I just got lucky, says owner of Spalato

11:49 AM 27 Jul 2014 NZST
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 Trish Dunell and Graham Mackie Spalato's win in the Singapore Derby
Jockey Manuel Nunes, trainer John O'Hara, Trish Dunell and Graham Mackie (L to R)
Singapore Turf Club Photo
Spalato's win in the Singapore Derby
Singapore Turf Club Photo

Two of the most well known identities in harness racing in Auckland in Graham Mackie and wife Trish Dunell have always dabbled in both codes. Trish , who is the HRNZ photographer at northern harness racing meetings and Graham have struck the jackpot with one of their homebred thoroughbreds. Read and enjoy.

Every owner dreams of getting a racehorse good enough to win a million dollars. Spalato has done it in just four starts for his South Auckland breeder Trish Dunell. 

"I'm no student of breeding. I just got lucky."

Trish Dunell's economical choice of words hardly does justice to the incredible sequence of events which led to Spalato winning the Group One Singapore Derby.

And while it is two weeks since the horse she bred and races with husband Graham Mackie annihilated his rivals in the S$1.15million feature, there's not a morning goes by when she doesn't wake up and think: Did that really happen? Isn't that kind of result reserved for the rich and famous?

When she watched a video replay of the race last week, for the umpteenth time, she burst into tears.

The excitement of the big win is now being replaced by raw emotion as everywhere she goes she is hugged and congratulated by wellwishers, both friends and strangers.

In her email box a message from NZ Bloodstock principal and leviathan owner Sir Peter Vela tells of the inspiration he gained from the feat.

Winning a major international Group One feature is nothing new to Sir Peter but it's certainly a novel feeling for Dunell, who has raced horses for nearly 40 years, 10-win trotter Silver Wheels her previous best.

The closest Dunell had come to a Group I win before was seeing other owners' joy through the lens of her Canon, as the country's leading equine photographer.

So in Singapore, when it came time to honour the horse they call "The Pony" Dunell was lost for words. "There are no words," Dunell managed to get out when interviewed immediately afterwards.

For when Dunell looks at Spalato she sees more than the flying machine who under Brazilian jockey Manoel Nunes put a big space on his derby rivals.

And she doesn't just think of the ridiculously big dollars - $NZ975,590 to be exact - that the horse has earned in only four starts.

She sees the little foal who popped out one October night in 2009 at Highview Stud near Hamilton.

And she can't help but recall the trials and tribulations that led to his even being there.

Always on the lookout for a bargain - a trait of her whole family, including son Cameron after whom Spalato was originally nicknamed - it seemed like such a good plan to buy Miss Forty Niner at Ashford Park Stud's dispersal sale at Otaki in 1996.

The broodmare had seen a few summers but, being by Mr Prospector, was a full sister to the former successful sire Straight Strike.

Bloodstock agent Peter Jenkins, instrumental in importing the mare from the States when Sir Arthur Williams' stud was at its prime, recommended Dunell buy her and her weanling filly Delph.

Dunell can't recall how much she paid - "but it wasn't a lot" - and as it turned out that seemed just as well as the mare, who already had a chequered breeding history, kept losing her foals when close to giving birth.

"I didn't get one foal out of her," Dunell said. "I tried three or four times - Glenmorgan Farm tried too with the same result. I even leased her out and they didn't get a foal either."

Any hopes Dunell had of recouping her outlay by racing Delph were dashed when the weak little weanling, by the unheralded Blue Razor, failed to furnish - and she was put to stud, dropping her first foal in October, 2000.

But it was Delph's second foal, Aftershock, that gave Dunell and Mackie hope that the family might yet deliver for them.

He debuted in winning style in February, 2006, and only seven starts later in November was running in open company, dead-heating for a close second in the Avondale Cup. Sadly, he started roaring and after being operated on, went in the wind again.

Knowing how good he could have been, Dunell went in search of his closest relation - Delph's third filly foal.

To cut expenses, she had done a foal-for-foal deal with Frank Drummond, sending the mare to his Cheval Stud to be served by Express Duke - "Graeme really liked Express Duke as a racehorse" - Drummond to take the first born and Dunell the second.

"When I called him and asked what had happened to the filly he said he was about to sell her as a polo pony. He'd done nothing with her and she was still running round the hills."

