Bee Tee Junior takes Australian Grand National Steeplechase

Former Kiwi-galloper Bee Tee Junior (NZ) (Nom Du Jeu) took full advantage of a six-kilogram weight advantage over race favourite Ablaze (NZ) (Raise The Flag) as he galloped clear in the concluding stages to capture the A$350,000 Australian Grand National Steeplechase (4500m) at Ballarat on Sunday.

The Nom Du Jeu nine-year-old, who was having his first start over the bigger fences for trainer Rachael Cunningham, had been expected to figure prominently in the event and was sent out second favourite behind topweight Ablaze on the testing Heavy 10 surface.

Rider Lee Horner, who had earlier captured the JJ Houlahan Hurdle (3200m) aboard Instigator (Nayef), had Bee Tee Junior stalking Ablaze throughout as they settled in behind tearaway pacemaker Lucques (High Chaparral) before issuing a challenge with 800m to run.

Horner put his pull in the weights to good effect as he sent Bee Tee Junior clear and despite a scare at the last fence he held on for a thrilling victory over Ablaze who chased him hard all the way down the home straight. It was an all Kiwi-bred trifecta in the race with Michelin (NZ) (Pentire) closing off gamely for third.

The victory by Bee Tee Junior handed Ablaze his first ever defeat over the jumps and provided trainer Rachael Cunningham with the biggest victory of her career to date.

“To be honest, I’ll have to sit down and watch it again. I didn’t watch for a little bit,” Cunningham said.

“Amy (McDonald) and Lee (Horner) are some of our best friends so we had so much confidence in the way that Lee was riding today and that he’d make the right choices.

“Being his (the horse) first steeplechase start and we threw him straight in the National, there were a lot of naysayers out there who said that we were being ambitious but we thought he was good enough and this is the day we’ve been proved right.”

Jockey Lee Horner celebrates as Bee Tee Junior takes out the Australian Grand National Steeplechase (4500m) at Ballarat Photo: Ross Holburt – Racing PhotosPart-owner and former trainer Shaune Ritchie watched the race from his Cambridge home and admitted his heart was in his mouth coming to the last fence.

“That was just enormous, I’ve never got such a kick out of winning a hurdle race,” Ritchie said.

“I had Aaron Kuru (jockey) with me watching the race as he educated the horse, so we were cheering away at the television throughout the closing stages,

“It was my training partner, Colm Murray, who told me he would make a good jumper so we gave him a crack over the fences here and he won second up after losing his rider the first time around.

“I fully admit I have no idea what I’m doing with a jumper so to see him win like that is just amazing.

“I guess the only downside was that we couldn’t be there in person, but by the look of how cold the weather was, it may have been the best place tucked up nice and warm at home.”

Ritchie prepared Bee Tee Junior to win eight times on the flat in New Zealand but felt he had met his mark here so after discussions with majority owner John Heale, they decided to try and do a deal with an Australian jumping trainer to take over the horse for the lucrative Australian jumping circuit.

“We originally tried to sell him as a jumper but we couldn’t get any offers for him so we decided to try a different tack,” Ritchie said.

“John and I tried to do a deal with several of the Australian trainers whereby we would go 50:50 on any prizemoney won but they would carry any training costs.

“We couldn’t get any interest until Rachael and Peter Cunningham came along so good on them as it has helped put their names in lights and taken them to a new level.”

Ritchie isn’t sure what the future plans are for the horse but knows well enough to leave those decisions to his trainer.

“I’m pretty sure that is the last major jumping race for the season so he will probably go out for a spell and come back next year,” he said.

“I know damn well as a trainer not to interfere so I certainly won’t be giving any advice to Rachael as I’m happy just to be going along for the ride.”

Bee Tee Junior has now won eleven races from 53 starts and A$430,923 in prizemoney

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