International achiever Starcraft set to join Hall of Fame

All members of the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame have gained induction through their own set of unique qualities, but if there’s one amongst the equine members that stands apart it is Starcraft.

During the mid-2000s the big chestnut gained fame in both hemispheres, first as the champion Australian three-year-old of 2003-04, the following year as champion sprinter in New Zealand, and his defining achievement, the first New Zealand-bred horse to win at Group One level in Europe.

The Waikato Stud-bred son of Soviet Star and Flying Floozie was sold as a yearling at Karaka to Australian Paul Makin, for whom Queensland-based Gary Newham prepared him to win the Gr. 1 Chipping Norton Stakes and Australian Derby, before embarking on a New Zealand spring campaign and failing in only the final leg to become the first horse to win the Hawke’s Bay Triple Crown. In the remaining two starts of that preparation, Starcraft finished third in the Gr. 1 MRC Yalumba Stakes and MVRC WS Cox Plate, before embarking on the biggest adventure of all to the United Kingdom.

Transferred to Newmarket trainer Luca Cumani, he finished third first-up in the Gr. 1 Queen Anne Stakes at York, then bounced back from a below par performance in the Eclipse Stakes to win the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp in Paris and the Gr. 1 Queen Elizabeth ll Stakes at Newmarket.

Starcraft’s breeder and Hall of Fame member Garry Chittick has been associated with numerous champion horses, including fellow Hall of Famer O’Reilly, but Starcraft holds his own special place. Chittick bred him from a family developed by Jack Lindsay at Balcarres Stud and acquired his dam, the Pompeii Court mare Flying Floozie, as a weanling. A close relation to the Group One winners Taras Bulba and Turfcutter, she was part of the going concern package when the Chittick family bought Waikato Stud in 1994.

“She was big, plain filly and we leased her out for racing to a bunch of guys, who we allowed to name her,” says Chittick in reference to the off-beat name. “She was also rather slow and the best she could manage was a single placing.

“For her first two matings she went to our own stallion Danasinga, then we decided to send her up to Ra Ora to their new shuttle horse Soviet Star. He was a decent sort of European sprinter-miler and being a son of Nureyev he wasn’t overly big, a neater type that we figured might tidy the mare up.

“What we got was still a big horse, but even though he was tall and somewhat gangly, he was a nice enough yearling when we took him to Karaka.”

Ahead of the 2002 New Zealand Bloodstock National Yearling Sale, Auckland bloodstock agent Robert Dawe had been commissioned by Australian client Paul Makin to identify some likely prospects for his growing racehorse string. Makin had a lifetime interest in racing, having grown up near Randwick racecourse and making some of his first pocket money reselling discarded racebooks to late-comers at Sydney’s premier racetrack.

Typical of so many Australian racing enthusiasts, he was a born gambler to the point that he made his fortune when based in Asia utilising a computerised system and betting into the massive pari-mutuel pools in Hong Kong and Japan. Makin was cashed up when he returned to Australia, and in 2000 he established a stable adjacent to the Gold Coast racecourse at Southport, employing respected horseman Garry Newham as his private trainer.

“When Paul arrived at Karaka he asked me what I had found for him,” recalls Dawe. “I replied that I had found him the modern day Phar Lap. ‘You are kidding me,’ he said, but honestly, I wasn’t.

“He was a big red horse, but he was also light on his feet. That’s the reason I liked him – it must have been – because I had never bought a big horse in my life. I’m not sure if Paul was on board at that stage, but it helped that his wife Lyndal was, she really liked the horse.”

Dawe secured the Soviet Star-Flying Floozie colt for $80,000, and another $75,000 was added to Makin’s Karaka bill when the Robt Dawe Agency signature also went on a filly by Generous from the Australian Oaks runner-up Courtalista, who like Flying Floozie was by Pompeii Court. The Generous filly, named We Can’t Say That, won eight races in Queensland and Victoria, and history would record that five years later, when Starcraft and We Can’t Say That were mated, the result was We Can Say It Now, winner of the Gr. 1 Levin Classic and Captain Cook Stakes.

Garry Newham was aware from the start that the colt to be named Starcraft would take time. “He was an awkward big baby to begin with,” said Newham, who was still able to give him three juvenile starts for two placings and an unplaced result in a stakes race at Eagle Farm during the winter carnival. He returned in late spring for a fresh-up fourth followed by four wins in succession, the last of them the Gr. 3 VRC Debonair Stakes at Flemington in his first start outside Queensland.

Big plans were well in place by now, as Starcraft stepped up to the Gr. 1 Australian Guineas for second to Reset, beaten just a neck, and then to Sydney for victory at weight-for-age in the Gr. 1 Chipping Norton Stakes (1600m).  On a slow track at Warwick Farm he made the most of his first start against older horses for a victory that was followed by wins in the Gr. 2 Tulloch Stakes, his first start at a middle-distance, and the one that would confirm his status as the leading three-year-old, the Australian Derby.

Despite the form book, this was no walk in the park, requiring all of rider Glen Boss’s skill to get Starcraft across the line just a head in front of 100-to-one bolter Braeloch. With the champion age-group title in safe keeping, Starcraft went for a winter spell while his owner put his mind to the next challenge.

Thus it was announced that he would return to the land of his birth to target the Hawke’s Bay Triple Crown, comprising the Gr. 1 Mudgway Partsworld Stakes at 1400m, the Gr. 2 Stoney Bridge Stakes (1600m) and the Gr. 1 Kelt Capital Stakes (2040m), which at the time was New Zealand’s richest race at $1 million. No horse had won all three, but with some justification, Makin believed his could.

