Hillis hoping for Karaka Million fairytale

Imelda Mary winning the Group 2 Royal Stakes (2000m) at Ellerslie on New Year’s Day. Photo credit: Trish Dunell

A bargain buy at Karaka two years ago could turn into a massive payday at Ellerslie on Saturday for Matamata trainer Wayne Hillis.

The Waikato horseman purchased Karaka Million 3YO Classic (1600m) contender Imelda Mary for a mere $3,500 out of Haunui Farm’s 2017 New Zealand Bloodstock Festival Sale draft and said it was only by chance that he went to the sale.

“I didn’t actually intend to buy any (yearlings),” Hillis said. “A few mates were going up on the last day of the sale, so I thought I would go up for the ride.

“I just sat in the outside ring and watched them go around and when something came up that I thought I might be able to have a go at I would go and have a bid and I ended up with her.

“Everything was correct about her, she was a good size.”

Hillis always thought his filly would perform better with time and that has proved to be the case, with the three-year-old winning her two most recent races, including the Group 2 Royal Stakes (2000m) at Ellerslie on New Year’s Day.

“When I bought her and entered her for the Karaka Million I entered her more for the three- year-old race because they had put that up to $1 million,” he said.

Hillis finished ninth in the Karaka Million 2YO (1200m) last season with Imelda Mary and he believes the mile distance will be more to his filly’s liking this year.

“She wasn’t really a two-year-old, but I gave her a couple of runs as a two-year-old for education and then the race came up (Karaka Million 2YO) and all of a sudden we were going to get in, so we had a go at it (finishing ninth), but she will be more suited to the three-year-old one.”

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Hillis named Imelda Mary after his mother, who drew gate 16 for their charge at the barrier draw at Karaka on Wednesday, which Hillis isn’t too concerned about. “It should be a high pressure race, we didn’t get the best of draws, but she has got no early speed, so she is probably best out there anyway,” he said.

“If you are drawn in and have no early speed, you get chopped out. But she’s good and hopefully it is a high pressure race and that will help her come on from the back.”

Imelda Mary has already won at black-type level and Hillis is hoping the fairytale with his bargain buy can continue on Saturday.

“It would be unbelievable to win it, it would be like a dream, it would be fairytale stuff,” he said.

“But if she never wins another race, it has been brilliant what she has done, we are rapt with that, but she should go on with it I would say.

“Every one of them has form, she has had plenty of practice and some of them have had only two or three runs, so there might be a bit more pressure for them.”

All going to plan on Saturday, Imelda Mary will continue on a black-type path, with a tilt at the Group 2 Cambridge Stud Sir Tristram Fillies Classic (2200m) at Te Rapa on February 9 on the agenda.

“She’s going to the Sir Tristram Classic and then follow the fillies series through to the Oaks,” Hillis said.

Hillis will also line-up two other runners on Karaka Million night, with Bit Lippy contesting the Group 3 Mongolian Khan Trophy (1200m) and Livin’ On A Prayer lining up in the Group 2 Westbury Classic (1400m).

Bit Lippy heads into Saturday off the back of unplaced runs in the Group 1 Levin Classic (1600m) and Group 1 New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m) and Hillis believes he should appreciate the step back in distance.

“He’s run over the mile in the 2000 Guineas and the Levin Classic and his earlier races were over 1200m,” he said.

“He was always back and running on which made me think he wanted ground, but the mile just might be a bit too far for him, so we have dropped him back to 1200m.

“All his races as a two-year-old were at black-type, so he should be pretty competitive.”

Meanwhile, Hillis rates Livin’ On A Prayer as his best chance on the six race card and believes a step up in distance will favour his mare after finishing sixth-equal in the Group 1 Telegraph (1200m) at Trentham earlier this month.

“She ran a bottler down in the Telegraph. Cameron (Lammas, jockey) said at that level, in a Group 1, 1200m might be a bit short for her,” Hillis said.

“She has come through that run brilliantly, so we thought we would give her a go at this race, she ran fifth in it last year, which was her first go at black-type.”

Hillis is over the moon to have three runners competing on such a big race day and is hoping he can collect some of the rich spoils on offer.

“It’s brilliant, it’s starting to quieten down now, so we have only got 12 to 15 (in work),” he said. “To have three of them in the big day is pretty good.”