Outstanding weather. Family fun. A revamped programme. High quality jumping races. Worthy winners. The three days of racing at Oakbank in 2018 had it all.
Oakbank 2018 kicked off on Sunday 18 March when, for the first time, the $100,000 Von Doussa Steeplechase (3600m) was run outside of its traditional place in the Easter Racing Carnival. The first major chase of the Australian jumps season, the race attracted an outstanding field — the strongest in many years, according to seasoned observers — who had a combined total of 47 jumps wins between the ten starters.
The 2017 Von Doussa winner, ZED EM (Patrick Payne) was back to defend the title, alongside stablemate NO SONG NO SUPPER, the much-fancied DORMELLO MO (Simon Ryan) and a number of other well-performed jumpers, including last year’s Great Eastern Steeplechase winner SPYING ON YOU (Grant Young), the 2016 Von Doussa champion NISHIAZABU (Kevin and Heather Frew), Darren Weir’s NOW AND ZEN, a Classic Hurdle winner at Oakbank previously, and Eric Musgrove’s winner over both hurdles and fences, ZATAGLIO.
The race lived up to its billing, with the SA-trained front runner NISHIAZABU leading the competitive field for most of the first circuit of the Adelaide Hills track, although he was closely tracked much of the way by ZED EM and DORMELLO MO. However, Steven Pateman on ZED EM took the defending champion to the lead as they passed the judge for the first time as the field bunched up and the pace increased.
If any further proof were needed as to the quality of the field, the thrilling finish certainly bore that out. ZED EM led them over the last two fences, closely pressed by DORMELLO MO and NOW AND ZEN, with SPYING ON YOU closing fast on the outside rail as they came down the straight. In the end, ZED EM was able to hold on for a hard-ridden victory, with only about 10 lengths covering the first seven. This was back-to-back wins in the time-honoured classic for ZED EM, giving Steven Pateman his fourth victory in the race, and a third win for trainer Patrick Payne.
A word here on NISHIAZABU — one of South Australia’s leading chasers over the past five years, the 9-year-old gelding fell at the second last in the Von Doussa (only the second time he hadn’t completed the course in his 23 jumps starts). Although he was up on his feet and had suffered no serious injury (unfortunately, jockey Paul Hamblin fractured his wrist in the fall and had to miss the Easter Carnival), the owners of ‘Nishi’ and trainers Kevin and Heather Frew took the decision to retire him from racing with immediate effect.
Undoubtedly one of the state’s most-loved horses (his Facebook page was inundated with well-wishers after the announcement of his retirement), NISHIAZABU had a stellar steeplechase career, most notably in 2016 when he won the Von Doussa Steeplechase, the Thomas Foods International Steeplechase at Oakbank, and the South Australian Grand National Steeplechase at Morphettville. Nominated for Champion Jumper of the Year at the 2015/16 Australian Racehorse of the Year Awards, NISHIAZABU will head into a well-earned retirement at owner Mark Hall’s property at Cherry Gardens having earned $353,619 in prize money over a career that included 8 wins, as well as places in both the Great Eastern Steeplechase (2015 and 2016) and the Thackeray Steeplechase (2016 and 2017). He will be much missed.
The 18 March meeting also featured the racing.com Hurdle (3200m), where the field included a number of horses with jumps wins last season under their belts, such as locals I’M A BLUEBAGGER (John A. O’Connor), SEARAVEN (Barry Brook) and CABLE BAY (Shane Oxlade), as well as regular winner in South Australia over both hurdles and fences, Eric Musgrove’s ABOUT THE JOURNEY. Up-and-coming hurdlers EXALTED KANGA (Grant Young) and HIMALAYA DREAM (Travis Doudle) were also in the field, all of whom were up against the much-fancied RENEW (Darren Weir), winner over hurdles at the 2017 Oakbank Carnival.
In what was a highly competitive race throughout (six in a line all jumped the first together), there was a fair degree of pace in the opening lap, with HIMALAYA DREAM opening up an early lead after they completed the treble up the back straight, and the 8-year-old led RENEW by about five lengths as they came into the home straight for the first time, with the field spread out over twenty lengths or so.
HIMALAYA DREAM continued to extend his lead to about ten lengths as they rounded the turn out of the straight, but as they got to the treble up the back the rest began to reel him in, with ABOUT THE JOURNEY coming wide to take the lead four out from home. With Martin Kelly aboard, ABOUT THE JOURNEY finished extremely strongly, jumping the last two in the straight confidently, with I’M A BLUEBAGGER and CABLE BAY running on to take the minor placings.
From a racing perspective, the running of the Von Doussa at this meeting has to be considered a success when you take into account the quality of this field. Only one or two horses that would be considered among the top echelon of Australian chasers were missing and, as the first steeplechase of the season, the race more than lived up to expectations.
The Oakbank Easter Carnival kicked off this year with the Annual Great Eastern Steeplechase Calcutta being held at The Haus in Hahndorf on Good Friday. This was a great opportunity for jumps racing fans from all over to get together before the serious business began, and as usual Nick O’Connor did a splendid job as MC, talking with trainers and riders about their chances over the coming weekend. There was an excellent crowd of jumps racing enthusiasts in attendance — including a significant number who had travelled to SA from non-jumps racing states — and it formed the perfect prelude to the beginning of the Carnival. We are expecting that this Good Friday gathering will quickly become an institution!
