‘Worn his heart on his sleeve’: Zaaki’s shot at history is stuff of owners’ dreams

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Just the sight of Zaaki, a four-time group 1 winning nine-year-old, at the racetrack can make even the most hard-nosed punters go weak at the knees.

Carl Holt, who made his fortune trading on London’s financial markets before making his home in Australia, almost goes to water when he talks about the gelding, which for three years has raced in his blue and red colours in Australia.

“He’s just a magnificent looking animal,” Holt, the horse’s Sydney-based managing owner, says.

“When he comes into the mounting yarn, he crests his neck, he gets on his toes, and he looks like a bloody rock star.”

Holt’s adoration for the horse is not alone. Zaaki’s ownership group – a large and diverse cohort featuring several major figures in racing including Victoria Racing Club chairman Neil Wilson, treasurer Glenn Carmody, Moonee Valley Racing Club committee member David Sinn and Racing Victoria board member Paul Guerra – are all besmitten too.

Popular racehorse Zaaki is featured alongside one of its owners Neil Wilson.Credit: The Age

But it’s what the English-bred champion has done on the track, with more than $10 million in prizemoney, which has earned him the love of so many punters over the past few years. And on Saturday, at Flemington, he’s looking for his piece of history.

The Annabel Neasham-trained Zaaki is after a third straight victory in the Champions Stakes, known for a generation as the Mackinnon Stakes, having taken out the 2000 m group 1 feature at Flemington in both 2021 and 2022. He will be ridden again by Jamie Kah, who steered him home in last year’s race.

The weight-for-age event which is now on the final day of the Flemington carnival has as rich a history as any race in Australia. Its honour roll is a who’s who of equine icons from Carbine, Phar Lap, Peter Pan, Comic Court, Let’s Elope, Lonhro to So You Think.

“He is a horse who over the years has really worn his heart on his sleeve, as strange as that can sound,” Holt says. “You know with Zaaki that he just jumps, goes to the front, gives his all and says ‘try catch me’.

“I think people love that in a racehorse because, you know, you’re not sitting there thinking ′is he going to get a run? Is he going to get blocked? Will the speed be on enough to make ground?

“He always tries his best. He’s always competitive … win or lose.”

Connections of Zaaki have endured a roller-coaster ride over the years since he left the legendary English trainer stables of Sir Michael Stoute and relocated to Australia under Neasham. None more so when as favourite for the 2021 Cox Plate he was scratch on the morning of the race with an elevated temperature. He was similarly a late withdrawal on vet’s advice from the group 1 King Charles III Stakes at Randwick last month.

Having finished sixth in the Cox Plate at a fortnight ago – 1.5 lengths off the winner Romantic Warrior – Neasham hopes Zaaki might be about to reach his peak are rising among connections. The trainer said on Friday she was confident he was “going as well as he can be”.

“It’s always hard to be confident in a group one,” she said. “I’m confident that he will run well and I certainly if he can win a third one in a row, I certainly won’t be surprised, put it that way.”

Wilson – who is hoping to cap a successful carnival with some personal success – said getting to know the majority of the 15 owners – of which he’d known only a handful before buying the horse – had brought him as much joy as Zaaki’s wins.

Picture perfect: Zaaki during Breakfast With The Best at Moonee Valley.Credit: Getty Images

Most are active in an owners WhatsApp group, which springs to life during one of Zaaki’s campaigns, with regular eyewitness accounts from morning track work, critiques of Neasham’s media appearances and sightings in the stables.

“Just every day it’s someone saying they saw a bit of track work or heard from Annabelle Neasham that, you know, he’s looking good. Or there’s a photo of him and comment like: ‘what about that picture? I think his ribs are showing, he’s almost down to a fourth rib’,” Wilson says.

He says being part of the ownership group had reminded him of the egalitarian experience racing ownership in Australia – where, no matter what walk of life you come from “you’re all equal and can enjoy the ride”.

“I have met people I never thought I would through this group, and it’s just been one of the great joys in my racing life. I probably knew two or three beforehand and now, of the 15 owners in the horse, I probably know 10 really well now. He really has brought me great joy.”

There is a nice symmetry too with Wilson’s horse having made the Mackinnon his own, having been named after Wilson’s former predecessors as VRC chairman. Lauchlan Mackinnon, who ran the club from 1916 until his death in 1935, is known to a generation of racing fans purely through his portrayal by Vincent Ball in the 1983 film Phar Lap, as an establishment elite who was out destroy the champion horse.

For obviously reasons Wilson has tried not to talk too much about Zaaki publicly, but, after his first Mackinnon win, he was chuffed when his name was drawn out of the hat to determine which of the owner got to keep the original trophy. It sits proudly in his office.

Holt thinks if Zaaki wins the race for a third time he will have well and truly earned his reputation as a great and deserves to have a race named after him. Wilson, tongue-in-cheek, says he can’t approve it but he’d fancy a statue at Flemington.

“I’ve had some relationships with good horses over 30 years but nothing ever like this. He just goes out every time and gives his best.”

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