From the leggy yearling that had left Waikato Stud in January 2002, all those who set eyes on the four-year-old version in the spring of 2004 could not help but be impressed. Amongst those was leading jockey Leith Innes, who was more than happy to pinch-hit for Glen Boss in the Mudgway and was left with that rare feeling of steering a champion when Starcraft cleared a pocket mid-race and charged down the outside to overhaul the brave as ever front-runner Miss Potential.

Reflecting on that performance years later, Garry Newham was still shaking his head. “To this day I believe this was his best ever performance. His finishing burst was extraordinary.”

Three weeks later Boss was free to resume duties in the Stoney Bridge Stakes and again Starcraft got the better of Miss Potential, setting up a promoter’s dream heading towards the third leg, the Kelt Capital Stakes. Makin was right on board and heading into the Kelt opened the stable door, so to speak, to every imaginable media platform.

“In the days leading up to the Kelt the horse was bigger than Winx,” Newham later recalled. “He was never out of the newspapers and there seemed to be a TV camera pointing at him every five minutes.

“On the Friday afternoon Paul turned up with an entourage of press. They even brought a couple of glamorous models to have endless photos taken with Starcraft. It went on forever and the horse was getting more stirred up than I’d ever seen him before.”

Come raceday and Starcraft was still very much on edge, to the point of being almost uncontrollable in the mounting yard and dropping Boss as he made his way out to the track. Back in the saddle, Boss had more than a handful of horse on the way to the start and when the gates opened he had no option but to let the big horse run to the lead.

In the end it all told against him, leaving no answer to the challenge of 40-to-one longshot Balmuse and conceding by more than two lengths. Things had not gone to script and it was to be another 16 years before star racemare Melody Belle became the first horse to complete the Triple Crown. Starcraft was then flown to Melbourne, where he finished third to Mummify and Grand Armee in the Gr. 1 Yalumba Stakes at Caulfield before filling the same place behind Savabeel and Fields Of Omagh in the Gr. 1 W S Cox Plate.

The biggest adventure of all was to follow, as Makin set his mind to a European campaign and identified Newmarket-based Luca Cumani as the trainer of choice. Italian-born Cumani’s credits included the English Derby with Kahyasi and High Rise, while on the international stage he had won the Japan Cup and Hong Kong International Cup with Falbrav.

“I had never heard of Paul Makin until he contacted me in late 2004 and discussed his plans for Starcraft,” says Cumani. “I researched the form and felt the idea held merit, so the horse was sent to me and arrived in the middle of January. He had a fine summer coat which meant a lot of management given how cold Newmarket can be at that time of year, but to the horse’s credit he acclimatised gradually and didn’t grow a winter coat.

“I was very impressed by his physique – he was beautifully put together and struck me as a real horse.”

After being given ample time to settle into his new routine, Starcraft was set for the Gr. 1 Queen Anne Stakes, one of the features of the Royal Ascot carnival which, with Ascot under major renovation, would in 2005 be staged in the north at York. On ground rated good to firm, the mile was cut out in a track record 1:36.64 and a third placing to Valixir and Rakti was a more than satisfactory result.

Thus plans were made for the Gr. 1 Eclipse Stakes over 10 furlongs at London’s Sandown course, but in a replay of his behaviour before the Kelt Capital Stakes, Starcraft lost the plot in the pre-race parade. “It was out of the blue, he completely lost his cool,” recalls Cumani. “He got in such a state and never relaxed in the race (finishing sixth of seven), it was back to square one.

“The first I knew that he was capable of this type of behaviour was when Paul referred to what had happened in New Zealand, so we then had the challenge of working him through it.”

That involved a long process of taking Starcraft to Newmarket race meetings through July and August and gradually getting him to relax. “He could be a real handful – he was a such a big horse at something like 540 kilograms, on one occasion he even broke his handler’s fingers rearing up and trying to take off – then slowly but surely he came around and then the switch went off.

“It was September by now and we decided to go to France for the Prix du Moulin. We could see no speed in the race, so the plan for his jockey Christophe Lemaire was to make the running. It all came together perfectly and he won well.

“The next big mile was the Queen Elizabeth ll at Newmarket and he beat a very good field headed by Dubawi and Rakti.”

Those two performances earned dual champion older male miler titles in both France and the UK, as well as an Annual Timeform Rating of 128.

There was one more act to play out, following Makin’s decision to pay the US$800,000 late entry fee to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at New York’s Belmont track. Cumani’s preferred option was the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Turf, but it was his owner’s call to take on the best dirt horses over 10 furlongs.

History records that the Breeders’ Cup Classic was a bridge too far, but a midfield finish in no way diminished Cumani’s opinion of Starcraft. “He was a top flight horse, one of the very best, and I’m delighted he has been recognised by your Racing Hall of Fame,” he said.

Starcraft never raced again, being retired to stud and after initially shuttling between the UK and Australia, standing for a number of years at Arrowfield Stud where his fee peaked at A$44,000 in 2011, before being transferred to Victoria’s Rosemont Stud, where at rising 21 he remains on the stallion roster.

His 20 stakes winners include the Gr. 1 Blue Diamond Stakes and Coolmore Stud Stakes winner Star Witness, who was also placed in the Royal Ascot Golden Jubilee Stakes and King’s Stand Stakes, and the aforementioned dual Group One winner We Can Say It Now.

- Dennis Ryan - RaceForm