Doug Writes Country Championships Script

A full house for Wagga trainer Doug Gorrel is 22 horses.

On the back of Asgarda claiming the title of Newhaven Park Country Championships winner in 2024 he hopes he can put the house full sign up sometime soon. It hasn’t been full in a while.

That’s the brilliance of the Country Championships. You don’t need to have a stable bustling with prospects, you just need one good horse and in Asgarda’s case it took a couple of years for her to become an overnight success with her runaway Randwick win.

She’s one of around 16 horses in Gorrel’s care and the former sports reporter turned trainer has the fingers crossed that winning a $1 million race on Day 1 of The Star Championships shines a light on his stable.

“I do hope that’s a byproduct of it and everyone tells me it will be. But talk is cheap, we will see,’’ Gorrel said.

Doug Gorrel and Kayla Nisbet celebrate their Country Championships success (Pic: Bradley Photos).

“We love winning races, the more horses you’ve got the more races you can win.

“It won’t stop us getting a kick out of going to Griffith or the picnics and winning races.

“If they’ve got to go to the picnics to win then they do. Nine times out of 10 the owners still get a thrill out of it.

“I’m very proud. What amazes me is the way she did it so easily, she brained them in the end.”

The picnics is exactly where Gorrel was, Ardlethan to be precise, a couple of weeks before becoming the centre of attention at Royal Randwick. He took three horses there and didn’t run a place.

That tells you he’s grounded. So from the time Asgarda ran second behind Bianco Vilano in the Southern Districts Championships at Albury in late February, to qualify for the Final, he didn’t allow too much dreaming of what it might feel like to win.

Even if he had, though, it’s clear the dream wouldn’t have matched the reality of when his horse sprinted to the front 300m out in the coveted country race and went on to win by more than a length.

To be fair, he admitted after the race she wasn’t supposed to win – she was a $26 chance after all!

“We were on cloud nine, it was amazing,’’ he said.

“I hadn’t really thought about it beforehand because I didn’t want to put any expectations on it but it was just a massive thrill.

“Those races are just so hard to win at that level. Any race in Sydney is hard to win.

“They are effectively the top 16 up to Class 5 horses in country NSW, you think ‘I’ve got a good horse’ but 15 others have a good horse as well.

“It’s really satisfying for the team, we can’t do this without good staff.”

So exactly who is behind Asgarda and when did Gorrel know he had a progressive horse on his hands?

The now four-year-old mare was bred at Kooringal Stud and they retained a share as Gorrel and major owner Lance Gilbert, an ex-rugby league player and Yenda publican, put together a syndicate of some 26 owners.

A large number of those owners are from the Griffith area but a few hail from other parts of NSW and the northern and southern states.

It was Anaelle Gangotena, a former jockey who Gorrel describes as his “right hand woman”, that the trainer credits for shaping Asgarda into a Country Championships winner.

“Anaelle is a very talented rider, she used to be my apprentice, she rode winners at the picnics and professionally. She rides pretty much all the horses’ work,’’ he said.

“Effectively Anaelle’s ridden all this horse’s work for the past 18 months to two years. And she wasn’t easy at the start so Anaelle’s done a lot of good work with her.

“She’s strong willed, a bit pig headed, but she’s now a real professional little racehorse.

“We went quietly, quietly with her and thankfully Lance allowed us to do that.

“She always gave Anaelle a nice feel from day one, she said if you look after this horse you might have a nice one. She’s quick on her feet, in the early days she was prone to a few silly little antics but she came good.

“Each prep she improved dramatically from the last one and even this prep she’s improved.”

Asgarda and Kayla Nisbet return after winning the 2024 Newhaven Park Country Championships Final (Pic: Bradley Photos)

Gorrel’s former apprentice Molly Bourke rode Asgarda to her maiden win on Gundagai Cup Day in 2023, almost a year to the day before her Country Championships win, and when Bourke “went on to the big time” in Sydney he called on Kalya Nisbet to take the reins.

And he stuck with her. Nisbet is the first female jockey to win a Country Championships and Gorrel said he was never going to give in to the temptation of booking a Sydney based jockey for the grand final.

“I think Kayla is a very talented jockey. Given the horse had such a good rapport with Anaelle and then Molly I liked the idea of sticking with a female jockey,’’ he said.

“She doesn’t like to be bullied, she likes kind hands and you have to work with her. Sometimes I think the girls do that better than the boys.

“I was never tempted, I booked Kayla early. Maybe one or two of the owners were tempted to go that way but Lance was more than happy with Kayla and appreciated how well Kayla and the horse got along.

“She could have been a Sydney jockey if that’s what floated her boat. She lacks nothing in ability, she just went a different path.”

Doug Gorrel’s journey has been well reported. He could have written this story himself, as a sports reporter for 17 years before turning to training racehorses.

It’s also been well documented that only a month or two before Asgarda’s maiden win he and Bourke were involved in a truck accident on the way to an Albury race meeting that claimed the life of one of his horses and left him with a nasty leg injury.

They’re noteworthy background items. Those stories have been told.

Gorrel says it was “a dream come true” at Royal Randwick back on April 6, “the most wonderful feeling”. You can imagine he’d like that feeling again.

While he doesn’t have the ammunition of some of the larger country stables the search will go on for the next Asgarda – who may attempt the big country double and target the $2 million The Kosciuszko later in the year – for 2025.

“If you’re a country trainer you do think ‘have I got a horse that can get to that Class 3 or 4 level and is good enough for the heats’, but they’re hard to find,’’ he said.

– *This article originally appeared in the Mat 2024 edition of the Racing NSW magazine

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