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Matamata trainers Ken and Bev Kelso have long believed Legarto had the potential to excel over 2000m, and their stable star proved them right on Saturday with a sparkling performance in the Gr.1 Herbie Dyke Stakes (2000m) at Te Rapa.
Legarto was a Group One superstar on both sides of the Tasman as a three-year-old last season. She blew her rivals off the Riccarton track in a five-length New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) romp in the spring, then ventured to Melbourne in March and launched a stunning burst from nowhere to become the first New Zealand-trained winner of the Australian Guineas (1600m) at Flemington.
The 2023-24 season has so far delivered a few ups and downs for the daughter of Proisir. She resumed with a third placing without a lot of luck in the Gr.1 Tarzino Trophy (1400m), then won the Listed Matamata Cup (1600m) before getting too far back in a rough-run Golden Eagle (1500m) in Sydney.
An outstanding first-up win at Ellerslie in mid-January earned Legarto red-hot favouritism for the inaugural Elsdon Park Aotearoa Classic (1600m) on Karaka Millions night, where she was again a victim of circumstances but flashed home for second with the fastest sectional times in the race.
The step up to 2000m in the Herbie Dyke Stakes was always going to be the key to Legarto's four-year-old campaign, and on Saturday she answered the stamina question in no uncertain terms.
Barrier one had the potential to pose a few problems for the renowned fast-finisher, but regular rider Ryan Elliot managed to get her off the fence and into clear air by the time the field turned into the back straight.
Legarto enjoyed a comfortable run in fourth, one off the rail, keeping the defending champion Sharp 'N' Smart firmly in her sights as he sat on the outside of the front-running Mazzolino.
No Compromise made a big mid-race move to take the lead down the back straight after being caught wide, but Sharp 'N' Smart loomed on his outside at the 600m mark and had taken command by the home turn.
That was Elliot's time to push the button on Legarto, and she quickened and went past Sharp 'N' Smart with more than 200m remaining.
But there was another stern test to come for Legarto yet, with proven Group One 2000m mare Campionessa sweeping up alongside her. Legarto saw that challenge coming and lifted again, holding Campionessa at bay by half a length.
"Everything went to plan," Elliot said. "I said to Ken that I would just let her hold her spot, and if I could get her one off, I'd do so. Everything worked out perfectly, and there was just no trouble from 600m onwards.
"She came around the corner and I wasn't going for her yet – just holding her together. She started pricking her ears and just waiting for them a little bit.
"But once Campionessa came up to her, she really fought hard, as she does."
Legarto was bought by part-owner Phillip Brown's Ancroft Stud for $90,000 from the Karaka 2021 draft of Highline Thoroughbreds. Her 13-race career has now produced nine wins, two placings and more than $1.8 million in stakes.
"I'm elated," Ken Kelso said. "There's only one downside to it – that Bev can't be here to witness it. Her health hasn't been the best. But I'm sure she gave that couch a bit of a hiding at home. It's just a shame that she can't be here to enjoy it.
"Lovely ride by Ryan. He got her off the rail early on. I thought he might have gone a bit early, but she won well.
"We never had a chance to try her over 2000m last year, because she had a big season and ended up winning the Guineas in Australia, but it was always the plan to go further.
"She can do things other horses can't, and she has all the class, and today she showed the staying qualities to knuckle down and win.
"Onwards and upwards from here. It opens up a few avenues, knowing she can go over ground, so it's very, very pleasing."
The next of those avenues is likely to be the Gr.1 Bonecrusher New Zealand Stakes (2000m) at Ellerslie on March 9. That is the final leg of the New Zealand Summer Series, which carries a bonus of $500,000 to the winner. Legarto now heads the standings with 13.5 points.
"We'll probably go to the Bonecrusher, I would think," Kelso said. "It's a good-money race here, especially with the bonus, and it's three weeks before the Australian Cup (Gr.1, 2000m), so it works pretty well."
Among Legarto's owners is Tony Enting, who spent 34 years as general manager of the Waikato Racing Club.
"To win this race at Te Rapa is extra special for Mary and I," he said. "We are very, very lucky to race a horse like her. Ken and Bev have done such a marvellous job with her, they've left no stone unturned."
In a notable family double, Legarto's Herbie Dyke heroics were followed less than 10 minutes later by her half-sister Emanon winning the $50,000 C S Stevens Memorial Banks Peninsula Cup (1100m) at Riccarton. Both mares are out of the Towkay mare Geordie Girl, and both were bred by Warwick Jeffries.