Topweight and race favourite Shamal added a second prestige steeplechase victory to his career record when he prevailed in a nail-biting finish to the Signature Homes Waikato Steeplechase (3900m) at Te Rapa.
The 2018 Grand National Steeplechase winner had cemented his favouritism for Saturday’s contest when successful in the Ken and Roger Browne Memorial Steeplechase (3900m), the traditional lead-up event at Te Rapa, a fortnight ago on a similar track conditions to the Dead5 rating for today’s meeting.
Regular pilot Buddy Lammas had the eight-year-old Zabeel gelding lobbing along quietly in a rearward position throughout before looming into contention with 1000m to travel. Unlike a fortnight ago where Shamal forged clear to win untested, this time the Kevin Myers-trained Gagarin went with the favourite and the pair set down to a titanic struggle in the home straight.
Locked together over the last fence Shamal dredged up every last ounce of strength to put his head in front where it mattered to defeat a game Gagarin with Zardetto finishing off nicely for third.
Trainer Ken Duncan cut a relieved figure after the race.
“It was a mighty finish and a great race,” trainer Ken Duncan said.
“I think he does prefer the dead tracks (like today) to the heavy ones although it was a tough old battle.
“He’s a very big horse who can get gross quite quickly, so I was a little bit concerned with his weight before we left home, so I worked him yesterday when we got here (Te Rapa).
Duncan has a second major steeplechase set as the next target for his charge, who has now won five of his 12 starts over the steeplechase fences and seven career victories in total.
“Wellington (Steeplechase) will be the natural place for him next,” he said.
“He will go up in the points and weight which will be the problem.
“If he gets too much though then Australia calls.”
Lammas admitted he was getting worried when Gagarin was kicking back as the pair approached the winning post.
“Today he pulled quite a bit in the mid stages, so I was a bit worried when Gagarin came back at me, but he kicked and kept coming,” he said.
“He prefers the better tracks as when I won on him at Wellington it was heavy and he struggled up the straight but today he was just cruising.
“I’m lucky to get a good ride like him as we have bonded and just keep on winning.”