Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories: Pacers 2001/2002 Season
The race has been won by numerous pacers to also win an Inter Dominion. This trend began with Bandbox, followed by Young Pedro, Minuteman, Gammalite, Westburn Grant, Thorate, Weona Warrior, Young Mister Charles NZ and of course Our Sir Vancelot NZ. This latest South Australian Cup would be held on the following night to the Fremantle Cup.
Unlike the geographical position of Perth, horses from Melbourne and Sydney are always floated to Adelaide for this Group 1 event. This is why the major Grand Circuit stables of Brian Hancock and John Justice can usually be expected to be in Adelaide in January. In this latest season, South Australian officials would come to understand why Perth’s racing secretary Alan Parker has in recent years been tempted to pull his hair out through frustration with the uncertainty of plane flights from the east.
Hancock, late in December, delighted Adelaide officials when he notified them he would start Courage Under Fire NZ in the Cup, on the way to Perth for the WA Pacing Cup six days later. No sooner had the host club been informed of this when John Justice told the club he would also be sending Safe And Sound across to the SA Cup on the first leg of it then being flown to Perth for the WA Pacing Cup. And to top off a great week for officials, Justice also nominated stablemate Shakamaker for Adelaide’s only Grand Circuit event.
Hancock had given Courage Under Fire NZ a two-week break after its unplaced run in the Treuer Memorial on December 8. “Now he will race right through until the end of the Inter Dominion series,” said the trainer. He also reported how the horse was jumping out of its skin since placed back in work. The SA Cup would be an ideal race to bring the Queensland-owned pacer back to near its best.
Both Hancock and Justice would soon be thwarted in their efforts to arrange for a flight from the east to Perth. Hancock’s reaction to this on the eve of final acceptors for the race in Adelaide, was to scratch Courage Under Fire NZ from both the Adelaide and Perth engagements. Safe And Sound was also scratched from Perth by John Justice, but he assured Adelaide officials that not only would the recent Kilmore Cup winner be in Adelaide for their race, but so too would Shakamaker.
It seems strange that both stables were extremely keen to be in Perth for the $250,000 WA Cup six days after the SA Cup, but neither had shown any interest in flying there earlier for the $125,000 Fremantle Cup. Not only was the Fremantle Cup worth more than the SA Cup, but it would have allowed them seven days break instead of the six days had they started in Adelaide on the way. It was not surprising Justice did not turn his back on racing at Globe Derby Park.
Justice had been born in Victoria. However, he and brother Lance had done their growing up not only near Adelaide, but spending much of the time on a small property next to Globe Derby Park. Having had a father and mother very much involved in the sport, it was only natural both boys would become involved with harness racing. In the era that followed the great success of Reg and Bob Norman, and their driver Dick Webster, the Justice brothers forged their names in the records with both collecting their share of training and driving premierships. Lance was the first of the pair to win a SA Cup, successful with Whirley Dream in 1989. John had to wait until 2000 when Safe And Sound saluted.
John had been the first of the pair to transfer his stables to Victoria, setting up shop in the Melton ‘suburb’ of Toolern Vale. Since his move, he had gone from success to success, establishing one of the most successful harness racing stables in Australia. More recently older brother Lance followed the move, with his new stables just a two-minute mile away.
It was expected brother Lance would also be keen to return to Adelaide for its big night now that he had in his stable the Grand Circuit performer Sokyola NZ. Acting on this assumption, a meeting between John Justice and long-time owner Carol Watson, the managing owner of Safe And Sound, decided to offer the drive on their stallion to leading Adelaide horseman Geoff Webster.
“Two hours after the booking had been confirmed by Webster, Lance phoned me to say he was not going to run Sokyola, and was now available to drive Safe And Sound,” explained John at the move which surprised many when first made public. When contacted by the press as to why brother Lance was not driving, the trainer explained he could not now go back on a booking once it had been confirmed. “I’m a bit of a bad guy in our family at the moment,” he chuckled over the mix-up.
It is doubtful if any horseman in any era has dominated Adelaide harness racing in the way Geoff Webster has in recent years. Having grown up in the same era as the Justice brothers, Webster had always been a much-respected rival and had not driven a great deal for the now Victorian-based trainer. There was the occasion where he did win a Tatlow Trotting Final on High Riser for him, and another time when he drove Safe And Sound in the Tatlow Final for pacers when beaten in a photo finish by Smooth Dixie. Safe And Sound would go into the Adelaide Cup in good form, having at its previous start just been edged out of winning the Geelong Cup by Wally Walton, also a starter in Adelaide.
The dominance of Victorian pacers in this South Australian Cup was so pronounced that of the field of nine that would start, all but one of these were from across the border. Friends For Life, a six-year-old son of Classic Garry, trained by George Gilbert on the track for his son Andrew and their friend Ron Onley, would start from barrier three and be driven by local Mark Billinger.
During the previous season Friends For Life had been sent to Queensland for a campaign there under the guidance of local horseman Lou Cini. After a second to Lombo Rapida in the Four and Five-Year-Old Championship, it had led throughout to beat Facta Non Verba NZ and Lombo Rapida in the featured Sunshine Sprint.
