Owner and syndicator-turned-trainer Mike Cattell won the biggest race of his training career when Zegalo triumphed in Saturday’s $160,000 Country Classic at Rosehill Gardens.
Ridden by apprentice Dylan Gibbons, the seven-year-old had the gun run from gate two, and he was strong to the line when holding off the fast-finishing Eaglemont (Nash Rawiller) by a nose to bring up the fourth win of his career.
While thrilled to bring up his first city triumph, Cattell said the result was a ‘stepping-stone’ as the country trainer eyes Group 1 glory in England.
Cattell compared Zegalo’s breakthrough victory to Chautauqua winning over 2000m, as he believes the Irish-bred Zoffany gelding is better suited to 4000m.
The eccentric trainer will test his gelding’s mettle, preparing him for the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup (3200m) on March 24 ahead of the Group 1 Royal Ascot Gold Cup (4014m) on June 21.
“It’s a good win, and my first city win, but I keep saying that the Country Classic wasn’t his Grand Final and 2000m isn’t long enough for him,” Cattell told NSW Country and Picnic Racing.
“It’s a stepping-stone for the horse, to get his confidence up and to help get him up in trip.
“He is out of a Galileo mare and bred to run three miles. He has an amazing constitution of air intake and recovery and is a specimen to look at.
“He ticks all the boxes of being a superstar, and now it’s just a matter of proving he is one.
“Only 0.1% of horses in the world can run 3000m and less than that can run 4000m, and I think he is in that 0.01%, and it’s just a matter of him getting the chance to prove it at that level.”
Zegalo still has a bit to do before heading to the United Arab Emirates or England.
He will be set for the 2500m Benchmark 78 Handicap at Moonee Valley on Saturday, December 23, before taking on the Listed Bagot Handicap (2800m) at Flemington on New Year’s Day.
“I bought him for $8000 about 18 months ago, and I’ve just been trying to get him right,” he said.
“He has probably turned the corner this prep, and we’re finally able to see the best of him.
“If all goes to plan, he’ll win the Bagot and be a 100-rater; I think he can win both races and depending on how he goes, we’ll decide if we go to Dubai on the way to England or just go straight to England.
“His Grand Final is the Royal Ascot Gold Cup, and then two months later, there is the Prix Du Cadran on Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe day at Longchamp Racecourse, and it is a 4000m Group 1.”
When asked why he was so confident that Zegalo was up to the top tier of European stayers, Cattell said it came down to his horse’s ability to maintain a good cruising speed for a longer than usual amount of time.
“I know the sectionals he can run, and I’ve analysed them and compared them to other races,” he said.
“Some of the good sectionals in the UK and France, they are running 13 seconds, and he can run 12 seconds and do it for one mile, two miles, and three miles, and he doesn’t seem to get tired, but we haven’t been able to truly test him at those longer distances.”
Initially from Berry, Cattell trains on his property in Kangaroo Valley, and he explained that his introduction to training was born out of his interests as an owner and his connection to handy galloper Fontein Ruby.
“I was doing a bit of syndication, and we bought Fontein Ruby out of the sales, and she won us over a million and Group 2 and Group 3 races,” he said.
“She raced with Rob Smerdon, and we syndicated out a few more, and I started spelling them at my place for Johnny Thompson and Tim Martin.
“Then, I started pre-training them to save on some bills; I got confident feedback from trainers, who said they were getting there in really good order.
“I had a bit of a knack for training them on the beach and getting them ready, so I thought I would give it a go.”
Utilising the famous Seven Mile Beach, the country trainer doesn’t believe in over-working his horses on the track.
“I don’t go to the track very often, and I don’t think the horses like it very much,” he said.
“It sends them sour and gets them revved up, and when they do come back from a spell, I take them to the track for a couple of weeks in a row to get their eye back on the prize, but we swim them and work them on our property.
“We’ve got our own hill here at home, which is 1800m long, and it is a steep incline, and we get them fit on that, and once they’re fit, they get a lot of swimming.
“I’ll never be a trainer that has his horses ready to go first-up, and I’d like to think they will be fitter second-up and ready to perform third-up, and that’s exactly what happened yesterday (Saturday) with Zegalo.”
The boutique trainer, who’s spent time learning his craft in England with the likes of Mark Johnston and Paul Webber, puts a lot of time and effort into his gallopers, and he is a big believer in swimming stayers, with Zegalo no stranger to time in the water.
“This boy will end up swimming 12 minutes when he gets to a two-mile race, and at the moment, he is swimming up to eight minutes,” he said.
“On Friday night, we took him for a swim, and he took about four breaths and was recovered, and the way I see it, if they get into the river and can’t breathe and relax, then they won’t breathe and relax on race day.
“He’ll continue to swim, and he may have one gallop on the beach before his next run, and that is only to clean him up in the wind and get him revved up a little bit.”
It’s been some sort of training effort in getting Zegalo back to the races, let alone the winner’s circle, after he suffered a bowed tendon with Chris Waller in 2022.
“That’s why Chris Waller moved him on; they bought him out of the UK after he won a couple, and I’d hate to think what they paid for him, ” Cattell said.
“Chris has enough horses but doesn’t have the time to rehab them, and it’s hard to rehab a tendon in a stable, so he moved him on for $8000.
“The challenge was right up my alley, as we’ve got the beach and we did hill work with him slowly, and I find the sand fixes tendons, and he eventually came good.
“My other horse, Just Dylan, bowed three tendons, and Badge of Gameness did one, but this is what we do.
“It’s funny because Just Dylan was with us at the races on Saturday, as he is Zegalo’s travelling pony.”
Cattell, who’s ‘not really interested in training anything that can’t run under a mile’, knows he is dreaming big ahead of the Dubai Gold Cup and Royal Ascot Gold Cup and that he will have his doubters, but that isn’t deterring him.
For the moment, he is dreaming of Zegalo contesting some of the world’s best-staying races, and if all goes to plan, he will trek across the Atlantic and set up shop with Paul Webber’s stable early next year.