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Recently retired trainer Colin Little reflects on the glittering career of his ‘life-changing’ Cox Plate-winning gelding El Segundo.
Palos Verdes, dam of Cox Plate-winning gelding El Segundo, had a very peculiar quirk.
It took recently retired trainer Colin Little – who prepared both mother and son from his Caulfield stables – several seasons to work out why his talented mare struggled for form at certain times of year, and not others.
“Palos Verdes was a superior stayer that did very badly in winter,” Little told Asian Racing Report.
“I could never get her going in spring because of that, but once we got into the hotter weather post-Christmas, she was outstanding.
“She actually broke three track records, and just thrived in really hot weather, I’m talking 40 degrees.
“It was a bit unusual, it took a while for the penny to drop for me. She just struggled all through winter but absolutely jumped out of her skin when things warmed up after Christmas.”
Palos Verdes’ four stakes victories all came at 2000 metres plus and each was achieved in the summer or autumn sun, including wins in the Listed Bagot Handicap on a 35-degree New Years’ Day and the G3 Hobart Cup on Australia Day.
For his part, El Segundo – Palos Verdes’ aptly-named second foal – didn’t inherit his mother’s proclivity for heat waves.
He did however display a taste for the heat of battle, a quality that, combined with a seriously elite turn of foot, brought about four Group One wins, including the holy grail of a Cox Plate.
“He had a will to win embedded in him. He didn’t need much encouragement to take off, a slap down the shoulder and he was gone. I think he enjoyed winning,” said Little.
Where it began: crumpets and crackers
When Palos Verdes’ first foal was ready for sale in New Zealand in 2001, Little quickly skipped across the Tasman with the intention of bringing the anticipated ‘cracker’ of a yearling back to Australia. But what he found didn’t quite live up to his lofty expectations for a son of his high-class staying mare.
“Her first foal was by Umatilla, I couldn’t get to New Zealand quick enough,” said Little.
“But I stood there for about half an hour trying to find something to like about him, and I just couldn’t come up with a redeeming quality.
“It was eventually called The Snake and it raced accordingly, I think its first start was in a 2000m maiden, it was not worth a crumpet.”
Little’s impression of Palos Verdes’ progeny would dramatically improve the second time around.
“Two years later I went back and there was El Segundo. The Snake went for around $20,000, but El Segundo cost $140,000, so it was pretty serious money at that time, but he was a lovely yearling and I just wanted to buy him.
“I had a lot of time for his mother, she was very very good, underrated, and right from the outset I could tell that this was a lovely horse,” recalled Little.
While The Snake slithered his way to an inglorious five-start career – a placing in a Stawell maiden the chestnut’s best effort – the younger half-sibling by Pins exhibited signs of enormous potential from very early on.
“There was a steward who I was very friendly with, John Boyd. In those days they would come around and before the horse trialled they would identify him off the registration card. The horse had never trialled and John asked ‘is this horse any good?’ and I said ‘he’s the best horse I’ve ever had’.
“He said ‘how do you know that?’ and I replied ‘I just know’.
“It was just a gut feeling, I had no real evidence, he was just poking along, wasn’t breaking any track records. But I just had this feeling that he was going to be the best horse I ever had.”
Little’s instincts would be vindicated by El Segundo’s rapid rise through the grades once he hit the track, putting the writing on the wall as a four-year-old with a slashing fourth in the G2 Dato’ Tan Chin Nam Stakes (1600m) at just his eighth start, then rounding-up and destroying his rivals in the G1 Yalumba Stakes at start number ten.
The supremely talented backmarker’s next assignment was one of the most coveted races on the Australian calendar, the G1 Caulfield Cup. But it would prove Little’s biggest regret in El Segundo’s career.
“Going into the Caulfield Cup he’d won the Yalumba with 57kg and he’d originally been assigned 48kg in the Cup and he just looked a handicap certainty,” he said.