In the nick of time, Dunell bought the filly, named Ellington who, big and strong, proved a real handful when broken in by Toni Croon.

Ellington, however, didn't have much ability and even though she "tried like a tiger" the $150 she earned for fifth in her debut was the extent of her earnings. In four subsequent starts, three for beach trainer Sue Martin, she finished among the tailenders each time.

Ellington stopped so quickly in her last go at Avondale, Dunell suspected she may have been bleeding, and decided to quit her.

"If they show nothing at all on the track I find homes for them, as riding horses or polo ponies," Dunell said.

"I hate to get them put down or give them horrible homes."

But Ellington wasn't your typical kids' pony. "She didn't have the right temperament to be someone's favourite pony," said Dunell who got to know her funny little traits during the time she looked after her at their former Takanini property.

"She was quite unsociable - very hard to catch. I'm sure she would have been a hermit in the wild. She wasn't even sociable with other mares. She was happier standing with the cows.

"It would have been very hard to find a place for her. You couldn't say she was even pretty - she's very plain - she wouldn't have made it in the show ring.

"If I had been realistic, she wouldn't have made the cut as a broodmare."

Dunell says she puts her decision to breed from Ellington down to her tendency to be "a little potty over the Delph family.

"I kept on thinking there has to be another good horse out of this family. But I shouldn't have bred from her - nobody else would have."

Perhaps what kept Dunell going was that, while a little cranky, all the family were honest and tried hard.

That about summed up the ability of two of Delph's other foals, full sister and brother Divine Miss Em and Roverto, who gave Dunell a thrill when they quinellaed a $5000 maiden race at Waipa in August, 2011.

But whatever the reason, Dunell will forever be thankful that she did keep Ellington because Delph is now dead and Ellington's second foal turned out to be Spalato.

The hand of fate was on Dunell's side again when Spalato failed to sell as a yearling because he was on the small side.

And yet again when Spalato won his second trial and looked like being sold, the deal fell through.

So Spalato ended up in Singapore, where the prizemoney puts New Zealand racing to shame and owners get a NZ$840 rebate every time their horses start - unless they run first or last.

A small bone chip in his fetlock delayed his debut but since he finally stepped out in May - in a maiden race worth NZ$60,000 - he's never stopped winning and now, with an unbeaten streak of four, he's being talked about as one of the most exciting horses to have raced in Singapore.

Dunell's name might not appear as an owner in the racebook - she never bothered to sign the papers to avoid the NZ$530 annual fee - but Spalato is as much her baby as Mackie's who with 15 wins is Singapore's leading owner this season, S$280,000 ahead of Laurie Laxon's Oscar Racing Stable.

Since Spalato's boom run, Dunell says she's been told by breeding buffs how her choice to go to the stallion Elusive City was truly inspired.

"But it was just luck. All I do is try to make sure they're not too closely bred and I have to like the stallions on type. And that's it. I'm no student of breeding."

Dunell said she invariably chose a new stallion, because they were cheaper, and just hoped that the sire would become commercial and not flop.

That's why you won't find any big name sires in the list of consorts for Ellington who has been to Royal Gem, Strategic Image and Per Incanto.

Ellington is now at Lime Country in the Hawkes Bay, due to foal to Niagara, an Encosta De Lago stallion Dunell and Mackie have a major share in.

Lime Country's Greg Griffin is busy breaking in Ellington's latest yearling, who only last week he described as a real "toad" - just like the rest of the family.

Ellington's third foal, by Strategic Image, has just joined Spalato in Singapore after three trial placings but Dunell knows the chances of him ending up as good are a million to one.

But then Dunell already has her million dollar horse. And the memories she has of that Group One day at Kranji will linger.

While trainer John O'Hara, who wept openly as Spalato ran to the line, couldn't feast with them that night because of Ramadan, nearly everyone else did.

Staff at the Regent Hotel were kept busy extending tables, then spilling them into another room, as people turned up to help celebrate the big win.

And outside, like a beacon to all, sat the motorbike which Spalato's groom Sylvester Gho has had specially repainted with his idol's name and registered racing number 250.

You get the feeling Spalato mania has only just begun.

Courtesy of Barry Lichter and the Sunday Star Times

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