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  • Provincial Racing NSW


NEWCASTLE jockey Darryl “Digger” McLellan will have his first Group 1 ride in four years at Flemington on Saturday.

And he’s hoping his return to the scene of his last involvement at racing’s elite level will result in both an upset success - and an early birthday present.

McLellan partners Scone trainer John Ramsey’s lightly-raced three-year-old Warialda Warrior, (pictured) a $101 outsider for the $2m Victoria Derby (2500m).

His previous Group 1 ride was also for Ramsey, when $41 chance Never Listen belied her odds to finish second to Miami Bound in the VRC Oaks (2500m) on November 7, 2019.

McLellan will celebrate another birthday on Wednesday – and by coincidence it also the same date his Derby mount was foaled in 2020.

A Group 1 winner twice (on Magic Of Money in The Galaxy at Royal Randwick in 1995, and Sydney Cup at the same track on Henderson Bay in 2002), he is looking forward to the opportunity to again ride in a major, especially in one of Australia’s oldest classics; first run in 1855 (six years before the Melbourne Cup began).

“John is talking Warialda Warrior to Melbourne today, and I’ll fly down on Friday afternoon,” McLellan said this morning.

There will be no time for celebrations, however, if the gelded son of Saxon Warrior overpowers his Derby rivals.

“I have to fly back on Saturday night, as I’m riding at Muswellbrook on Sunday,” McLellan said.

“Have saddle will travel!”

A “veteran” of only five starts, Warialda Warrior has drawn barrier nine in a field of 16 for his Derby assignment.

“I have ridden him twice, and didn’t like him that much the first time (when odds-on and third in a 2300m Class 1/Maiden Plate at Newcastle on October 14),” McLellan said.

“But he pulled too hard that day.

“It was a different story when I rode him again at Scone 13 days later in a country 2200m Class 1/Maiden Plate.

“John took the visors off and he won easily.

“Warialda Warrior really let down that day, and I was very happy with him.

“He isn’t as mature currently as John would like him to be as this is his first preparation.

“Once he has a spell and comes back into work, I’m sure a race like the Queensland Derby next winter will be a nice target for him.

“Saturday’s Derby will come down to which horse stays the best.

“I’ve got no doubt Warialda Warrior will stay; it’s just a matter of whether he’s strong enough at present to beat them.

“But we’re there, and we’ll give it our best shot.”

Whilst the visors stay off, Ramsey will use ear muffs on Warialda Warrior to help keep him settled during the pre-race parade and on the way to the start on Saturday. They will be removed before he leaves the barrier stalls.

Ramsey is using a similar path with his last-start winner to that of Never Listen four years ago.

She bolted home, with McLellan aboard, in a Benchmark 58 Handicap (2200m) at Scone before going to Melbourne for the Oaks.

The winner of nearly 1700 races since his first as a 3kg claiming apprentice on Curtain Bluff in a Country Stakes (1600m) at Tamworth on April 22, 1989, McLellan has won 26 at stakes level (12 Group 2 and 3s and 14 Listed) to go with his two Group 1 triumphs.

His racing career was in tatters on Boxing Day 2011 at Broadmeadow when his mount Double Your Money broke down badly approaching the 600m in the opening race. McLellan was dislodged and injured his left shoulder.

That shoulder had given him grief previously, and initial surgery didn’t help. He put up with the pain for 12-18 months before further surgery finally gave him absolute relief.

But it was a different type of surgery – on his birthday in 2017 – which enabled him to make a successful comeback and continue his riding career.

McLellan said at the time he could not have wished for a better birthday present when he underwent the surgery at Newcastle’s Lingard Hospital to remedy a hip problem which had plagued him for decades.

“I hurt my hip really bad when I was a kid, and it got to the stage that I couldn’t stand it any longer,” he explained.

“It had become calcified. The ball joint was too big for the socket.

“Whether walking or sitting, I was in absolute agony. It wasn’t too bad when I was crouching over a horse’s neck.”

After a riding hiatus of nearly five and a half years – he drove a tip truck for a year or so – McLellan started riding again at the Gold Coast in mid-August 2017, and saw the operation as necessary to continue doing what he loves.

“I’m feeling fit and enjoying my riding, and I’m not ageing,” he said.

“Bring on Flemington.”

HOOFNOTE: In his earlier days, coupled with the fact he could ride light, McLellan was sought by leading trainer John Hawkes (who then trained for the Ingham brothers) to ride Octagonal’s son Lonhro (pictured above) as a three-year-old in the Group 2 Warwick Stakes (1300m) at Warwick Farm in 2001.

McLellan rode Lonhro at his 49.5kg in the weight-for-age event (now the Group 1 Winx Stakes, 1400m at Randwick). The colt was the only one of his age in the race and beat 12 rivals on his way to winning 26 of his 35 starts.

Two years earlier, Hawkes also called on McLellan to ride another three-year-old Lease, who drew off the track before finishing second to the champion New Zealand mare Sunline in the Group 1 Doncaster Handicap at Randwick.

It wasn’t a Group 1 either, but McLellan still savours his 2000 Group 3 Newcastle Gold Cup triumph on Silent Impact when Newcastle Jockey Club hosted the first ever metropolitan Saturday stand-alone meeting at Broadmeadow because of the Sydney Olympics.

Story John Curtis, November 1, 2023 - Pics Bradley Photos*

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