Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories: Pacers 2001/2002 Season
Like Hancock, Justice also had in recent years been blessed with two Grand Circuit performers competing at the same time. For the previous two seasons he had travelled north from Victoria with the stable’s No 2 pacer, Safe And Sound, winning the Australian Pacing Championship on one of these visits. This time Justice decided to swap the pair around, sending Shakamaker to the Sunshine State, and aiming Safe And Sound at the two-mile Kilmore Cup. This latter race would be the day after the Australian Pacing Championship at Albion Park.
Also missing a trip to Queensland that October was the champion mare Tailamade Lombo. A minor injury suffered while out on agistment would delay her return to racing by several weeks. Stable spokesman, Noel Alexander, explained the setback was not serious, but would prevent the mare from racing until the following month. “Perhaps the interruption could prove to be a blessing in disguise, and she will be given a slow build-up and aimed at the $100,000 Ladyship Mile at Harold Park in November. Every previous time she has gone to Sydney for this race it was after having a burst in Queensland first,” he said. The previous year Tailamade Lombo had beaten Courage Under Fire NZ in track record time in the Queensland Championship.
Early in October, Hancock announced he was delighted with the way his little star Courage Under Fire NZ had come back following its time spent in the spelling paddock. Being beaten by Jofess at the Bulli trials did not dampen Hancock’s confidence in his horse. Jofess, trained and driven by Hancock’s nephew Darren, had actually raced outside of Courage Under Fire NZ at Bulli. Darren Hancock was ecstatic after the win by Jofess, but did not want to place too greater importance on it, explaining to the media that neither horse had been fully extended.
Having constantly been rivals in many Grand Circuit races in the past two years, the rivalry between John Justice and Brian Hancock was becoming extremely keen to say the least. When news of that Bulli trial result filtered through to Justice in Victoria, his first reaction was to say: “It’s a little hard down here to know just how well Courage Under Fire is going this time in. I heard that Jofess had raced outside and beat him at Bulli. So, maybe the horse is not going quite as well as Brian has been telling everyone,” he was quoted as saying.
There are no prizes for winning at the trials, and Hancock continued to express his satisfaction with his stallion’s early progress. A free-for-all at Fairfield on October 1 did seem to be an ideal date for the horse’s return to racing. Club Secretary Ross Scherf was also hoping to entice Dennis Wilson to allow Atitagain NZ to resume in this race on that State’s Labour Day Holiday.
When asked by a reporter to confirm that Courage Under Fire NZ would resume at Fairfield, Hancock refused to be drawn on the matter. “Each time I announce my intentions to start him, everybody with an open class horse starts to run the other way. For the life of me, I don’t know why. It’s not as if I will be going out there to set track records,” said Hancock, frustrated at the thought this race might well fall away and even be deleted from the program.
After being earlier told by stable foreman Jimmy Brown that Atitagain NZ was expected to resume in this race, Scherf suddenly found that on the return home from the US, Dennis Wilson was then not so sure his horse would be at Fairfield that day. The race did go ahead without Atitagain NZ, with Courage Under Fire NZ having little worry downing what was only moderate opposition.
Meanwhile, Melton trainer John Justice had brought Shakamaker back a week or two earlier than the stallion previously resumed racing. His record first up at Moonee Valley was sound, but Justice knew this was more to do with the pacer’s natural talent and its fierce desire to win. Shakamaker was a horse that needed hard racing to bring the stallion to anything like its best. A week after Courage Under Fire NZ had resumed at Fairfield, ‘Shaka’ easily downed Parawanga in a Melbourne free-for-all.
“He felt super,” announced a delighted Justice. “That run will do him good, as he needed a good blow-out before heading to Queensland. I think he could become even stronger this time in,” he added. With the first half of that mile covered in 57.4, Shakamaker, sweeping around the field from last, was timed to pace its last 800 metres in 56.8, returning a mile rate of 1:57.8.
