Rookies carry the day in Manawatu Steeplechase Sat, 17 Jun 2017

Dennis Ryan
The Oysterman and Hamish McNeill make an impressive sight on their way to victory in the Manawatu Steeplechase.
The Oysterman and Hamish McNeill make an impressive sight on their way to victory in the Manawatu Steeplechase.
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The rookies carried the day in the LJ Hooker Manawatu Steeplechase when Awapuni trainer Stephen Nickalls and Hamilton jockey Hamish McNeill combined for victory with The Oysterman at Trentham today.

Nickalls had prepared just one winner in four seasons before today’s landmark victory, but he has become a well-recognised figure on the jumps racing circuit. For one he is the partner and right-hand man of Laura Knight, the trainer of last year’s Waikato Hurdle winner Ready Edie, while perhaps more significant has been his exuberant behaviour watching from the grandstand as his horses compete.

The Oysterman was part of that two years ago when he put up a valiant performance only to be run down by Mr Mor in the Wellington Steeplechase. Nickalls put just as much energy into urging his horse home, making him a YouTube celebrity as his display captured by the Trackside cameras went viral.

He was at it again today watching from his favourite spot in the public grandstand and this time he wasn’t to be denied as The Oysterman shed maiden status in his 21st start. Confidently ridden by 21-year-old Scot McNeill, The Oysterman was in touch from the start and when the pacemaking favourite The Big Opal came to grief, victory was his to seize.

Over the final 1000 metres the son of renowned jumping sire Yamanin Vital never looked like putting a foot wrong as he denied his challengers. At the winning post The Oysterman had a length and three-quarters to spare over Joking, who was in touch from the start, with two and half lengths to Wise Men Say, running on strongly from well back.

“It doesn’t get any better than this!” said the breathless Nickalls as he raced to the winner’s stall. “The horse really deserved it and Hamish rode him beautifully.

“Watch out when he has another round to go next month,” he added in reference to the 5500-metre Wellington Steeplechase on July 15.

The Oysterman also finished third in last year’s edition of the Trentham feature, while other worthy efforts include a fourth placing in last year’s Great Northern Steeplechase.

Today’s win was another step up the ladder for McNeill, whose first two years since emigrating from Scotland were an even bigger exercise in frustration than what Nickalls has faced with The Oysterman.

“I’ve been with the Rogerson stable for the past two years and it’s all come together this year,” McNeill told “I had an early win at Riverton on Delacroix and two more on him including the Otago Hurdles.

“I’m so grateful to Stephen for letting me ride this horse and it’s great for both of them to win a big race. I know he hadn’t won a race before today but he wasn’t really what you’d call a maiden.

“Today I figured The Big Opal was the horse to follow, so I got on his coat-tails. When he fell I thought here we go and without wanting to make it sound bad, you do need the luck to go your way.

“The Oysterman isn’t the quickest horse, but he jumped so well today and it all worked out well for us.”

The Big Opal's rider Shaun Fannin was cleared of injury, while Emma Goodinson, who was unseated from Nells Belle on the first circuit, was taken to hospital for observation.