Riff Rocket claims VRC Derby in grandstand finish

Riff Rocket ridden by James McDonald wins the Penfolds Victoria Derby at Flemington Racecourse on November 04, 2023 in Flemington, Australia. (Photo by George Sal/Racing Photos)

James McDonald & Chris Waller have combined to secure the Group 1 VRC Derby (2500m) on Saturday at Flemington, with Riff Rocket (+115) getting the head down where it matters most.

It was a ding-dong battle with Apulia (+320) in the closing stages as the team Hayes colt gave favourite backers a real fright in the shadows of the post.

Sacred Eagle (+12500) set a genuine tempo to make it a proper staying test, leaving Sunsets to build the revs early in the straight.

Once the race went on, it was clear that the favoured pair were going to be left to fight out the finish, but in the end, it was the son of American Pharoah toughing out the victory.

2023 VRC Derby Replay – Riff Rocket | T: Chris Waller | J: James McDonald

Stable representative Charlie Duckworth was trackside on behalf of the Chris Waller barn and spoke about the victory post-race.

“The race unfolded beautifully in terms of where James (McDonald) positioned him,” said Waller.

“Everything looked like it was going to plan and on the turn it almost looked like he was coming off the bridle a little bit early.

“That gave us a little bit of a worry and I thought we had the horse on the inside covered but the eventual second-placegetter challenged us late and being so far away the horses lose their sense of it but coming into today no one is sure whether they’ll stay the 2500 (metres) and obviously second and third did it well.

“It was a serious moment of silence when they hit the line, we weren’t quite sure whether we’d got there and done the job or not, the Kapitis family, Woppitt Bloodstock, they’ve obviously really stepped into their own in terms of ownership and they’re just fantastic people to deal with and this will mean absolutely everything to them.”

James McDonald spoke post-race as well, joking about getting the photo-finish over the Hayes team once again, while crediting his dynamic three-year-old gelding.

“It was a real test of stamina,” said McDonald.

“I think the three best horses came away and it would’ve been a great spectacle to watch but I’ve been blessed with a couple of really close photos and this is another one that I thought I was done to a dinner on the line but, the poor Hayes boys will be hating on me.

“I was so happy with the first half of the race, it’s a real test for young horses, when I’ve seen a bit of movement up front, I was happy with the position and because of his electric turn of foot which he had a flat spot last time.

“I was cursing myself because he got there really quickly and was a sitting duck and I was lucky to get away with that one.”

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