A winning treble at Te Rapa on Saturday that included victories in both of the feature jumping events on the card, brought up a special milestone for leading jumps jockey Shaun Phelan.
Phelan, who has been in the top echelon of New Zealand jumping riders for a number of years, had never before won either the Waikato Hurdle (3200m) or Waikato Steeplechase (3900m) but he did so on Saturday with superbly judged rides aboard the Harvey Wilson-trained Dr Hank and the Paul Nelson and Corrina McDougal-trained Argyll respectively.
In between times he guided star hurdler The Cossack to victory in his debut over the steeplechase fences to finish the day atop the National jumps jockey premiership with 13 wins, five clear of nearest rival Shaun Fannin.
A premiership victory is something that Phelan is keen to secure as he heads into the thick of the winter season.
“It was a great day on Saturday, very special and continues the wonderful season I have been having,” Phelan said.
“I’m pretty keen to win the jumps jockey premiership as I’ve never done it before and it would be a nice addition to my career resume if I can.
“It was also good to get a victory in both the Waikato Hurdle and Steeplechase as they are races I have never won before.
“I was talking with Graeme Lord after winning the chase and he said he thinks I have now won every major steeplechase and hurdle in New Zealand which is also a great feeling.”
Phelan had been confident he had a good book of rides on the day although he admits he felt the most pressure aboard The Cossack who was at the prohibitive odds of $1.30 to win at his first attempt over the bigger fences.
“Riding The Cossack was quite a surreal feeling as I don’t think I’ve been on a horse before that people had marked as the winner before the race had even started,” he said.
“My job was just to get him around safely, which is quite an ask at Te Rapa as it is a very tricky course if you haven’t jumped those steeplechase fences before.
“He really is a superstar as he just did it efficiently with no fuss and although he got it slightly wrong at the fence leaving the straight, he never really got out of second gear.
“It was a good move by Paul (Nelson) and his connections to try him over the bigger fences as I know they are considering taking him to Australia and that win will help with his rating for over there.
“He could be the best jumper I’ve ever ridden and that says a lot as I was also lucky enough to ride Tallyho Twinkletoe as well.
“They are quite similar in that they have got good speed on the flat, jump really well and can carry big weights.
“If The Cossack can go to Australia and win races there like Tallyho Twinkletoe did then he deserves to be rated as one of the best we have produced here in New Zealand.”
Phelan is also keen on the future prospects of both Dr Hank, who ran away with the Waikato Hurdle, and Argyll, who secured his second jumping victory with his win in the Waikato Steeplechase.
“I rode Dr Hank last season and he really went from strength to strength and ran second in the Great Northern Hurdle (4200m) at just his fifth jumping start,” he said.
“He has come back even better this year and even when we were 20 lengths off them midway through the race on Saturday, I was still really confident of the victory.
“He did the same thing last year when he beat English Gambler at Te Aroha as he dragged the field up to him that day and was too strong and it was just déjà vu on Saturday.
“Argyll has also improved so much in the last twelve months, which I understand is typical of the family he comes from, as they are all slow maturing types.
“The best part of his race is always the last bit and when we were right up there and in front, I knew he would be tough to run down.
“He really loves the deep conditions so I think he has a really good winter in front of him.”
While Phelan is at the top of the riding tree in the jumping game, he also realises that a general lack of jumping riders is a real issue for the sport he loves.
“I think if we are to have a real future for jumping here, we desperately need more riders,” he said.
“If trainers and owners are going to invest their time and resources into making a jumper then they need to know that there will be enough riders to ensure the fields are maximised wherever possible.
“It certainly hasn’t helped with COVID in the last couple of years as it has stopped the UK riders from coming out here to bolster our ranks.
“When we did have them coming you saw how successful it could be with Will Gordon being a great example as he is now going great guns in Australia after spending a few seasons here.
“If we can keep people coming into the game and the prizemoney continues to lift then I think we can ensure we keep jumping as a massive part of our winter racing scene for the years to come.”