the Waikato Steeplechase (3900m) back in May.
Sent forward to join issue with the leaders at the 1000m, Gagarin found plenty in the run home as he out-stayed a brave Zedace who had been in or near the lead throughout the contest, with the margin between the two being just half a neck at the line.
“He was outstanding as I just thought I would bide my time out the back,” Gillies said.
“I thought I’d ride him like Jo Rathbone or Isaac (Lupton) would (although) I’ve never actually ridden a race like that so Kevin (Myers) should be impressed as I think that is the best I’ve ever ridden for him.
“He’s just a gutsy horse as he didn’t quite like the ground but it was just his heart and fitness as he dug in that last 200m.”
Gagarin, who was successful in the 2015 Great Northern Hurdle (4900m), has now won nine races and over $257,000 in prizemoney from his 59 career starts.
Gillies was having his 15th race-ride on Gagarin and was also aboard when the horse triumphed in the Great Northern Hurdles. But a nasty fall from the gelding in the Wellington Hurdles in July 2016 saw him suffer severe concussion and a gash to his head and sidelined him for a few weeks. About a month after he decided to take an indefinite break from riding.
Gillies 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 aboard Gagarin in an open steeplechase at Wanganui on May 1 before winning on Wilijonmcbride in the Signature Homes Hurdle at Te Rapa three days later.
“It’s taken a few years to get back to 100 percent and get back mentally to want to get back out there and get that adrenalin rush again,” Gillies said at the time.
He has now chalked up 88 wins, nine of them in Group or Listed stakes events.