Bowing to the Duke

words by DANNY POWER



Trainers John Symons and Sheila Laxon, partners in both business and love, entered the Oaklands Junction sales complex to attend the 2008 Inglis Melbourne Premier Sale on March 2, on a mission to buy. Their aim was lot 47, an attractive chestnut filly by Flying Spur (b h 1992, Danehill (USA)-Rolls, by Mr. Prospector (USA)) from the former brilliant juvenile Northeast Sheila (ch m 1996, Keltrice-Jovan, by Nassipour (USA)).

As much as the name Northeast Sheila was a perfect fit, as Symons and Laxon train in partnership on a spacious and well appointed farm at Seymour in the middle of Victoria’s north-east thoroughbred breeding region, it was just an incredible coincidence that has made for good bar banter.

Their reasons for targeting the filly – and their bidding finger was itchy from the time the catalogue arrived in the mail – was in the shape of a tall, angular (then) three-year-old colt with an explosive turn of foot standing in a box on their well-appointed Seymour property. A time bomb waiting to go off, as the colt, by Royal Academy (b h 1987, Nijinsky (CAN)-Crimson Saint (USA), by Crimson Satan (USA)), was also from Northeast Sheila.

For some weeks they had wanted to release the chestnut colt into the racing world but the tactics of the yearling sale process meant that only those closest to the stable knew the enormous quality of the Royal Academy colt. We all know the line: “If I tell you, I am going to have to kill you”.

Symons and Laxon were desperate to get the filly, a racy sort with four white feet, and for as cheaply as possible. As was their right.

When the thud of the auctioneer’s hammer signalled the sale of lot 47 for $200,000, it was Symons who signed the ticket. Two days later, in front of a handful of spectators, Symons and Laxon “unveiled” Daintree Duke (ch c 2004, Royal Academy-Northeast Shiela) with an effortless trial win at Wangaratta, and on March 16, Daintree Duke just as easily won his first start at Benalla (1206m) by 2.8lens. The stable landed a plunge ($4.40 to $2.80), helping to pay for some of the filly.

“We knew for some time that Daintree Duke was very good, but we had our eye on his half-sister as soon as the catalogue came out, so we held him back for more than a month until after the sale,” Symons said. The horseman believes the price would have been a lot more than $200,000 had Daintree Duke appeared at the races prior to the sale, because at that stage Northeast Sheila, despite her brilliance on the racetrack which saw her win a Group 3 Blue Diamond Preview (1000m at Caulfield) and a Listed Maribyrnong Trial Stakes (900m at Flemington) at two for trainer Tony Noonan, hadn’t made her mark as a broodmare. Her best progeny was her daughter Jacqueline Rouge (ch m 2002 by Ne Coupez Pas) who had won three metropolitan races and finished fourth in the Group 3 Let’s Elope Stakes (1400m at Flemington).

The Daintree Duke explosion has made enough noise for most of Australia to take notice, even though his seven wins from eight starts have all been on the provincial tracks, the latest in sensational style in a 0-89 restricted class at Seymour (1300m) last Sunday when racecaller Terry Bailey did his version of the famous Bill Collins 1982 Cox Plate call “Kingston Town can’t win” when he said: “He’d (Daintree Duke) want to be really good from there.”

Daintree Duke, ridden by Nick Hall, was last, four wide most of the race, but fanned to 10 deep on the turn when Bailey declared his doubts. In the wink of an eye, Daintree Duke sped past his rivals to win easing down by three lengths. This horse is something special. It was a replica of each of his victories: back in the field, looking dubious, and dominating the finish.

And to quote many a cheap TV commercial –there is more to come. 

Laxon, who trained the great Ethereal (b m 1997, Rhythm (USA)-Romantee Conti (NZ), by Sir Tristram (IRE)) to win the 2001 Caulfield and Melbourne Cup double, has twice declared on TVN that Daintree Duke is the best horse she has ridden. She didn’t quite say that to me when I spoke to her and Symons before the Seymour win. “One of the best” she said. Laxon should know; she was married to champion New Zealand trainer Laurie Laxon, now in Singapore, in his halcyon days training from Cambridge when Sheila did a lot of the track work riding on horses such as 1988 Melbourne Cup winner Empire Rose (ch m 1982, Sir Tristram (IRE)-Summer Fleur (NZ), by Sovereign Edition (IRE)), the 1991 New Zealand Derby winner Cavallieri (ch g 1988, Gaius (IRE)-Beychevelle (NZ), by Uncle Remus (NZ)) and the 1993 Hong Kong International Cup winner Romanee Conti (b m 1988, Sir Tristram (IRE)-Richebourg (NZ), by Vice Regal (NZ)).

Symons paid $130,000 for Daintree Duke at the 2006 Magic Millions Premier Yearling Sale on the Gold Coast. “I fell in love with him at the sales. He was by my favourite stallion. He was a magnificent animal,” he said. Symons made his name as a trainer with the exceptionally talented Bel Esprit, the 2002 Group 1 Blue Diamond Stakes winner, and Royal Academy’s best son in Australia, and now Victoria’s leading stallion.

Daintree Duke, despite showing enormous talent, has been a work in progress. “He’s been immature. He is a big horse, 16.2hh, with a big frame, and it has taken him a while to grow into it. We have given him that time,” Symons said.

Symons has a talent for picking yearlings. It’s an ability Laxon doesn’t share, and she is happy to take a back seat to her partner. “Sheila is not used to buying at yearling sales. Most of the horses she and Laurie trained were passed on to them by breeders, so it is something that she hasn’t had to do,” Symons said. Symons paid only $9000 for Bel Esprit at the 2001 Inglis Classic Yearling Sale and later in the sale he bought Macedon Lady (b f 1999, Filante-Boo Ticket, by Cossack Warrior) for only $22,000. In 2002, Macedon Lady won the Group 1 Thousand Guineas (1600m) at Caulfield.

Symons and Laxon are desperate to raise Daintree Duke’s rating figure to get him into the Group 1 Emirates Stakes (1600m), at Flemington, on November 8, and to do that he will need to race again. The options are the Sale Cup (1600m) next Sunday, or the Group 3 AAMI International Travel Insurance Stakes (1400m) at Flemington on Derby Day. If they can’t get to the Emirates, Symons is philosophical. “In the autumn, there are some beautiful races for him around 1400m to 1600m at the Group 1 level. We have waited this long, a few more months won’t matter”



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