A winner of 22 of its 63 starts, this would be only the third start from a spell for Friends For Life. It had won first up beating a field of local moderates with a good mile rate of 1:57.4. It then finished second the previous week in the Clipsal Cup to the visiting Persistency in a mile rate of 1:57.3. Sokyola NZ had also started in that race for Lance Justice, finishing a disappointing fourth at only its second start from a spell.
Persistency’s visit to Adelaide also brought Australia’s leading reinsman to that State. Gavin Lang is not only the first Australian to drive more than 3100 winners, but this cool-headed horseman is a delight to see in action, preferring to coax the best from a horse. Lang was pleased with the win by Persistency. “He hasn’t been the same horse since the Brisbane Inter Dominion, but he felt really good, and hopefully is on the way back to his best,” he had stated after the victory.
In pre-race betting, Shakamaker was an extremely short odds-on favourite with bookmaker Bob Holton, from 6/1 Safe And Sound, 7/1 Wally Walton and Persistency, 8/1 Mon Amigo, 14/1 Friends For Life and Pass The Mustard, 100/1 Loaded Hog and 500/1 Bold Stefan. In barrier order, the field was: Bold Stefan, Mon Amigo, Friends For Life, Pass The Mustard, Loaded Hog NZ, Safe And Sound front row. The three off the second line were Wally Walton, Shakamaker and Persistency
There were some who believed Shakamaker was not quite the horse it had been in the season it had won its Inter Dominion Championship. These past months it had tasted defeat in several legs of the Grand Circuit that Victorians generally believed the stallion a season or so before would have won. This field may not have had quite the same depth to it, and most tipsters did feel ‘Shaka’ was the one they had to beat. The only previous time Shakamaker had raced at Globe Derby it had won the 1998 SA Derby.
Leading Adelaide harness racing authority Dennis Browne, a great fan of the horse, had no doubts the powerful looking son of Bookmaker USA had this race at his mercy. In Browne’s preview of the race, under the headline ‘Shakamaker to blow ‘em away’, he wrote: “Champion Victorian pacer Shakamaker is poised to take a step closer to the $2 million prizemoney barrier in Saturday night’s $100,000 South Australia Cup at Globe Derby Park.” A win would leave Shakamaker only $108,325 short of the magical $2 million mark. Browne selected Shakamaker to win from Persistency and Wally Walton.
Persistency was a pacer that had promised much three years earlier, before afflicted by persistent injuries. A difficult horse to train, Persistency had the advantage of being driven by Lang. The horseman many claim to have no peer in modern day harness racing, gave the Adelaide crowd a taste of his horsemanship early in the night when picking up the drive on Blazin Sox in the final of the Southern Cross Series. It was a classic display in the sulky before Lang raced past the short-priced favourite (Duomo) in the home straight. Horses usually go well for Lang, who has the knack of coaxing the best from them.
The day before the meeting, Lang agreed with comments made by John Justice how the barrier draw ensured tactics would play a big role in the outcome. While Lang was disappointed with Persistency’s draw on the outside of the second row, he was still confident his rivals would know the horse was in the race. This now seven-year-old Safely Kept USA gelding had won 24 of its 52 starts, without ever quite reaching the heights expected before its injuries.
Wally Walton, a six-year-old trained by Brian Gath, was still improving. Even when competing at the very top level, this horse had become extremely consistent in its racing for Gath’s young son and driver, Matthew. It had now established a record of 21 wins and 15 placings from 53 starts. It had used the sprint lane in getting home hard at its latest start to win the Geelong Cup from Safe And Sound and Tailamade Lombo.
On the night of the South Australian Cup, John Justice was also away to a memorable meeting when he won the South Australian Pacers Derby with Henschke, yet another up-and-comer from what appeared to be an assembly line of quality pacers turned out by this stable.
The relationship between John Justice and the media has always been an open one, with the Victorian never afraid to discuss his likely driving tactics. There must have been occasions when this has played into the hands of rival drivers in the big races. During the week Justice again spoke frankly. “Looking at the way the barrier draw has panned out, Safe And Sound could eventually find the lead. At the same time, the draw does give me the chance to drive Shakamaker the way he races best – with one big sprint at the business end,” he said.
In the battle for the early lead, Mon Amigo was able to hold out the local hope Friends For Life. Shakamaker had settled midfield. Driving to instructions, Geoff Webster made an early move with Safe And Sound to push forward, finally dropping in to the ‘death’ with the stallion eyeballing Mon Amigo. The leader was not out to break any records with reinswoman Kerryn Gath maintaining only a moderate speed for this class. Persistency and Wally Walton were both being driven quietly, no doubt being saved for a late rush.
Taken out three wide with 1000m to travel, Shakamaker was not asked to go forward in a hurry, merely edging its way closer to the leaders. Approaching the home-turn the final time, the favourite was up three wide and coming on strongly. With the typical solid finish this horse is noted for, Shakamaker surged to the front to win from Mon Amigo, with Walton Hanover finishing off strongly to grab third.
There were no real dramas during the race, and none could claim having been unlucky. For Shakamaker, it was the stallion’s 39th win from 57 starts. “I am absolutely thrilled,” declared Justice on returning to the winner’s circle. “It’s easy when you have good horses like this bloke, but I also have a great staff at home who do a wonderful job. I’m rapt to be able to come back to South Australia and win a feature race like this,” he said.
|1977-1991 known as Australian Grand Circuit. 1992 New Zealand included, and Circuit renamed Australasian Grand Circuit.|