Vella to put best foot forward in Black Opal

Damon Budler will team up with the Gratz Vella-trained Vella’s Best in Sunday’s $250,000 Blake Opal Stakes.
Image: Bradley Photos.

Likeable Canberra racing identity, Gratz Vella, will shoot for his second Black Opal Stakes victory on Sunday with the aptly named Vella’s Best. 

On debut, the two-year-old started as a 30/1 outsider in the 1000m Black Opal Preview on February 24, and with Damon Budler on board, the pair began well from gate two and made every post a winner.

“I was so happy for him to win,” Vella told NSW Country and Picnic Racing. 

“He had shown me enough, but I didn’t think he had shown me that much that he would beat the favourite like he did. 

“He’s pulled up enormous and thrived after the run. I think he’s really improved on it, and his recovery rate was unreal after the race, and since then, we haven’t looked back.” 

The popular victory guaranteed Vella’s Best (x Headwater), a $40,000 purchase at the 2023 Inglis Classic Yearling Sale, his place in Sunday’s $250,000 feature, and Vella is tickled pink to be involved in Canberra’s biggest race of the year. 

“It’s a thrill; I’ve followed it ever since the first Black Opal was run,” Vella said. 

“I was only 16 at the time, and ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with the race.

“I’ve had about 15 starters in the Black Opal over the years: a winner, two seconds and a couple of close finishes, and it is always a race we try and have a horse for. 

“It’s our Grand Final in Canberra, and for us country trainers, so to have a horse in it is beautiful.”

Vella claimed his first and only Black Opal in 2011 when You’re Canny, ridden by Richard Bensley, scored a decisive victory over hot-pot and Magic Millions Classic winner Karuta Queen. 

On Sunday, he can join some esteemed company and become just the third home-town trainer to have won the Black Opal twice, alongside John Morrissey (Pembleton, Speed Week) and Frank Cleary (Clan O’Sullivan, Catbird).

Still, Vella’s under no illusion to the task at hand, with Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott entering Inglis Millennium winner, Fully Lit, and highly touted stablemate, Anode. 

Ciaron Maher will race Inglis Nursery winner Odinson, while Tony and Calvin McEvoy have entered the Group 3 Darley Maribyrnong Plate (100m) winner, Dublin Down.  

“It’s going to be a very good race, and I knew these good trainers would bring their bullets,” Vella said. 

“The race is getting stronger every year, and if the field holds up, this year could be as strong, if not stronger, than any other year.”

The Black Opal Stakes and Listed $250,000 Canberra Cup barrier draws will be held at The Marion at 12.30 pm on Wednesday, and Vella will be on hand and praying for a decent draw. 

“With him, if we drew the inside, we would be delighted as it is a bit of an advantage,” Vella said. 

“I know we are going there as a long shot, so if I can draw between (barriers) one and give, I’d be delighted as it will give us every chance.”

True to his word, Vella will stick with Budler, a popular jockey in and around Canberra. 

“Damon will stay on, and with all my Black Opal runners, I’ve always kept the local on and given them a fair go, and I know Damon will give 110% on Sunday,” Vella said.

“He’s been here in Canberra for a little while now and made a name for himself as a good, respectable rider.”

It’s set to be a big day for Vella’s stable, and another leading chance is Major Time, which will take on the $50,000 Camarena Quality (1000m). 

The eight-year-old won a TAB Federal (1000m) in late January, followed by a solid sixth-place finish in a 1000m Benchmark 72 Handicap on February 14. 

“He has not put a foot wrong this time in, and he deserves his chance,” Vella said. 

“We took him to Sydney, and he ran a good race, and he is progressing really well.”

It’s set to be a huge day at Canberra on Sunday, with Thoroughbred Park hosting their first million-dollar race day.

For more on the day, fashions on the field, and what’s on offer, click here.