Having been handed a 1.5kg penalty for a win in the JRA Cup and with Gauci riding one kilogram over, El Segundo would carry what appeared a luxurious 50.5kg in the Caulfield Cup. But it would be the physical weight of one of his rivals that helped bring about his undoing.
“(Jockey) Darren Gauci spoke to me in the mounting yard and he said ‘I want to go forward with the light weight’, and I said ‘I don’t know about that Darren, he gets back, it’s a mile and a half for the first time in his life’.
“So he sort of went back, he was on the fence, but there was a gigantic Queensland horse called Lachlan River outside him, big baldy face, 600kg.
“He had him trapped on the fence when they went past the half mile, and Gauch said he spent a lot of time and energy to push it out of the way and get a run, but he said he gave up because he was just using up too much energy, the other horse just had so much size and strength on him. And he never got out until halfway down the straight.”
“I think in hindsight if I had have let Gauch do his own thing it might have been a different result, it was my mistake because I knocked his plan on the head,” said Little.
Peaks and Valleys
El Segundo enjoyed a good association with Moonee Valley despite his get-back racing pattern, notching up four of his 12 career wins on the StrathAyr.
And one victory in Australia’s premier weight-for-age race, the Cox Plate, could so easily have been two, if not for a chequered passage in the 2006 renewal won so narrowly by Fields Of Omagh.
For Little, the difference between losing in 2006 and winning in 2007 was simply a case of barriers, as well as the fully mature horse that romped home in his second crack at the famous Valley Group 1.
“He drew wide in the first Cox Plate where Gauch rode him, and from there you’re basically forced to go back to last. He ran up the backside of something, circled the field, ran off the track, it was just a terribly difficult barrier for a horse like him who used to get back,” he said.
“The following year he drew better with Luke Nolen on him and just bounced out was basically front-half all the way and just had to quicken up to win.
“So I think the barriers made an enormous amount of difference, and in my opinion he was also just a superior animal when he won the Cox Plate. He was older, stronger and a much better horse.”
When fit and firing, El Segundo tended to win as he liked. In addition to his two-length victories in the Cox Plate and G1 Yalumba Stakes, his other Group 1 wins in the C.F. Orr Stakes and Underwood Stakes were secured by margins of 2.3 and 1.3 lengths respectively.
Injury, however, would curtail the gelding’s brilliant career after his first and only career start in Sydney.
Retirement and nanny duties
El Segundo didn’t race for 68 weeks following his 2007 Cox Plate victory, having bowed a tendon as part of his preparations for an autumn campaign. Injury was an ongoing concern for El Segundo and Little, with some recurrent joint issues requiring frequent attention.
After eventually making his return in January of 2009, El Segundo finished fourth in So You Think’s first Cox Plate that spring, before returning with an unplaced run in the G1 Newmarket the following autumn.
With no suitable races in Melbourne, a plan was hatched to try the now eight-year-old in Sydney.
“We’d resurrected him, he’d had a fair bit of time off and everything seemed good, but there was just no race for him in Melbourne. And we thought he was going really well, not maybe as good as ever but we decided to go up for the George Ryder.”
Despite having galloped the reverse way during Caulfield slow work ‘hundreds of times’, the change in direction on race day proved the gelding’s undoing.
“Craig Williams was on him and he was on one rein the whole race and unfortunately he just bowed the other tendon, because of the pressure he was putting on that leg.
“So that was the end of it, the first tendon was perfect, but he did the opposite leg in that race so we retired him.”
Still going strong at 21 years of age, El Segundo now happily fulfils the role of ‘babysitter’ to the foals and weanlings at Amarina Farm, a boutique breeding farm in Dalswinton, New South Wales.
As for what the freakish son of Palos Verdes means to Little today?
“He changed my life. I’ve just retired and if anyone ever asks ‘How’d you go in your career?’, I’ll say to them ‘Well, I trained a horse called El Segundo’.”
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