Extraordinary Orchestral makes Derby history for James

Orchestral and Craig Grylls stride to a phenomenal victory in the Group 1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) at Ellerslie on Saturday. Photo: Kenton Wright (Race Images)

Roger James is now the most successful trainer in the history of the Group 1 New Zealand Derby (2400m), but even that enormous achievement was overshadowed at Ellerslie on Saturday by the new superstar of his Cambridge stable.

Orchestral became the sixth Derby winner for James, following on from Tidal Light (1986), Roysyn (1995), Zonda (1997), Hades (1999) and Silent Achiever (2012).

Saturday’s win took him one ahead of the great Colin Jillings, who had previously shared the record with five.

But for James, Saturday’s $1 million classic was all about Orchestral.

The super-talented Savabeel filly outclassed her 16 opponents by three and three-quarter lengths, having won the Karaka Millions 3YO (1600m) by three and a half lengths and the Group 2 Avondale Guineas (2100m) by four lengths in her two previous starts.

2024 New Zealand Derby Replay – Orchestral

“I’m relieved, elated, awestruck,” said James, who trains in partnership with Robert Wellwood.

“She just has an abundance of ability. She could be the next star, I think.”

The Derby has been a difficult race for fillies to win, and Orchestral joined Tidal Light, Popsy, Silent Achiever and Habibi as only the fifth to do so in the last 40 years. Three of them have been trained by James.

Orchestral’s breathtaking lead-up performances made her one of the hottest Derby favourites in recent memory at $1.30.

Despite a slow start and settling all the way back in fourth-last in a strung-out field, James was never worried.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of runners in this race, and I said to Robert when they went out that I don’t think I’ve ever had one parade better out the back,” he said.

“She just never missed a beat. She was cool, calm and collected.

“I wasn’t worried when she got so far back in the running. There was a lot of pace on, and I thought she’d outstay them. Pace makes the race. The best horse usually wins when there’s a good pace in the race.

“It was very, very special when she went to the lead the way she did in the straight.”

Orchestral was ridden by Craig Grylls, who had previously won the Derby aboard Crown Prosecutor (2019) and Rocket Spade (2021).

But his feeling as the filly moved through her gears coming up to the home turn was something unlike he had ever felt before in this famous race.

“I wasn’t planning to be as far back as we were, but she didn’t get away that cleanly,” he said.

“But there was plenty of speed on, which was good. At about the 1000m, I got on the three-wide train that was moving into the race.

“Passing the 600m, I just brought her out into the open and I could see them all coming off the bridle in front of me, and I just had a handful of horse. She’s some animal.

“It’s great for Roger and Robert and the owners, and a big thanks to them for keeping me on. She’s the best of those three Derby winners I’ve ridden, and I think she could be one of the best I’ve ever sat on.”

Wellwood took special satisfaction from Saturday’s win, joining his mentor James as a New Zealand Derby-winning trainer.

“It’s almost more of a relief,” he said.

“When you have a $1.30 favourite, there’s so much pressure. The team at home have done a massive job. To get a result like this just makes it all worth it, and it’s unbelievable.

“I was still eight years away from being born when Roger won his first Derby. He’s been doing this for a while now, and I’m so grateful to be in partnership with him. He’s taught me a lot.

“Results like this are very special, and especially for owners who trust us to buy them a horse and spend the money that we did. It makes it pretty easy to wake up in the morning.”

Orchestral became the 33rd individual Group 1 winner for champion Waikato Stud stallion Savabeel, and his first New Zealand Derby winner.

James is now setting his sights across the Tasman, where Orchestral could contest the Group 1 Vinery Stud Stakes (2000m) and Group 1 Australian Oaks (2400m).

James and Wellwood won last year’s Vinery with another high-class performer, Prowess.

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