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World of breeding: Splendid Ethereal.

Byline: Tony Morris

PERSIAN PUNCH, as always, ran his heart out. Give The Slip displayed tremendous courage in a marvellous

front-running performance. But let us take nothing away from the splendid New Zealand-bred filly Ethereal, who came with a powerful late run to snatch the Melbourne Cup in dramatic style.

Many had felt that her pedigree would not equip her for the

two-mile test, and that she had reached the limit of her stamina when successful in the 12-furlong Caulfield Cup. But, as it turned out, Ethereal was the only one of the principals capable of accelerating in the Flemington straight, and that quality, allied to her conspicuous gameness, saw her through to the completion of a magnificent double.

The Melbourne Cup is, of course, a handicap, and Ethereal was getting 7lb from the narrow runner-up. But take note that while both are 1997 foals, the colt was born on January 18, and the filly on November 16, so the latter was ten days short of her actual fourth birthday on the big day. Give The Slip was sacrificed in the cause of Fantastic Light in his previous few starts, but he is a high-class performer in his own right, as he showed in the 2000 Ebor and in Dubai in the spring.

It is also a fact that Ethereal carried 1lb more to victory than Let's Elope, the last filly to complete the double-ten years ago-and 7lb more than Rivette, the only other of their sex to achieve the feat, in 1939. There can be no doubt that she is a genuine celebrity, of international standard.

Ethereal, like all seven of the other double scorers since Rivette, is a product of a New Zealand industry which has long been dominant in Australia's major staying events. Her Melbourne Cup was the 31st in the past 50 years to have been won by a horse foaled on the other side of the Tasman.

It was also the first Cup win officially credited to a female trainer, and it was fitting that the honour should have been obtained by New Zealand-based Sheila Laxon, as it was another from that country, `Granny' McDonald, who was deprived of the distinction over Catalogue's victory in 1938 because at that time the authorities in Victoria refused licences to women.

Full marks to Laxon for biting the bullet and accepting the Flemington challenge with Ethereal. After the Caulfield victory, the inevitable weight penalty and the extra distance provided some concern, so a rest before a target in Hong Kong was a tempting alternative, but the filly's trackwork and evident well-being gave encouragement for the bid, and everything came right on the day.

Although every Antipodean breeder is supposed to have dreams of Melbourne Cup glory at the birth of every foal, it seems unlikely that Peter and Philip Vela, who bred Ethereal at their Pencarrow Stud, harboured such thoughts about this filly until she was well into her racing career. They had bred and raced her dam, Romanee Conti, who excelled from six furlongs to a mile and just once stretched out for a notable win over nine furlongs. The mating with Mr Prospector's son Rhythm would have seemed more likely to consolidate speedy elements, rather than impart stamina.

Ethereal had not won beyond a mile before a lucrative trip to Queensland at the end of May, when wins at ten furlongs in the Listed Roses Stakes at Doomben and over 12 furlongs in the Queensland Oaks at Eagle Farm provided somewhat unexpected evidence of staying ability.

She is the first real star to have emerged from the progeny of Rhythm, who gained an Eclipse Award as best US two-year-old of 1989 after his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, although serious doubts existed as to whether he was genuinely the pick of that moderate crop.

As a three-year-old he missed the Triple Crown events, and though he started favourite for the Breeders' Cup Classic after a win over a weak field in the Travers Stakes, he finished so far behind Unbridled that his eventual handicap rating, only 5lb behind that champion, stretched credulity to the limit.

Rhythm spent his first five stud seasons in Japan, and his results there were unspectacular, to say the least. The first of his products to gain a stakes victory scored in a steeplechase, and he has yet to be represented by a Graded winner on the Flat. He shuttled to New Zealand from 1996, standing at Sir Patrick Hogan's Cambridge Stud, but the initial enthusiasm soon waned, and he was allowed to drift off to California, where he

covered books of 38 in 2000 and 50 in 2001 at a fee of only $5,000.

Romanee Conti would have been one of Rhythm's most distinguished mates in his first year at Cambridge. Trained by Laxon's husband Laurie-who sent out 1988 Cup winner Empire Rose before his departure for Singapore-Romanee Conti did not join Sir Tristram's 45 Group 1 winners, but she came close, finishing second twice, third once and fourth twice at that level. Her best wins came in Group 3 company-in a New

Zealand sprint, at up to 7.5 furlongs in Australia, and finally over nine furlongs in the Hong Kong International Cup.

The stamina factors in her background showed to more effect in her brother Sir Rhine, fourth in the Group 1 Australian Derby, and in her three-parts sister Grand Echezeaux (by Zabeel), who won the Group 1 Australasian Oaks over ten furlongs.

The family was introduced to New Zealand in 1963 by the importation of Ethereal's fourth dam, Easter Rock. As a daughter of Rockefella, she might have seemed entitled to a measure of stamina, but in fact she was a sprinter, her wins at Bath and Haydock proclaiming her a true daughter of her dam, Easter Bride, winner of the King's Stand and third in the Nunthorpe in 1952.

Now it remains to be seen whether breeders Down Under will seek the return of Rhythm on the shuttle; Ethereal will surely have changed some perceptions of her sire.

What is certain is that Ethereal's yearling half-brother by Tale Of The Cat will attract keen demand in two months' time, when he is offered in Karaka by the sales company-New Zealand Bloodstock-of which Peter Vela is chairman.

CAPTION(S):

Ethereal (near side): NZ filly is a genuine celebrity of international standard
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Nov 8, 2001
Words:1065
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