When preparing to send his stallion to Brisbane by float, Justice pointed out that under the preferential draw of the Queensland Championship, both ‘Shaka’ and Courage Under Fire could both be expected to start from the second line. “I am hoping for a good cart up, but the track there does allow horses to come from behind. The Grand Circuit seems pretty even this year, so whichever of these two horses gets the better run will win this race,” he predicted.
Despite the best efforts of the Gold Coast Harness Racing Club at Parklands, the two keen rivals trained in NSW and Victoria were the only interstate pacers to accept for the first race on the new Grand Circuit. This meant that eight of the 10 starters would be locals, with none of these regarded as genuine Grand Circuit performers. If the event lacked real depth, it was still an event race promoters would have a field day with. Being owned on the Gold Coast by Greg Brodie, Courage Under Fire NZ would again fly the Queensland flag against his adversary from Victoria.
Surprisingly, Courage Under Fire NZ had not won a race in which Shakamaker had competed since July 10, 1999, when the then Kiwi-trained Queenslander had captured the Australian Derby at Moonee Valley. Courage Under Fire NZ, with a record of winning at its first 24 starts, had been considered the finest young pacer to have raced in Australasia. In six subsequent clashes, Shakamaker had won twice, both major races – the 2000 Inter Dominion, and the 2001 Victoria Cup.
The club decided to keep this meeting an all-tote program. Two bookmakers who would field there when it suited them, did offer to once again lay the odds. However, the Gold Coast HRC declined their offer. Despite wet weather plaguing the meeting, both betting on and off-course was strong, as was the racing in the rain. The Parklands track has long been accepted as one of the best wet-weather circuits around, with it and Albion Park rating only marginally behind Tasmania’s Mowbray, at Launceston, as the most superior wet track in Australia. (The latter has the exact dimensions as Albion Park, but did include a breakthrough in track design when first constructed.)
In the field of 10, Courage Under Fire NZ actually drew Barrier 8, outside the front row. It was not a good gate, unless your horse had the speed to take up a prominent position early. With Shakamaker an odds-on tote favourite, Justice was content to keep his pacer at the rear. Hancock, on the other hand, came out fast, and after briefly being wide around the first turn, moved up and parked outside the leader DB Bopper NZ for a time. When General Jujon went forward at the 1500 metres, Hancock was then able to park one-out, one-back.
Expecting Shakamaker to be moving up anytime, Hancock looked back over his right shoulder at the 1300 metres, again at the 1200 metres, and twice more over the following 200 metres, without seeing his rival. When the favourite eventually did come into view out three wide, Hancock moved his horse out three wide, remaining there until approaching the 600-metre mark. At a time when Shakamaker was being pushed four wide by Masterson, Courage Under Fire NZ dashed for home, setting up a winning break around the hometurn.
The favourite ran on gamely to finish second, with Rare Fuel (Lola Kunde) third, after finding the passing lane up the home straight. The quickest quarter for the race had been a 28.20 when racing for the 400 metres, with Shakamaker having been timed to have reeled it off in 27 seconds when racing wide.
A video replay of the race showed that Courage Under Fire NZ had raced to victory without the need of the whip. So concerned had Hancock been in knowing where his main rival was in the running, he was seen to have looked back over a shoulder six times.
Brian Hancock described his stallion’s 36th win from 47 lifetime starts as “good”. Moments later he went even further when he declared how they would not beat his horse on the Grand Circuit this year. (The trainer-driver had made a similar remark some 12 months earlier, with Courage Under Fire then proving him to be well wide of the mark.)
Perhaps owner Greg Brodie summed it up best of all when he said: “These two horses are the most popular pacers in the country, and their match-race billings will continue to have big public following whenever they meet on the Grand Circuit.”
|1977-1991 known as Australian Grand Circuit. 1992 New Zealand included, and Circuit renamed Australasian Grand Circuit.|