Again, racegoers at Oakbank on Easter Saturday (31 March) were blessed with outstanding weather and the crowds began their traditional pilgrimage up the hill early in the day. The barbecues were fired up in the Members’ car park, the champagne and Pimms were flowing freely, and the thousands of kids in attendance were making sure they were warmed up for the famous Melba’s Easter Egg Races later in the day.
The Back Paddock at Oakbank, located on the expanse of grass behind the Members’ Grandstand, was even bigger and better this year, with entertainment, a multitude of new food and drink providers, and a general vibe reminiscent of that generated at Adelaide Oval during the Test Match. It provided an excellent backdrop to a fine day’s racing.
For the first time in more than a century, the Great Eastern Steeplechase was held on Saturday rather than its traditional spot on Easter Monday. Perhaps a little surprisingly, only three horses backed up from the Von Doussa thirteen days before — the Patrick Payne pair of ZED EM and NO SONG NO SUPPER, along with last year’s winner, SPYING ON YOU (Grant Young). They were joined by the 2017 runner-up, Tony Rosolini’s UNDERGROUNDFIGHTER and I’LL’AVA’ALF, trained by Patrick Ryan. Although the field contained quality, the number of runners was ultimately disappointing but not entirely unexpected, given that this was a 3-mile chase being run in March.
All the talk beforehand was whether ZED EM could go the distance and back up his win over 3600m with another here over the more demanding 4950m and 24 fences of the Great Eastern Steeplechase. In short, he did, and he did it well.
In a bold riding performance, Steven Patemen took ZED EM to the front more or less from the off, and he led over the first — a position the 7-year-old was never to surrender. Jumping confidently throughout, he stretched the field early on, although UNDERGROUNDFIGHTER was putting pressure on for the first two circuits. They began to bunch up a little closer on top of the hill the last time around and, with two fences to go, stablemate NO SONG NO SUPPER looked to have drawn level at the front. However, he was a little ragged over the penultimate fence and this gave ZED EM the breathing space he needed.
Despite NO SONG NO SUPPER running on gamely, ZED EM responded to Steven Pateman’s urging down the straight to give the champion jockey his fifth win in the race by about four lengths, and along with it a fourth Great Eastern for trainer Patrick Payne.
Saturday also saw the running of the $100,000 Classic Hurdle which produced something of an upset, with Eric Musgrove’s ABEBE putting in a very strong performance to give the legendary jumps trainer his second win at Oakbank for 2018 and ninth win in the race overall.
Patrick Payne’s ANGELOLOGY was the hot favourite for the Classic Hurdle, and Steven Pateman rode him steadily at the back throughout, allowing RENEW and GETTING LEGGIE to make the early running. After the first lap, the field was fairly tightly bunched, and there wasn’t much movement until ABEBE headed RENEW with five to jump. At about the same time, ANGELOLOGY began to make a move, but in an impressive staying performance, the favourite couldn’t chase down Martin Kelly and ABEBE, with the winner from thirteen days before, ABOUT THE JOURNEY finishing very strongly again to take third.
Easter Monday (2 April), despite the moving of the Great Eastern Steeplechase, still featured two jumping races, both of which were dominated by the Musgrove stable.
In the South Australian Jumps Racing BM120 Hurdle (3200m), Musgrove horses took out the trifecta, with MURPHY’S DELIGHT, ridden cannily by Lee Horner, taking the honours after SEARAVEN, ridden by Rob David, set a cracking early pace. TANGARA and BEYOND THANKFUL took the minor places, with SEARAVEN holding on to eventually take fourth for Oakbank trainer Barry Brook.
Five runners lined up in the 3250m Ecycle Solutions Steeplechase, with another Musgrove-trained winner coming in. ZATAGLIO, ridden by Darryl Horner Jr., which had run a creditable sixth behind ZED EM in the Von Doussa, had a comfortable win of about ten lengths over the favourite NOW AND ZEN, with only three horses completing the course after PENTOMATIC fell (both horse and rider Martin Kelly were uninjured) and ALDOUS was pulled up by trainer/rider Steven Pateman after being checked at the end of the first lap.
It may take a little while before a final assessment of the reconfigured Oakbank Easter Carnival can be made, but in terms of public attention and attendance, the Carnival this year certainly lived up to the Committee’s expectations. Easter falls some three weeks later in 2019 (Easter Saturday is 20 April), and so the additional preparation time will hopefully lead to a larger field in the Great Eastern Steeplechase, as will the fact that trainers and connections have had time to become more used to the Von Doussa being run before Easter.
It was also good to see a broader range of jumping horses having the chance to race at the Carnival on Easter Monday, and it’s expected that more trainers will take this opportunity to prepare horses for these races as well.
Thanks as always go to Australia’s loyal band of jumps racing connections and followers who continue to support Oakbank and enjoy everything the Adelaide Hills has to offer, as we now turn our attention to Warrnambool and the remainder of the 2018 jumping season.