Rising star Kovalica lived up to his red-hot favouritism with a dominant display in Saturday’s Gr. 1 Queensland Derby (2400m) at Eagle Farm, continuing an astonishing season of Australian Group One success for New Zealand-breds.
The A$1 million classic was the 21st win from 69 Group One races in Australia so far this season – an extraordinary success rate of 30 per cent, despite making up only 8 per cent of runners.
Three-year-olds have shone particularly brightly, with Group One victories from Sharp ‘N’ Smart in the Spring Champion Stakes (2000m), Legarto in the Australian Guineas (1600m), Prowess in the Vinery Stud Stakes (2000m), Major Beel in the Australian Derby (2400m), Pennyweka in the Australian Oaks (2400m), Affaire A Suivre in the Australasian Oaks (2000m), Ruthless Dame in the Robert Sangster Stakes (1200m) and Dunkel in the South Australian Derby (2400m).
Kovalica went into Saturday’s Queensland Derby with all the right credentials to join that group, and he stepped out on to the Eagle Farm track as a $1.70 favourite. He had won five of his eight starts, including the Gr.2 Queensland Guineas (1600m) and Gr.3 Grand Prix Stakes (2100m), and he was a third placegetter against elite older opposition in last Saturday’s Gr.1 Doomben Cup (2000m).
It was widely expected that Kovalica only needed to avoid bad luck in order to triumph in the Queensland Derby, and champion jockey James McDonald took care of that part of the equation. After initially settling in midfield, McDonald moved out three wide and began to creep closer from around the 1000m mark.
Kovalica was poised to pounce at the top of the straight, and when McDonald released the brakes, the exciting three-year-old exploded clear.
He rapidly opened up a commanding advantage, and despite McDonald easing him down in the final 50m, he still swept past the finish line two lengths ahead of the second-placed Fame.
“It was lovely,” McDonald said. “Everything worked out really well. He got into a beautiful rhythm from the moment I left the stalls up to about the 1000m, when I thought, ‘Well, it’s his time to do a little bit of work. He’s here to shine’. So I put him into a spot where he was exposed, and then he floated into the race from there, and he did the rest. He was waiting for me to push the button at the top of the straight. I hope they run him in The Q22 (Gr.2, 2200m, June 10).”
Kovalica is trained by Chris Waller for owners Neville Morgan and David Devine. The Derby was the second Group-race success on Saturday for the owner-trainer-jockey combination, who won the Gr.3 Premier’s Cup (2400m) earlier in the afternoon with Kukeracha – himself a Queensland Derby winner two years ago.
“I’ve had a great association with these connections ever since I moved over to Australia,” McDonald said. “They’re the best people ever. They’re great supporters of racing, first and foremost, and they deserve all their success.”
For Waller, the spectacular performance by Kovalica on Saturday brought a long-range Derby plan to fruition. The Hall of Fame Kiwi horseman had been working backwards from this race ever since Kovalica won the Grand Prix Stakes on December 17.
But it also highlighted Waller’s ability to adapt and overcome obstacles. Kovalica had missed a crucial Derby dress rehearsal when a minor hoof issue forced him to be scratched from the Gr.3 Rough Habit Plate (2000m) two weeks ago. He instead ran in the Doomben Cup a week later, and the rest is history.
“He had the perfect preparation earlier in the season, having won over 2100m prior to Christmas,” Waller said. “He had that little hiccup two weeks ago, but we didn’t panic and gave him that extra run.
“James gave him a faultless ride today, and once he hit the front, I knew he’d be all right. It’s been a great success story with Neville and David. They are a pleasure to train for, and it makes my job a lot easier.”
Bred by Nearco Stud, Kovalica was purchased out of Curraghmore’s 2021 New Zealand Bloodstock Yearling Sale draft for $110,000 by Guy Mulcaster.
By Waikato Stud stallion Ocean Park, Kovalica is out of the winning Makfi mare Vitesse, a half-sister to triple Group One winning sprinter The Bostonian.
Vitesse is back in foal to Ocean Park.