Australia: Zaaki Seeking Group 1 Goodness

One of the strongest fields to ever contest the Group 1 Doomben Cup is headed by a pair of English expats – equine and human – who are rapidly rising to prominence Down Under. Six-year-old Zaaki (9-5) sits on the cusp of a first G1 success this Friday night, two months after his 30-year-old trainer, Annabel Neasham, achieved the feat.

Despite having no experience of horse racing growing up, Annabel Neasham had horse history in England through show jumping, point-to-point, and eventing. She came to Australia on a working vacation with legendary Sydney trainer Gai Waterhouse, expecting to stay no more than a year. However, Neasham was subsequently hired as assistant trainer to the formidable partnership of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace. Amid her four-year stint with Maher and Eustace, she took time out to compete in the Mongol Derby, a 625-mile endurance race on horseback across the Mongolian steppe. Through monsoon rain, fog and heat, while subsisting for six days on cereal bars and purified water, Neasham won.

In the middle of 2020, ready for another challenge, Neasham branched out on her own. She won with her first runner and, with the support of prominent owner Aquis Farm, acquired several horses from champion trainer Chris Waller. In her first year of training, Mo’unga gave Neasham a G1 victory in the Rosehill Guineas during Sydney’s recent “Autumn Racing Carnival.” Now, she is playing a major role in Queensland’s “Winter Carnival” with her latest star performer, Zaaki.

The gelded son of the late Leroidesanimaux achieved modest success in England, but has thrived in Australia under Neasham’s tutelage. After a pair of promising performances in Sydney, Zaaki demolished a quality field in the G2 Hollindale Stakes at the Gold Coast. Among the Hollindale vanquished who are trying again in the Doomben Cup is Melody Belle (16-1), who will shoot for an incredible 15th G1 victory in her career swan song. However, Zaaki’s stiffest opposition is expected from Sir Dragonet and Mugatoo (each at 4-1), who finished first and fourth respectively in last October’s Cox Plate. Most recently, they were just behind the placegetters in last month’s memorable Queen Elizabeth Stakes showdown between Addeyb and Verry Elleegant.

Curiously, only three favorites have won the Doomben Cup in the past two decades. Should Zaaki buck that trend, both he and his trainer will embody the Arabic meaning of his name: one who increases in growth and goodness.

Friday night’s nine-race Doomben card includes several supporting stakes named for famous Queenslanders. The fourth and fifth races honor trailblazing jockeys Darby McCarthy and Pam O’Neill. McCarthy, who died last year at 76, was an Indigenous Australian who rose from the humblest of beginnings in Outback Queensland to become one of the nation’s top riders of the 1960s. He won more than 1,000 races in Australia, England, and France.

O’Neill campaigned for more than a decade before being granted a license – in 1979, at the age of 34 – as Australia’s first female jockey. Her career tally of more than 400 winners includes several during a month-long stint in Japan. Australia now boasts a world-high ratio of female-to-male jockeys. Jamie Kah is the star of Melbourne’s riding colony, while Rachel King is third in the Sydney standings.

Race 6 is named for the ultimate “horse for a course.” Chief de Beers recorded minor placings at multiple tracks during his 51-start career in the 1990s – but every one of his 20 victories came at Doomben. Upon retirement, he served for a decade on the Queensland Police Force, receiving a prestigious Blue Cross Medal for his service to the force and community. Chief de Beers died last year at Living Legends Farm, aged 28.

The Doomben card will be broadcast live on TVG this Friday night (first post: 9:34 p.m. ET / 6:34 p.m. PT) alongside cards from Rosehill, Newcastle and Gold Coast. All races will be live-streamed in HD on the new Sky Racing World Appskyracingworld.com and major ADW platforms such as TVG, TwinSpiresXpressbet, NYRABets, WatchandWagerHPIbet, and AmWager. Wagering is also available via these ADW platforms. Fans can get free access to livestreaming, past performances and expert picks on all races at skyracingworld.com.

A native of Brisbane, Australia, Michael Wrona has called races in six countries. Wrona’s vast U.S. experience includes race calling at Los Alamitos, Hollywood Park, Arlington and Santa Anita, calling the 2000 Preakness on a national radio network and the 2016 Breeders’ Cup on the international simulcast network. Wrona also performed a race call voiceover for a Seinfeld episode called The Subway.

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