(By John Jenkins)

Today’s $50,000 Signature Homes Waikato Steeplechase at Te Rapa came down to a two-horse war over the final stages with the Central Districts pair of Shamal and Gagarin going head-to-head in a desperate finish to the 3900m feature.

Shamal, lumping topweight of 68kg, and Gagarin (65kg) jumped the last fence on terms and went stride for stride in the run to the line with Shamal and jockey Buddy Lammas just managing to gain the upper hand by a short neck.

It was Shamal’s fifth win from 12 starts over the big fences and followed a similar performance over the same distance at Te Rapa a fortnight ago. The Zabeel eight-year-old’s wins last winter included both the Manawatu Steeples at Trentham and Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton while he also finished third in the Great Northern at Ellerslie.

Hunterville trainer Ken Duncan said the horse will again be aimed at some of New Zealand’s major steeplechase races this winter, with the Wellington Steeples in July a likely target. But he is also mindful about how much weight the horse will get and said there is a chance he could also head to Australia if he gets weighted out of races here.

Duncan also said that, although Shamal won on a heavy track in last year’s Grand National, he is best suited by the dead track conditions that prevailed at Te Rapa today.

Asked what he had done with the horse in between his last win and today Duncan said Shamal is a big gross horse that needs plenty of work to keep him up to the mark.

“I was a bit worried about how well he had done so I worked him when I arrived here yesterday,” Duncan said.

Lammas has now ridden Shamal in four of his five steeplechase wins and said he was just thankful to be associated with such a gutsy horse, who he said was a great jumper.

“He pulled quite a bit going down the back straight but was also going well and when that other horse came up alongside him in the straight he kept kicking strongly.”

The Kevin Myers-trained Gagarin was game in defeat for jockey Mathew Gillies and also promises to be a top contender for major steeplechase races this winter.