Exciting four-year-old Levante made a stunning return to the racetrack as she produced her trademark whirlwind finish to take out the Listed Haunui Farm Counites Bowl (1100m) at Pukekohe.
Up against a red-hot field of top-class sprinters, the Ken and Bev Kelso-trained mare was having her first start since finishing a luckless second to Gold Bracelet in the Gr.2 Wellington Guineas (1400m) back in March.
A sparkling trial victory at Taupo over 850m had the daughter of Proisir primed for her return with punters installing her as the $3.80 Fixed Odds favourite ahead of the unbeaten Only In Jakarta and the Frank Ritchie-trained Dawn Patrol, who was bidding for his third win in succession.
After a lengthy delay at the start due to several fractious runners, Levante was clearly the last horse out of the barrier and settled a conservative twelve lengths from the leaders in the early rush for positions.
Rider Sam Collett didn’t panic as she bided her time at the rear on the breakneck speed before taking Levante to the extreme outside in the straight to make her run.
Levante hit top gear at the 200m as she swept past her rivals to win going away by a length and a half from fellow backmarker Summer Passage with last year’s winner Destinys Child shading Julius for third.
Ken Kelso had been confident of a good showing but as the day wore on and races were dominated by horses running on or near the pace, his confidence began to waver.
“Deep down I was hoping for a performance like that but you just never know when they are coming back off such a long break,” he said.
“Early on nothing was making ground from the back so I started to get a little worried that she might just have too big a task in front of her.
“We had told Sam that she wasn’t to give her a gut-buster, just let her find her feet and have one run at them in the straight.
“It was a Group One quality field, the best she had ever faced so I kept telling myself don’t be too silly with your expectations.
“In the end she has done the job very very well and has had the audacity to prick her ears at the finish.”
Kelso will now take some time to let the dust settle but believes his charge has the ability to step up to Group One level.
“She is a much stronger mare now but we will still be spacing her races,” he said.
“Missing the Hawkes Bay races in the spring was probably a blessing as it is hard for those three-year-olds to step out against the older horses as an early four-year-old.
“We will let her get over this one but the natural target is the Railway (Gr.1, 1200m) at Ellerslie on New Year’s day.
“We would probably go straight there as she was qualified before today, which is a relief, as we didn’t want to have to run her again in a fortnight to try and make the field.
“We can take her home and just potter around and get her ready for that day.”
Kelso isn’t keen to get ahead of himself but admits he does harbour some thoughts towards an autumn campaign in Australia but no decisions on that would be made until after her run in the Railway
Despite the high of the victory, Kelso admitted the team had a mixed day and was disappointed with class mare Supera who finished midfield in the Gr.2 Dunstan Feeds Auckland Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes (1400m) after getting well back in a slowly run race.
“We were disappointed with the run despite the fact they pretty much walked their way around,” he said.
“We might have to regroup with her as she is in foal and we were going to go to Te Rapa before tackling the Zabeel Classic (Gr.1, 2000m) at Ellerslie on Boxing Day.
“We may have to rethink that as she would have to improve on what we saw today.”
Levante’s victory also brought up a winning treble for Collett who had earlier won on Brix in the Listed Fasttrack Insurance 2YO stakes (1100m) and then on Our Alley Cat one race later.
Raced by a syndicate that includes Ancroft Stud’s Phillip Brown and his wife Catherine, who also share in the ownership of Brix, along with former Waikato Racing Club Chief Executive Tony Enting and his wife Mary, Levante is out of Doyoun mare Island Doy.
She is the younger half-sister to well performed racemares Doyenne and Miss Isle who were both placed at stakes level.
Video: Sam Collett guides Levante to a stunning victory at Pukekohe