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Trainer Nigel Blackiston returns to Flemington on Saturday with a well-related son of Tivaci, looking for his first win at his former home track in nearly six years.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge for Nigel Blackiston since his promising three-year-old Inside Agent landed a stakes victory in the Poseidon Stakes at his home track of Flemington at just his second start in October 2016.
There have been the usual ups and downs of the training game, fluctuations of form and fortune, as well as a life-threatening trackwork fall last year which has left him without sight in his right eye.
But 15 months after that frightening incident, Blackiston, now based at Ballarat after a change of location in 2019, is hoping to end a six-year barren Flemington run with a promising two-year-old named Verifier, who has his second start at headquarters on Saturday in the Byerley Handicap over 1800 metres.
“I love Flemington and really enjoyed my time there and looking forward to getting back there on Saturday,” the trainer told Asian Racing Report.
“I won some nice races there in my time and it’s about time I started to win a few more.”
Among the ‘nice races’ Blackiston speaks of are Littorio’s victories in the 2008 Turnbull Stakes and the 2011 Makybe Diva Stakes. The latter represents a career highlight for Blackiston as Littorio was first-up for 18 months.
Suavito won two Group Two races at Flemington, while in a poignant moment in 2015, stayer Let’s Make Adeal won The Bart Cummings, just six weeks after the death of the master trainer.
Blackiston learned the ropes under Cummings and Let’s Make Adeal was a grand-daughter of Let’s Elope, Bart’s champion mare and one of the English-born trainer’s favourite horses in his time at Saintly Lodge.
When Inside Agent won that race at Flemington nearly six years ago, Blackiston was in search of a new stable star after the retirement of Suavito, who joined Waikato Stud’s broodmare band.
Inside Agent loomed as a likely candidate, but an injury suffered in the Australian Guineas the following autumn put an end to his career and Blackiston has endured a stakes-winning drought ever since, while a subsequent victory at Flemington has also eluded him.
Not long after Suavito headed to Waikato Stud, another Flemington-trained Group One winner, Tivaci, made the same trip. Trained by Blackiston’s neighbour Mike Moroney, the son of High Chaparral stamped himself a stud deal with his win in the 2017 All Aged Stakes in 2017.
Blackiston had been able to watch Tivaci’s development as a racehorse at close quarters and so it was no surprise that he was keen to source one of his progeny when they came through the yearling sales.
“Tivaci did a great job as a racehorse, he had a good enough pedigree to be a stallion and he is certainly throwing some nice results now,” Blackiston said.
Tivaci has 26 winners in his first two crops, among them Flight Stakes winner Never Been Kissed. But when Verifier came through the Inglis Premier Yearling Sale ring in March 2021, the young stallion had yet to have his first winner.
Blackiston saw that as an opportunity, rather than a concern, paying $80,000 for the colt, who was consigned by Stonehouse Thoroughbreds on behalf of his breeders at Waikato Stud.
He boasted an impressive pedigree, being out of Savabeel mare Checkout, a half-sister to Group One-placed Bargain out of multiple Group winner Shopaholic. It’s a Waikato Stud family through and through, punctuated by stakes winners out of the likes of the Chittick family’s champion stallions Pins, O’Reilly and Savabeel, among them Group One winner Sacred Falls.
“He was a nice style horse. He was typically of the Waikato Stud type,” Blackiston said of Verifier.
“They always have that nice style of horse. Obviously at that point, Tivaci wasn’t that popular, and only had a first crop coming through. He’s an athlete, he’s got presence and he’s a very attractive looking horse.”
As Blackiston well knows, looks are one thing, ability is another. With that pedigree, there was no need to rush the colt but Blackiston was impressed enough with his trials to look to give Verifier a start as a late two-year-old.
“We are very limited with a horse like him that wants a bit of distance. We are very limited for 1400-metre maidens, so that’s why he went to the city at his first start to give him the experience. He’s a big strong colt who needs a big galloping track,” he said.
The first 1000 metres of that debut at Flemington on June 18 looked inauspicious, with Verifier seemingly unable to keep the pace and trailing the field. But having balanced up in the Flemington straight, he closed off impressively, finishing eighth, beaten less than four lengths.
“He was a bit wayward and looked around early on but in the last 200, he got his mind on the job and he ran the second quickest last 200 metres of the day,” the trainer said.
That run was not missed by the bookmakers, nor has been the addition of blinkers to sharpen up his manners, and having been a $61 chance on debut, he is just $5.5 for his second start over 1800 metres on Saturday.
His trainer is less effusive and would just like to see further improvement from Verifier before he heads to the paddock for a short rest before spring.
“We go there confident that he can perform well, but whatever he does, he can improve on through the spring,” he said.
Blackiston’s appreciation for Tivaci goes beyond just Verifier. At this year’s Inglis Easter Yearling Sale, he went to $300,000 to buy the Waikato Stud resident’s three-quarter brother.
“He’s a son of Dundeel and he’s a nice-looking colt. I was fortunate this year I was given a good budget to buy a nice colt and hopefully we have,” he said.
Continuing the High Chaparral theme, Blackiston also purchased a yearling colt by Toronado for $140,000 in Melbourne. Both colts are broken in and are back out on the paddock.
“I want to concentrate on more depth and quality rather than numbers. When you try to compete with these juggernaut big stables, you need some quality,” he said.
The two yearlings plus Verifier are rays of lights after what has been a difficult 16 months for Blackiston.
In April last year, one of the stable horses he was riding in trackwork at Ballarat collapsed. The experienced rider suffered four broken ribs, a collapsed lung and multiple shoulder fractures as well as blindness in his right eye.
It was a long recovery, with Blackiston still suffering the effects.
“It’s been just over a year. I’m doing pretty good. Obviously my vision didn’t return to my right eye, but it could have been a lot worse. We push forward. Otherwise I’m fit and well,” he said.
Blackiston’s positive attitude and resilience is a credit to his experience, but also to the value of potentially having a couple of good horses in the stable.
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