Not for the first time, champion trainer Chris Waller was left celebrating on Derby Day at Flemington after the short-priced favourite Riff Rocket saluted in the time-honoured staying classic.
Winning with Preferment in 2015 and again last year with Manzoice, Waller watched on nervously as James McDonald piloted the three-year-old to a win in a photo over last weeks Moonee Valley Vase winner, Apulia.
The pair adopted a nice cozy run in transit midfield along the rail, shifting away from the fence when rounding the turn to hit the front.
A win looked well within their grasp with 100m to spare, before Mark Zahra and Apulia burst into the clear along the inside to dive at the line in a head bob.
“I thought he had the horse directly to his inside covered, but the eventual second place getter really challenged us late,” Charlie Duckworth, Waller’s right-hand man told Racing.com afterward.
After going down as the short-priced favourite in the Group 3 Neds Classic a fortnight earlier at Caulfield, Riff Rocket was out to prove a point.
Waller’s colt was unlucky not to win that day after finding the centre of the straight, simply caught a little one-paced by the fast-finishing Sunsets – who ran on well for third in the Derby.
“I thought he had the horse directly to his inside covered, but the eventual second-place getter really challenged us late. Coming in today, no one’s sure if they’re going to stay the 2500m, but it’s called Derby Day, and this is the one you want to be winning, so it’s great to go back to back,” Duckworth went on to say.
A return to Flemington also proved the trick, a course that has so far seen some of Riff Rocket’s best results.
With J-Mac saving a little more for late this time, it was no surprise to watch the pair make amends.
Apulia lost no admirers coming on well from midfield, right alongside Sunsets who found the front at the top of the straight.
The complete 2023 Victoria Derby finishing order can be viewed here.