THE sand dunes and icy waters of Lady Bay were the catalysts of a remarkable change of fortune for Sungold Milk Warrnambool Cup winner Akzar.
The Darren Weir-trained seven-year-old, ridden by Brad Rawiller, produced a class performance in the $200,000 listed race over 2350 metres. The six-length triumph from Westsouthwest, with Shoreham half-a-length further back, continued a near-perfect return in 2014.
He has four wins and two seconds from six starts since January 24. The five starts before yesterday were all at Melbourne racecourses.
But rewind 12 months and Akzar — then trained by Rob Blacker — ran 13th of 16 in the 2013 Warrnambool Cup, finishing more than 18 lengths behind Banca Mo.
Three more runs under Blacker followed before his owners placed him with Weir. The final straw was a 10th of 10 in the Traralgon Cup in December. Weir then sent Akzar to his Warrnambool satellite stable — a decision which had a career-changing effect.
Former Warrnambool resident Michael O’Keefe, one of a host of part-owners who were trackside, said the win was “a dream come true”.
“When I lived in Warrnambool I always would come to the carnival. My dad, Terry, used to train a couple of horses,” he said. “It was always something I wanted to do, have a share in a horse. How lucky am I to be one of the owners of a Warrnambool Cup winner.”
O’Keefe played football with South Warrnambool and Dennington, as well as cricket with Footscray, during a decorated sporting career. But the Sunshine resident, who lives with his wife, Helen, and children, Patrick and Meg, ranked being a part-owner of Akzar as one of his highlights.
“It’s just unbelievable to come back and be in the ownership of a horse that wins your home-town cup,” he said. “I’ve been in the ownership for more than 18 months. I’ve got to thank my mates Darren Freyer and Justin Kearney for getting me involved.”
Weir said Akzar was in “good order” when he arrived at his stables, noting that Blacker had done a good job with him.
“If I trained him on a track he’d be going the same as what he was (under Rob), so you just change things around,” he said.
Weir said the gelding had relished his work at the beach. So much so that track gallops were only occasional these days.
“It’s pretty simple. He just loves beach life. They’ve got him worked out, Daniel (Bowman) and his team, they do a great job,” he said.
Weir highlighted the contribution of Peter Ellis, who walked the track and devised a race strategy with Rawiller yesterday morning.
“They walked it and (Brad) said ‘don’t worry, I’ll be six or seven wide going out of the straight and I’ll just keep going around him’,” Weir said.
“They thought if you went through the bad ground he couldn’t win so we were happy to keep momentum going and it worked out well.”
Akzar started from the outside barrier 16 and trailed the field passing the post for the first time before making up ground in the back straight. He was wide without cover the entire race, although he sat nicely behind Mourinho rounding the final turn which dragged him towards the front.
Rawiller pulled the $3 favourite wider at the top of the straight and he sprinted home unchallenged on the better ground. Westsouthwest charged through the middle to run second while Shoreham and fourth-placed Shiny Buttons made up places on the outside.
Rawiller said he was thrilled to win his first Warrnambool Cup, almost two decades after he rode at the carnival for the first time.
“It’s especially special because there was a lot riding on it,” he said.
Akzar will likely head to Brisbane to race during the winter.