Ferry ticket to redemption

Derby Day memories can last a lifetime as Australian racing showcases its finest at Flemington. But not all of them are pleasant, just ask Geoff Evans.

Four years ago Evans left Flemington on Derby Day guttered.

His mare Free At Last, winner of the Cox Stakes at Ascot and runner-up in the Perth Cup, had been unceremoniously dumped from the Melbourne Cup.

Evans admitted it was a scenario that did not sit well with him. Clearly, he thought Free At Last, second in the Craiglee Stakes and a luckless fifth in the Cranbourne Cup in her lead-up runs, deserved to take her place.

For all that heartache, Evans, a true racing man, has moved on. Racing's not a place to hold grudges.

"Them's the rules. If you play in other people's back yard you have to abide by the rules," Evans said.

"Yeah, we were upset. She had run second in the Craiglee, she ran a cracker, a bit unlucky, then she got balloted from the Turnbull because it was such a cracking field.

"And, then we had to go to Cranbourne and she slipped and slid around there and ran fourth or fifth.

"The aim is to get horses in the Cup, but we had to abide by the rules. That's the way it goes. You know in this industry, you don't put the cart before the horse. I've been in the game long enough to know that."

Evans has been back to Flemington since the Free At Last nightmare, but not with the gusto with which he'll bounce through the turnstiles at tomorrow's AAMI Victoria Derby meeting.

He has a valid reason to have a spring in his step. He races Rockferry, a lightly raced colt who has rocketed into Derby contention on the back of just three runs, the latest a luckless third in the Geelong Derby Trial.

"I'm pretty excited about the Derby. He's obviously a well bred young colt, he's the apple of Danny's (O'Brien) eye. I'm just rapt that we backed him," he said.

Peter Caporn, who owns Spacecraft, another talented O'Brien trained colt, introduced Evans to O'Brien a couple of years ago. They pair clicked straight off the bat.

Headline act in the first set of horses O'Brien purchased for Evans was a Pentire-Excelo colt, a brother to the brilliant Xcellent, whose litany of injuries - tendon, fetlock and shoulder woes - turned his career into a horror story.

That colt is Rockferry, a striking individual who appears to have stayer stamped all over him.

O'Brien, on the insistence of Evans, fought off all other bidders to secure Rockferry for $NZ550,000 at the New Zealand sales.

The aim, as with all the horses Evans buys and breeds, is to find a Derby, Oaks or Cup winner. It has been a fascination since he was a teenager.

Among the mares that Evans has on his books are Melbourne Cup winner Jezabeel, Beaux Art, Old Money and Free At Last.

"I do love the big staying races, have done ever since I was a kid, especially in Victoria - the Derby, the Oaks and obviously the big one," Evans said.

"We've always tried to have a crack at it, but it's a bit hard from over in the west. So, I thought let's give it a crack from main base."

Evans didn't want to spend such a tidy sum if the colt would need cutting at a later stage. O'Brien was convinced from the get-go that Rockferry's manhood would not be impinged.

O'Brien viewed Rockferry as a "beautiful horse" from the time he first saw him. "I was raving to Geoff about the horse," he recalled.

"I kept saying to him 'we've got to buy this horse, we've got to buy this horse'.

"He was really good-natured, intelligent, a good walker. He had quality written all over him."

And, it helped that the colt had a pedigree that was iron cast, especially Xcellent, who won from 1400m to the 2400m of the New Zealand Derby and placed in a Melbourne Cup behind Makybe Diva.

"He ticked every box that we were looking for in a potential Melbourne Cup runner," O'Brien said.

"I saw Xcellent run third in the Melbourne Cup and win the NZ Derby. He was a horse that we never got to see the best of. Mike (Moroney) has made no secret of the fact that Xcellent is the best horse he's ever trained."

Rockferry was cruelly beaten in the Geelong Classic (Derby Trial) , but O'Brien put a positive spin on the hard luck third. He noted that he would rather get beaten in the Derby Trial and win the Derby than vice-versa.

Two years ago he had one of the favourites in Villain and last year he saddled up Buffet. Both finished fourth.

"This (the Derby) is all he's been looking for. That's the sort of horse you need for the Derby. The horses that have been winning it since they remodelled the Flemington track have been the best stayers, Efficient and Rebel Raider and Kibbutz.

"The horse that stays the 2500m the best is the horse that has been winning it. Everyone wants to change it to 2000m and I can see both arguments to it, but at the moment it is 2500m and if you want to win it you have to go there with a 2500m horse."

O'Brien is mindful that his renewal of the Derby shapes as one of the strongest and most intriguing of the decade.

Shamoline Warrior goes into the classic as a deserved favourite. He's become a more switched on youngster with the addition of blinkers.

Southern Skye and Our Heir Apparent, the first two in the Geelong Classic, also are right in the mix and then there's the Monaco Consul.

By Adrian Dunn, to view full Herald Sun story click here

Photo by Herald Sun photographer Jay Town