Kiwis take Royal Ascot centre-stage following Nature Strip blitz

Media Release - Wednesday June 15

The Gr.1 King’s Stand Stakes (1000m) on the opening day of Royal Ascot was billed as a match-race between star Australian sprinter Nature Strip and American speedster Golden Pal.

But it turned into a one-act affair the minute the US raider fluffed his lines from the barrier, with Nature Strip cruising to a four-and-a-half length triumph to leave little doubt as to who is the world’s best sprinter.

Jockey James McDonald and trainer Chris Waller embrace after Nature Strip’s win in the Gr.1 King’s Stand Stakes (1000m) at Royal Ascot. Photo: Steven Cargill

Only the riderless Khaadem, who parted with jockey Jamie Spencer as the gates opened, proved any competition to Nature Strip, with Twilight Calls and Acklam Express filling the minor placings while the one-dimensional Golden Pal trailed the field home after running out of petrol with more than a furlong to run.  

Beaming with pride was trainer Chris Waller, who like Nature Strip’s rider James McDonald, hails from humble beginnings in New Zealand, with a Trans-Tasman syndicate of owners in the eight-year-old gelding on track to savour the moment and a triumph for the Southern Hemisphere.

Amongst the owners in the champion sprinter are former All Black Coach Sir Steve Hansen and fellow Kiwi owners and long-time friends Peter Kean and Paddy Harrison, who were on-course to cheer home their nine-time Group One winner whom they race with a group of Aussie mates headed by managing part-owner Rod Lyons.

It was a second Royal Ascot winner for McDonald, who partnered Expert Eye to victory in the 2018 Gr.3 Jersey Stakes (1400m), and a first for Waller, whose only previous Royal Ascot runner was Brazen Beau, who finished a narrow second in the 2015 Gr.1 Diamond Jubilee (1200m).

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"It means a lot,” Waller said. “We don't get the opportunity very often to come here and take on the English, Irish, French, Americans and even Dubai and Hong Kong runners.

“To therefore bring a horse here and not only run, but win, is very special. It was breath-taking - Nature Strip is a very good horse and has been for a very long time. I guess he is in the twilight of his career, but he has learned to be a racehorse.

“Nature Strip was tricky early on in his career, but he has got better with age and it is an honour to train a horse like him.”

While Nature Strip is an Australian horse, with their sprinters now amassing a seventh Royal Ascot Group One since Choisir blazed a trail back in 2003, Waller was quick to point out the Kiwi significance in the victory.

 "It’s six and a half Australian victories at Royal Ascot as James McDonald and I are New Zealanders of course. Six and a half to Australia and a half to New Zealand,” he said.

New Zealand-bred horses have previously won at the elite level at the Royal Meeting headed by So You Think, who won the Gr.1 Prince Of Wales’s Stakes (2000m) in 2012 and Little Bridge, who won the King’s Stand Stakes in the same year.

McDonald was over the moon with his first elite-level victory at the Royal meeting.

“That was incredible. The team have done a marvellous job. I'm so lucky to be on Nature Strip. He is just a freak of a horse and has silenced a few critics with that performance, because it was scintillating,” McDonald said.

“We had a bit of a scare when I thought one was coming for me and it had no rider on (Khaadem) - I thought that was a bit unfair.

“The way Nature Strip quickened up, the way he executed his gallop, was scintillating. It was an unbelievable feel coming up the rise; he was just idling along and, like I said, I didn’t think a horse could come with him, so when the horse appeared without the rider, I did get a bit of a fright.

“I saw Golden Pal charge through and at the two-furlong pole, I thought are you going to come, and he had no response. Away he went and that riderless horse gave me a little fright to be honest with you.

“I said to Katelyn [partner] on the plane over, ‘I’ve had an unbelievable year and this would be the icing on the cake’.

“It’s a dream come true to come here with such good horses, and for him to travel like he had, and Chris prepping him like he had, I don’t think he’s ever been better. He was in unbelievable form before he left.

Part-owner Hansen isn’t new to the big stage, having coached the All Blacks to World Cup victory in 2015, but said it is a different experience when you are an owner.

“In the Rugby World Cup you know what is happening because you have been doing the coaching,” he said.

“It is a great occasion and without being here you don’t really realise what it is like. It is an amazing situation.

“You build a bond with your horse as an owner, even if you are not with them every day. You want him to be able to represent both Australia and New Zealand as good as he can.”

Hansen, who has had a lifelong passion for racing, said being dressed in a top hat and tails at Royal Ascot was a long way from his introduction to the sport in his homeland.

“I grew up with racehorses, my father was an owner-trainer,” he said. “I wanted to be a jockey but outgrew that and didn’t have the time to be a trainer by the time I finished coaching, I was too old.

“You just love the sport, it is a great sport. We are lucky and privileged to have a great horse to represent both Australia and New Zealand, because owners come from both side (of the Tasman).”

While his connections are still coming down from the high of winning at Royal Ascot, Waller intimated his charge was unlikely to back-up in Saturday’s Gr.1 Diamond Jubilee, where the Foxton-native will saddle stablemate Home Affairs.

“Nature Strip still has jobs to do in Australia, but we'll see how he comes through this race and no decision [as to whether he runs in Saturday's Platinum Jubilee] will be made today,” Waller said. – NZ Racing Desk

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