It’s a moot point who of the Ken and Bev Kelso, husband and wife, Matamata training partnership was more relieved when Xanadu ended a painstaking string of Group 1 race placings with a dominant win in the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes at Te Aroha recently.
Despite experiencing their best ever term in 30 years of training, prizemoney and stakes-race wins-wise, plus a landmark New Zealand Bloodstock Filly of the Year title secured via high class three-year-old filly Fix, no one could begrudge the frustration of nine minor Group 1 cheques from as many elite level attempts one week past a calendar year.
Shared by three of their 16-only horse team, the test of character began with the worst numerical placing when Fix blew both a likely Group 1 win and perfect three from three juvenile score running fifth against the outside fence in the Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes late March last year.
A week later making her Group 1 debut, Xanadu underlined her potential with a strong finishing third in the fillies and mares metric mile championship she eventually captured this year. Between times, however, the Elusive City four-year-old registered three seconds, another third and a fourth at Group 1 level.
Xanadu chased weight-for-age star Ocean Park home in the Makfi Challenge Stakes when the top colt began a four-win Group 1 winning streak culminating in his Cox Plate success at Moonee Valley.
The Kelsos set Xanadu all of the Hawkes Bay triple crown spring features and she ran well in each, third after ironhorse Mufhasa in the middle leg and fourth extending past 1600m for the first and only time to date in the other.
With Xanadu rejuvenating for a summer and autumn campaign, Fix picked up the Group 1 baton, trekking to Riccarton for the New Zealand 1000 Guineas and a close third behind Roll out the Carpet and Waterford.
Around the same time, Ken and Bev produced their next trump card in the form of an expensive Sydney Easter yearling selection for Fix’s owner, former Hawkes’ Bay businessman and greyhound racing identity Gary Harding.
Ken Kelso helped select Fix for Harding at the 2011 Karaka Premier sale where she cost $220,000 and Ken was in tow again in Sydney 15 months later to recommend a Lonhro ex Believe ‘n’ Succeed filly secured for $A425,000.
After showing immediate promise in a trial win, the Australian import named Bounding won impressively on debut at Ellerslie then got the measure of Wellesley Stakes winner Ruud Awakening in a Listed stakes race at Counties.
Fix continued on the Filly of the Year series trail and asserted herself with a Group 2 double at Ellerslie Xmas/New Year carnival, the latter over 2000m causing more thought about her potential for the New Zealand Derby and or Oaks.
Proving their ability to prime their charges for major targets, the couple had Xanadu cherry ripe to resume in the country’s only Group 1 1200m sprint and she almost stole the show through her customary late flourish to beat all except Final Touch in the Telegraph at Trentham late January.
She continued in similar vein behind the vastly improved South Island mare in the Waikato Draught Sprint over 1400m early February, almost providing the second leg of a Group double as Fix had made it three successive Group 2 victories in the Sir Tristram Classic earlier on the program.
Fix’s authoritative win again over 2000m convinced her connections to make a late payment for the New Zealand Derby and take on then unbeaten filly Habibi who suddenly looked vulnerable a week later when surprisingly beaten in the Avondale Guineas.
The move forced a change of jockey as Vinny Colgan, afforded the luxury of riding both fillies when Habibi’s connections took a course against the male three-year-olds leading into the Derby, decided on that filly.
And, to further conspire against a Kelso Group 1 victory, Fix drew the outside alley while Habibi got the inside gate., a scenario that eventually told when the two top fillies fought out the finish with Habibi gaining the upper hand late in the piece.
A week earlier, Bounding suffered a similar fate at Group 2 level in the Matamata Breeders Stakes behind subsequent Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes winner Recite and with Xanadu out of form at Group 3 level then Ruud Awakening reversing the form against Bounding in the Group 1 Diamond Stakes on the final two days of the Auckland Cup carnival, nerves around the Kelso establishment were understandably frayed.
Sensibly abandoning plans to run Xanadu in the $A1m Doncaster Handicap in Sydney, they regrouped and opted for the lesser Group 1 at Te Aroha and finally everything fell into place to break their big race hoodoo.
For Bev, who took a break away from the training partnership due to health issues from 2003 until 2010, it was her first taste of Group 1 success since Love Dance won the 1996 Kelt Capital Stakes after having provided the partnership with their initial Group 1 win in the 1995 Avondale Cup.
Ken added a solo Group 1 win with Envoy in the 2006 Wellington Cup, a high-class stayer the couple co-owned whose career ended tragically in the 2008 Auckland Cup which hit them hard at the time.
However, back as the tight hands-on team of old, and judging by their superb results including the best strike rate of any trainers with more than 50 starters this term, it will be surprising if Ken and Bev wait anywhere near as long for their next Group 1 success.