Wells heads for Grand National Steeple glory

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IT’S A GREAT DAY for the jumps at Ballarat and BRIAN MELDRUM focuses on the winning ways of Wells, the cast-off who has cashed in:

Although the focus this weekend is on Winx as she embarks on a mission to equal Kingston Town’s record of three consecutive Cox Plate wins, another horse is on the verge of achieving his own special feat over the jumps.

On Sunday, at Ballarat, for the first time in Australia since the late 1800s, the entire six-race program will consist of jumps races, and the star of the show will be a horse originally bred and bought to be a Melbourne Cup contender.

Wells ridden by Richard Cully
Wells ridden by Richard Cully wins QLS Grand National Steeplechase Pic: Pat Scala/Racing Photos

Wells, a 10-year-old gelding whose sire won an English Derby, and whose dam’s sire won an English 2000 Guineas, will try to become only the second horse in 144 years to win the Grand National Steeple three times.

It’s a record you might think has stood for years. In fact it was set only two years ago, when Ciaron Maher’s outstanding ‘chaser, Bashboy, won the 2015 GN Steeple, to go with his 2013 and 2012 successes.

You might ask what happened in 2014, when he finished second. Well, that day he ran into none other than Wells, who was having his first start over fences after having mixed it with the best hurdlers the previous two years.

It was the only time these two great fencers ever met. Wells succumbed to a joint infection early in his preparation the following season, and ended up being off the scene for the best part of 18 months.

Bashboy was magnificent in winning the 2015 GN Steeple at the age of 12, but soon after a rule was introduced preventing horses racing past that age, and with the 2016 GN Steeple being moved to early August, by which time Bashboy would have turned 13, he was reluctantly retired.

That Wells was able come back and win the GN Steeple last year is testament to the patience and the training skils of his mentor, Kathryn Durden, working in partnership with her husband, Craig, an all-time great Australian jumps jockey.

Durden rode hundreds of winners over jumps, and twice won both the Grand National Steeple and the Grand National Hurdle. But he rates getting Wells back to win a second GN Steeple as the highlight of his racing career.

The Wells tale began, of all places, at Macedon Lodge, where he was one of a number of horses by Galileo being trained under the supervision of mega-owner Lloyd Williams.

At around the same time another prominent owner, Sandy Mcgregor,  had approached the Durdens with a view to buying a jumper, and mentioned he’d noticed that Williams was holding one of his periodical “clean out” sales that included some horses by Galileo.

“Sandy liked the Galileos, so Craig and I went up to Macedon and looked at, and rode, something like 10 to 15 horses,” Kathryn said. “We liked three of them, but for some reason or another two of them weren’t available, and we were left with one. Wells.”

Wells, out of a Flemington-winning mare trained by Bart Cummings, was a $100,000 plus yearling, but never raced in the familiar dark blue and white Williams colours. He changed hands for considerably less money, a bargain buy when you consider a win on Sunday will take his earnings past the $1 million mark.

Kathryn says he was a very nervous horse at first, but a gentle approach saw him get progressively better as he matured. Kathryn thinks Wells’ nervousness, as strange as it might seem, stemmed from him always wanting to do the right thing.

“He’s always been a very honest horse, and has always tried very hard to do everything we’ve asked of him. He’s pretty cruisy now though,” she laughed.

Wells won three flat races before making a winning debut over hurdles at Bendigo in July, 2012. Soon after he won over 3000 metres at Moonee Valley, and the following year, in the build-up to the jumps season, ran second in the listed Ramsden Stakes over 3200 metres at Flemington.

So was there any thought given to putting his jumping career on hold? “Never,” Kathryn said. “Sandy bought him to be a jumper, and that was what he was always going to be. He’d pretty much straight away showed an ability to jump, and we knew we had a pretty good horse on our hands. At the same time we always thought his real forte would be over fences, because he was a really good stayer.”

Before switching to fences Wells ran in two Grand National Hurdles, making a mistake and falling three flights from home in 2013, then finishing third to Sea King in 2014. Two weeks later he won the GN Steeple.

The joint infection could have cost Wells his life, but was diagnosed in time. Kathryn says some thought was given to getting him back for the 2015 season, but it would have been a rush. “Instead we gave him short stints in and out of work, to keep him both mentally and physically up to the mark, without putting any pressure on him.”

For the past two seasons the Durdens have managed Wells beautifully, mixing flat racing and a lot of jumping trials with a limited number of starts. In fact since winning the 2016 GN Steeple the gelding has raced only six times over jumps for an unplaced run over hurdles, and three wins and two placings over fences, including wins at his past two starts, in the Mosstrooper Steeple at Bendigo, and the Crisp Steeple at Sandown two weeks ago.

Everyone, – the Durdens, Wells’ Irish-born jockey Richard Cully, plus Mcgregor and his co-owners, are looking forward to Sunday. “He’s going really well, and it looks like he’ll get a soft, rather than a heavy track, and that will suit him,” Kathryn said.

Although he’s probably given it little or no thought, there’s an added bonus for Mcgregor. Like Williams he’s experienced the thrill of winning a Melbourne Cup, with the 100-1 shot Prince Of Penzance in 2015. But there’s no GN Steeple trophy on Lloyd’s sideboard.

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Author: Brian Meldrum

Brian Meldrum has been a racing journalist for more than 47 years, and is a former Managing Editor – Racing, at the Herald Sun.

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