There were handshakes and salutes all around after the running of the feature event at Ellerslie on Monday, the McGregor Grant Steeplechase (4150m).
Underrated jumps jockey Hamish McNeill guided outsider Eion to a memorable victory in the race first run in 1901 as the Winter Steeplechase before being renamed in 1957 in honour of former Auckland Racing Club president, Dr Alexander McGregor Grant.
The Ken Duncan-trained Eion was having his second race start since September 2019, with his first run back from the injury-enforced break just last Thursday over 2100m at Awapuni.
That didn’t seem to matter as Eion travelled nicely behind a steady pace set up by Zartan before moving into contention for McNeill climbing the famous Ellerslie hill for the second time.
McNeill shot his mount through along the inner approaching the last fence and took control of the finish, holding out the challenge of topweight It’s A Wonder to score by just on three lengths with Zartan clinging gamely to third.
For McNeill, the win completed a dream day that was only soured slightly by a $200 fine for his extended victory salute aboard Eion.
“That was just an amazing day as I’ve been in a bit of a slump lately and finding it hard to get rides, so to win both feature races is a dream come true,” McNeill said.
“I guess the only bad thing was the $200 fine, but I can’t complain too much about that.
“I’m really hoping people will take notice of today and I can pick up a few more rides now.”
McNeill was quick to pay tribute to Duncan for the way he turned Eion out and for having him fit enough to complete a gruelling 4150m journey.
“This horse has been off the scene for nearly two years, so Ken has just done an amazing job with him,” he said.
“He was actually going to run in the Waikato Steeplechase, but Ken rang me about four days before the race and said his knee was a little swollen, so he would scratch and save him for the race today.
“Ken told me that all he wanted was for me not to lose touch with It’s A Wonder and not to let him get too far in front.
“He thought the hill at Ellerslie would be ideal for the horse and he would be strong at the finish and he was.
“Coming over the last fence all I was thinking was don’t hit him too much as I didn’t want to get fined for excessive use of the whip.
“When I was coming back to the birdcage, I had a couple of mates up in the grandstand, so I was saluting them as well, but you don’t get fined for that!”
The victory provided McNeill with the second leg of his double after earlier in the day guiding well-travelled galloper Arite Guru to success in the feature hurdle event, the KS Browne Hurdle (3350m).
McNeill had the Shaun and Emma Clotworthy-trained runner in touch with the pace throughout before striding to the front with 1000m left to run.
Applying the pressure on the home corner, McNeill guided Arite Guru comfortably over the final two fences to win convincingly by nine lengths from a brave El Luchador, who shaded Magic Cannon for second.
“That was a great thrill for us all and especially for Johnny Williams who bred and co-owns him, as he just loves his racing and this horse in particular,” Shaun Clotworthy said.
“I think this year he (Arite Guru) has really put his mind to the jumping game as he has shown plenty of promise in the past without winning too many.
“Hamish schooled him at Pukekohe on Friday and said he jumped beautifully, so it gave us plenty of confidence heading into the race today.
“I would guess the Great Northern Hurdles (4190m) in September will be his main goal now, but he will also have a go at some of the other hurdle features along the way.”
Raced by Williams and Peter Reekers, Arite Guru has now won two of his 14 jumping starts along with a further three races on the flat for the pair.