Call it fate if you are so inclined but it was just meant to be. The day, St David’s Day Sunday March 1 in the year 2020. The Patron Saint of Wales had aligned the universe in readiness for what was about to happen.
The location was Armidale in the New England Tablelands of New South Wales. The occasion, a race meeting held on the racecourse in the town. ITASCA, the six-year-old gelding bred by Wal Lanham. Owners, the effervescent Wal and his lovely wife Anne, who is of Welsh descent, added to the theme of the day. There is one more note of mention, the colours worn by their horse are red, green and white, the national colours of Wales. They are Anne’s family’s silks, originally owned by her grandfather, designed by her father and have been carried by Group Race performers.
The racetrack at Armidale had suffered during the drought, over the past five months meetings scheduled to be held there were transferred to other venues. In spite of that hardship, the track looked in perfect order and was rated a Slow 6 with a fine day forecast and ITASCA accepted to run in race five on the card, the Regional Australia Bank Class 3 Showcase Handicap (1300m).
ITASCA, who has a penchant for female jockeys, (“the girls” have ridden the horse three out of his four wins to date) had gained the services of successful Newcastle-based apprentice Mikayla Weir. The barrier drawn was reasonable, barrier 8 out of the 12 starters and ITASCA would have to carry 55.5kgs for the 1300 metres journey.
After being off the scene for nearly six months ITASCA had been in work for some time and readied for the race with a good hit-out at the Muswellbrook trials twelve days earlier.
The 1300 metres start located in the longest straight run of the 1600 metres track, giving runners an opportunity to get into their desired position prior to turning into the short back straight of 200 metres. The horses are then on a continuous bend into the short home straight of around 300 metres. So, it’s ideal to keep close to the fence to avoid getting caught wide.
As per instructions, Mikayla allowed ITASCA to “flop” out of the barriers with the intention of letting her mount settle unfussed toward the rear of the field. By the time they’d gone 100 metres the jockey had her horse going along easy in about ninth position some 8 lengths from the leaders.
Now into a nice rhythm, the rider continued to hold her spot just biding her time aboard ITASCA. Passing the 1000 metres mark positions had hardly changed the only noticeable change was The Pharaoh making a quick move forward to take up the role as frontrunner. ITASCA as this stage was now a “tad “more than 11 lengths from that horse, still travelling kindly.
With the 800 metres pole behind them, Mikayla decided it was time to get a bit of a “wriggle on” and upped her rating marginally with the view of gaining ground on the main bunch of horses. At the 600 mark, the move saw ITASCA now 7 lengths off the pacemaker and coming into the race nicely.
Just prior to entering the straight run for home the jockey had ITASCA taking the shortest way home by hugging the rails while others runners were fanning wide. Into the straight and just balanced up Mikayla sensed the two runners in front of her namely The Pharaoh and Denman Unlimited were tiring and had to react quickly and extricate her horse away from the fence to a position three wide in order to have an uninterrupted run to the finish line.
In the meantime the second favourite, Kris Lees-trained Dundee Lee ($3.20) had hit the lead and was full of running, ITASCA would be in for the chase about 3/4 of a length back. Mikayla applied a couple of slaps of the whip, her mount responded.
The tussle was on, it wasn’t until 25 metres out that ITASCA had his head in front, the winning post was in their sights. On the line a clear but narrow margin to ITASCA by 0.1 length ahead of Dundee Lee with Pomme La Belle running on into third placing after taking the widest route around the home bend.
Heartiest Congratulations to the owners, Wal and Anne and the Wingnut Sports Syndicates, who lease a small percentage of ITASCA. What a grand return to racing for your horse. A lovely ride by Mikayla …Well Done and an excellent training performance by Scott and his team.
Of course one mustn’t forget we must pay homage to St. David for aligning all aspects of ITASCA’s victory. Go the Red, Green and White. Looking forward to those colours saluting again soon.