Cambridge trainer Stephen Marsh completed a notable family milestone when he produced Mercurial to win last Saturday’s Group 1 $450,000 JR & N Berkett Telegraph Sprint at Trentham.
The time-honoured 1200m feature is one of the most prestigious sprint races in the country and Marsh was delighted with his first ever training success in the race.
But what made it even more significant was that it is a race that his father Bruce won as a jockey exactly 50 years ago, when successful on champion mare Show Gate.
And last Saturday’s success was made even more special in that Bruce’s wife and Stephen’s mother, Kay, is suffering from ill-health so the win provided her with a much needed fillip in what has been trying times for the family.
Mercurial arrived at Trentham last Saturday as a last-start Group 1 placegetter, having finished third behind Waitak and Bonny Lass in the $450,000 Sistema Railway (1200m) at Pukekohe on New Year’s Day. But the five-year-old flew under the radar as an $18 outsider.
Jockey Sam Spratt showed her customary front-running prowess aboard Mercurial, recovering from an awkward start to charge forward and take up a position on the outside of the leader Express Yourself.
The pace came right out of the race in the middle stages, resulting in significant interference to several runners in the chasing pack and causing Lincoln’s Kruz to clip heels and dislodge jockey Jonathan Riddell.
Mercurial managed to stay out of trouble and was full of running as he threw down the gauntlet to Express Yourself at the top of the home straight. The latter rose to the challenge and the pair went to war over the last 300m.
Race-favourite Bonny Lass recovered from a rocky run to start to mount a late challenge, but it remained a two-horse battle to the line and Mercurial managed to stick his neck out on the line to snatch a nose decision. Bonny Lass was only a neck back in third.
“This is a massive thrill,” Marsh said.
“If you’d asked me even six months ago whether this horse could win a Telegraph or a Railway, I wouldn’t have said he could.
“But he’s just so tough. A couple of people even said to me that he’s so laid-back and such a good doer, it almost looks like he needs another run. He’ll go home tonight, he’ll eat up and he’ll probably end up going around again on Karak Millions night.
“He’s just one of those horses that works, eats, sleeps and performs. Every one of his runs this time in has been unbelievable.
“We got a beautiful run outside the leader. They were clipping heels and in all sorts of trouble behind us, but Sam put him into a good spot, and he did the rest.
“I actually thought we’d run second, but he got it right on the line.”
It was Sam Spratt’s third triumph in the Telegraph following a double success on her favourite horse of all time, Mufhasa, in 2009 and 2011.
Mercurial was a Rating 75 winner at the same Wellington meeting last year and his first start in open company was a couple of months later. In his 11 starts since then, he has recorded two wins and six placings and established himself among the country’s top-flight sprinters.
The Telegraph triumph was the horse’s sixth win in a 27-start career ad he has now earned more than $514,000 in stakes for an ownership group that also bred the Burgundy five-year-old out of the Tavistock mare Roxette.
“It’s a great team of owners. They all came to the Railway at Pukekohe and they’re all here again today, so it’s a real thrill for them,” Marsh said.
“I actually only got this horse because another trainer didn’t answer his phone, so I was only their second choice. But we’ve got them in the team and I think we’ll have them for life now.
“They don’t give Group 1 races away, and there’s just nothing that beats it. It’s a great buzz.”
Stephen’s father Bruce and mother Kay were both thrilled and very proud after last Saturday’s feature win, which took Stephen’s career tally of wins to 1050, 77 of those in black type races.
Bruce Marsh was one of the country’s top jockeys during the 1960s and early 1970s, riding the winners of most of the top races in New Zealand as well as winning the 1971 Melbourne Cup on Silver Knight.
He recalled this week how he got to ride Show Gate to win the 1974 running of the Telegraph Sprint at Trentham.
“I had just about given up riding at that stage. It was just getting too tough wasting all the time and I’d actually put my riding gear in the garage thinking I wouldn’t need it again.
“I was at home having dinner when the phone rang and it was this trainer from the South Island asking me whether I had a ride in the Telegraph,” Marsh said.
“I said I didn’t, and he said would you like to ride Show Gate.
“I said yes but when he told me what weight she had I almost died. I had to lose about half a stone in a matter of days and so that was the end of eating anymore dinner that night.
If starving himself to lose the weight was not bad enough Marsh was in for an even bigger shock when he first laid eyes on Show Gate as she entered the mounting yard.
“Every other horse in the race looked immaculate and she looked shocking. She looked like she still had a bit of a dull winter coat. I don’t think she’d had a rug on in her life.”
“But once I got on her and we did were doing the preliminary I thought, gee this horse feels pretty good.”
Show Gate didn’t begin well from the 1200m start and was back at the rear on settling. Marsh let her find her feet before angling her to the outside and letting her unleash a devastating sprint in the straight to get up and beat Sharif.
That was Bruce Marsh’s second Telegraph Handicap win as he was also successful aboard Count Kereru in 1972.
His win on Show Gate was to be his last Group 1 success as a jockey but he also went on to win the Group 2 Awapuni Gold Cup on the champion mare two months later.
Bruce Marsh then embarked on a highly successful training career, basing himself first in Woodville and then Palmerston North before spending 14 years training in Singapore. He retired from training in late 2019 and he and Kay returned to New Zealand to live in Cambridge.
Bruce had taken Stephen into a training partnership in 2002 and the latter went out on his own when Bruce left for Singapore in 2005.
Stephen started out with a small team of just over 20 horses but quickly built on that number and, within three years, he had moved north from Woodville to Cambridge. He now has more than 140 horses on the books, most of them trained from his Cambridge stable with others based at his satellite stable in Christchurch.
“Back in the Woodville days 40 horses was a big team, but Stephen has the systems in place to easily manage double that number and more,” Bruce Marsh said.
“We’re very proud of what he is achieving, and it is very enjoyable living nearby and having an interest in a horse or two in the stable.”
One of those horses is Spring Queen, who is raced by Stephen in partnership with his father, his sister Rachael and his racing manager Dylan Johnson.
The three-year-old Preferment capped a successful week for the family when she won a 1600m maiden race at Te Rapa on Wednesday at odds of 36 to one.
Ellerslie track gets the thumbs up
As if winning the Group 1 Telegraph wasn’t enough for trainer Stephen Marsh and jockey Sam Spratt they then created history on Sunday when they combined to win the first ever race run on the Strathayr track at Ellerslie.
Ellerslie has undergone a major reconstruction to install the new Strathayr surface over the past 22 months, and the inaugural meeting commenced with a competitive three-year-old race over 1200m.
Marsh and Spratt were fresh from their thrilling win in the Telegraph at Trentham 24 hours before while Merchant Queen was looking to maintain an unbeaten record after winning at Waverley and Rotorua in her previous two starts.
Spratt hustled the daughter of Merchant Navy out quickly from barrier five and sat outside the leader Bevanda to the home turn.
Once in the straight Spratt gave the filly a couple of flicks with the whip and she raced away to score an emphatic 1-1/2 length win.
Spratt expressed high-praise for the new Ellerslie track, which had undergone a series of gallops, jumpouts and official trials before the green light was given for January 14.
“It’s beautiful out there, so smooth and you just cruise around the corner. It’s a stunning track,” she said.
Merchant Queen clocked 1:09.51 for the 1200m race, running the last 600m in 33.05s.
The track then showed it was fair for all horses when So Naïve scorched home from the tail of the field to win race two over 1200m in a time of 1:10.01.