After competing for the full six-kilometre distance of a gruelling Diprose Miller Great Northern Steeplechase (6200m), less than half a length separated eventual winner Te Kahu from gallant runner-up Zartan at Te Aroha on Sunday.
Raced at Te Aroha instead of its spiritual home over the famed Ellerslie hill due to COVID19 restrictions, the race lived up to its epic history as the first two home settled down to a ding dong battle over the final fence.
Pacemaker Zartan and rider Shaun Phelan had controlled proceedings from barrier rise and went for home with three fences to clear.
Te Kahu and Matthew Cropp along with No Tip and Shaun Fannin headed the chase and joined issue with Zartan entering the home straight.
No Tip was the first to drop away, with the Dan O’Leary-trained Te Kahu taking a narrow lead after jumping the final obstacle,
Zartan would not be denied and rallied again to push Te Kahu all the way to the line, however the eight-year-old Marton visitor had enough in hand to hold out the challenge by half a length to register the third and biggest win of his 14-start career.
O’Leary, who co-owns Te Kahu in partnership with his wife Jane, was struggling to take in what his charge had achieved at such an early stage in his jumping life.
“It’s a huge thrill and I’m just absolutely stoked,” he said.
“It’s a funny thing, but when he was first being schooled and taught to jump by Matthew, he came in one day and said to me he felt like a real Northern type of horse that would just stay all day.
“I told him he was mad as he hadn’t even had a start at that stage, but it just shows you that sometimes these things are meant to be.
“He has always been a little slow for the flat but just loves his jumping, with the bigger the fences the better.
“He had a couple of races at Ellerslie last season and really finished off well, so I thought with a year on him and getting over the Northern distance then he could be a chance, but you are never confident in a race like this.”
O’Leary will now spend the summer planning a schedule for Te Kahu which could include an Australian sojourn if he comes up well for a new campaign.
“We’ll get him home and let the dust settle before we do anything with him, but he is a young horse that still has it all ahead of him,” he said.
“There are several options here, although I have in the back of my mind that he could be the perfect type for a race like the Grand Annual Steeplechase (5500m) at Warrnambool.
“Who knows what the travel situation will be like then, but I’d like to give it a shot if we had the opportunity.”
One race earlier The Cossack cemented his reputation as one of the best hurdlers of modern times when he defended his title in the Paul Bibby Memorial Great Northern Hurdle (4200m).
The Paul Nelson and Corinna McDougal-trained eight-year-old has swept all before him this season, adding his second Great Northern title to victories in the Waikato Hurdle (3200m), Wellington Hurdle (3100m) and Grand National Hurdles (4200m).
Assigned clear topweight of 70.5kgs, the son of Mastercraftsman was settled in behind tearaway pacemaker Alfie Dee by rider Shaun Phelan, before making his move with 600m to run.
Second favourite Dr Hank (+250) charged to the front on the point of the home turn but was quickly gobbled up by The Cossack (+120) as Phelan sent him clear over the last two fences, winning with plenty in hand by four and half lengths from Dr Hank and the late closing Aigne, who took third.
Nelson was exceptionally proud of the star jumper as he reflected on the victory.
“He is a magnificent jumper and I guess that shows with the win today,” he said.
“We just weren’t sure if he could carry that sort of weight and on a track where they were pinging along a bit, but we had to give it a try.
“He’s probably more dominant on bad ground, however he jumped really well and Shaun rode him beautifully.
“I thought he was in a good spot and handy enough if he could manage the weight. Shaun let him come with the one run and that proved the winning of the race.”
The Cossack will now head to the spelling paddock with Nelson undecided on how he will tackle a programme for his charge next season.
“He’s off to the paddock now and he deserves a good break,” he said.
“What I do know is that he has a pretty hard case bunch of owners back home and they will be celebrating and making all sorts of weird and wonderful plans I would think.”
The victory was the fifth in the race for Nelson, who produced Chibuli to win in 2002, Just Not Cricket (2006, 2007) and now The Cossack (2020, 2021).
The Cossack has won ten races for Nelson and fellow owners John Frizzell, Peter Grieve and his son Doug and over NZD$319,000 in prizemoney.
There was a dramatic aftermath to the race with rider Emily Farr transported to hospital via Air Ambulance after a fall from Kaharau that saw her knocked unconscious while also suffering a punctured lung and a potential break under her left eye.
Two further jockeys also suffered significant injuries on the day with Craig Thornton breaking his arm when falling from Lacustre in the Great Northern Steeplechase, while Gary Walsh broke his left thigh after a fall from Jakki Sparrow in a maiden hurdle contest.