Before Annabel Neasham even set foot in Australia in 2016, she knew the Cox Plate was one of the most famous races in the world.
To her astonishment, Neasham is training the favourite for the Cox Plate – with another export from Great Britain in Zaaki – at the start of her second season as a trainer.
"It's a race that goes beyond Australia. It's a race on a global stage, and it certainly is one of the most famous races in the world. It's an iconic race," Neasham said.
"I’m extremely privileged to have a horse even going towards a race like that, let alone be favourite.”
She knows this from her own experience in Australia, having worked for two of Australia’s most successful stables and how hard it is even to have a runner in the famous race held at The Valley.
When Neasham arrived in Australia, she initially worked for Gai Waterhouse, who didn’t manage a Cox Plate runner that year.
Then in her three years working for Ciaron Maher and Dave Eustace, they also didn’t manage to have a Cox Plate runner.
Three months after she left them to start her own stable, they had their first runner and winner with Sir Dragonet last year.
Neasham got caught up in the excitement, knowing the magnitude of their achievement in winning Australia’s weight-for-age middle distance championship.
“I’m close to Dave. I lived with him in Melbourne. After he and Ciaron won last year, I Facetimed Dave, and there he is with the Cox Plate in the background in his kitchen. He was over the moon.”
“It was phenomenal what they had done. It was pretty unreal and very exciting,” Neasham said.
She can’t wait to experience first-hand having a runner in the Cox Plate with Zaaki.
The imported galloper took up the mantle of Australia’s most exciting galloper with three dominant wins during the Queensland racing carnival, none more so than his seven-length win in the Doomben Cup.
“You don’t expect to win a Group One by that margin. Only great horses win like that and it took my breath away. I thought he would win but not like that,” Neasham said.
When Neasham was told she would be training Zaaki late last year, she told the owners that her plan was to run him in the Doncaster Handicap and also the Doomben Cup.
“He ran in both and won the Doomben Cup, which was the race we aimed him for from the day he landed. To be even in that race exceeded expectations.”
Neasham was again taken a little by surprise with Zaaki’s first-up win in the Group 2 Tramway Stakes at Randwick over 1400 metres on 4 September.
“Again, he keeps raising the bar. That was a nice race to kick him off in. I was hoping he’d run well and hit the line,” she said.
“I thought he might want a bit further as a mile to 2000 metres is his perfect distance range.
To me, it’s all about the Cox Plate, so it was a pleasing return.”
Neasham has predicted the Cox Plate will be the race of the spring and knows her horse faces a stern challenge.
Neasham knows the field will be brimming with quality and, in particular, recognises the star quality of Verry Elleegant.
“She’s the best mare in Australia. She’s won nine Group One races, and Chris (Waller) knows how to win Cox Plates. She’s certain to give the race a great shake, and we’ll have to be on our A-game to be beating horses like her.”
Neasham also said last year’s Cox Plate winner Sir Dragonet showed he was spot on for a successful title defence with his first-up second in the Makybe Diva Stakes.
“It’s certainly not a one-horse race. The market has our fellow in front. He’ll have to keep his form up to hold that position. He'll be taking on better opposition, and we’re very respectful of the opposition.”
Neasham said she was also wary of the international raiders headed by State Of Rest and Gold Trip.
“State Of Rest boasts strong form lines with his win in the Saratoga Derby at his last start. Gold Trip has strong form in France, so he’s no slouch.”
Neasham is also looking at the Cox Plate with one other horse in her stable, Mo’unga who has won two Group One races this year, the Rosehill Guineas and the Winx Stakes.
She said Mo’unga would run in the Epsom Handicap, and she would decide after that run whether he would start in a Cox Plate.
Neasham said she’s looking forward to the experience of having a Cox Plate runner.
“I think he’s looking better and improving all the time. As long as he’s spot on by Saturday 23 October, that’s all that matters.”
An Arabic name for boys, Zaaki means “one who increases in growth and goodness”, “virtuous”, or “blessed” – qualities Annabel will be hoping to see for their Cox Plate debut.