Lance O’Sullivan has gone close to winning the Group 1 Vodafone New Zealand Derby (2400m) in his time training, five-times producing three-year-olds to finish in the top five. The Matamata trainer reels off a list of high-class performers to have run well recently for the stable in the Ellerslie showpiece, with 2010 runner-up Corporal Jones heading the list. But despite the quality of those that have gone before, O’Sullivan says none have had superior potential to his leading candidate for this year’s Derby, Dragon Leap.
The Pierro gelding created a big impression with a dazzling debut win at Te Rapa and he goes into Saturday’s Listed Trevor Eagle Memorial (1500m) as the TAB’s $3.60 favourite at just his second start. “What he did at Te Rapa didn’t surprise us,” said O’Sullivan, who trains in partnership with Andrew Scott. “He’s just a real professional. He’s a very laid-back horse. He does what he does in his work. He eats and he sleeps and nothing fazes him. “He’s bred to run a trip but before we start talking about a Derby, you have to realise he’s only just won a maiden race and we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. “But he is a big horse that looks like he’ll stay and he’s got a very good brain on him. He works well on his own or with a mate. He just does whatever you ask of him and adapts very quickly.”
Dragon Leap will start from barrier four on Saturday with rider Craig Grylls set to be told to ride him where he lands with a view to giving him a good experience around Ellerslie for the first time. “It’s a big step up but the reason we’re going there is we’ve got to get him used to Ellerslie,” O’Sullivan said. “If he’s going to run a Derby there, we’d like him to know the track. It’s never easy for an inexperienced horse going to Ellerslie because it can trip horses up.” O’Sullivan has no set plans for Dragon Leap after the Trevor Eagle Memorial, happy to assess his run before deciding on his next step towards the Derby based on how he performs.
TAB bookmakers have Dragon Leap as a joint $10 second favourite for the $1 million New Zealand Derby at Ellerslie on February 29 behind this month’s Group 1 2000 Guineas (1600m) runner-up Harlech at $6. Dragon Leap has already continued a winning sequence for Wexford Stables under O’Sullivan’s guidance and owners Hermitage Thoroughbreds following the likes of Group One winners Summer Passage and Willie Cazals, Spring Heat and Cha Siu Bao.
Cha Siu Bao and last-start maiden winner Highlighter will race on the undercard at Ellerslie on Saturday, while Spring Heat, a sizzling 1:08.95 1200m sprint winner at Ellerslie earlier this month, is preparing for the Group 1 Sistema Railway (1200m) at the track on New Year’s Day.