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An inspired ride by Michael Walker helped Puccini justify his favouritism in the New Zealand Derby on Saturday.

A noted front-runner, Puccini missed the jump and was fourth-last early in a slowly-run 2400m race at Ellerslie.

But Walker moved him round the field mid-race to go outside the leader with 900m to run, a key move as second favourite Rising Romance was striking traffic problems.

Puccini sprinted hard in the straight and though Rising Romance finished strongly, she was still two lengths behind at the line.

Peter McKay, who trains Puccini at Matamata with his son Jacob, said he was concerned after Puccini missed the start by a half length, enough that he couldn’t get to the lead.

“When he got back, and they were walking, I said to Jacob `if he can win from here, he’s a good horse’,” McKay said.

“Michael obviously didn’t panic, the horse dragged his way forward, and Michael just sat there. There’s no harm doing that if they’re not having to use the horse up.”

Walker, who rode the race in some pain after injuring his back in a winning ride earlier in the day, said he thought Puccini was the best horse he’d ridden.

“Horses don’t do that, and I was still at full steam at the winning post. He could have gone another lap.”

McKay said he’d like to take Puccini to Sydney for the Australian Derby.

“They’re only three once, and why not. I think he dominated against some good horses,” he said.

“If not, I said last time `bring on the Cox Plate’ and I think he’s the sort of horse that could do it.”

Rising Romance was gallant in defeat, getting stuck on the rail due to her number one draw.

By the time she got clear, Puccini was many lengths in front – albeit after having done more work mid-race – and she did well to get as close as two lengths away.

Co-trainer Donna Logan said she would probably head to Sydney, possibly for the Australian Oaks.

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