Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories:  Pacers 2002/2003 Season
Leg 7:  Metro Tasmanian Pacing Championship 2002/2003Results   Points
            29/12/2002  Hobart, Tas  2750m  Standing Start  $100,000
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Harness racing in Tasmania has its roots so deep into our past that there were enthusiasts before the first settlers came to Victoria from Launceston, and prior to trotting starting up in most other States. Down through the following generations, the sport’s success in the Apple Isle has ebbed and flowed like the tides.

Thus a tradition-steeped sport born in a bygone era in Tasmania was among the first to find itself competing against casinos for the interests and entertainment dollars. And it does so with a limited population, cut off from the mainland by the presence of Bass Strait, which restricts movement between the island State with the mainland to plane and boat.

The once strong genetic pool Tasmanian standardbred breeders had for so many years following the 1930s is no longer evident on the surface. But one does not have to look far to find owners and horsemen who share that passion for the pacing gait you will find in the more populated States. And this smallest of all Australian States can still come to light with a home-bred product capable of winning in Melbourne and Sydney.

One of the more successful behind-the-scene moves made in recent years in Tasmania has been the appointment of Kevin Neilson to the State’s top administration post. Neilson for some years mixed training and driving with school-teaching. Few State Chief Executives can match the hands-on background in our harness industry as he. Among numerous changes brought to bear under his leadership has been a program put in place that now enables the State’s best pacers to prepare for their only Group One event with three races they can use as a stepping stone to the $100,000 Tasmanian Pacing Championship.

These races are the $8,000 Danbury Park Cup in late November at Launceston (it used to be in mid-winter). A fortnight later there are two $7,000 Preludes for the Hobart Pacing Cup, with the finalists then contesting this Cup worth $25,000 two weeks later -- just one week before the Pacing Championship is hosted by the club at Hobart. This ‘new look’ series of racing not only enables the best local horses to be at their peak in late December, but the program can now be used as a carrot to entice pacers across from the mainland. It might not be enough to bring the big names on the Grand Circuit across, but imagine what several city-class performers from Melbourne and Sydney could achieve helping inject interest into the series, leaving ample room for the local horses to stake their claims.

The Danbury Cup takes its name from a property in the Launceston district where a century ago there existed a trotting track. Veteran, or should that be super veteran, Doug Martin, was the man who did much to initiate this race. It is well documented how Doug as a teenager in Perth had a small role at the first Inter Dominion Championship in 1936. He later married the daughter of the owner of the star at that carnival, the then Tasmanian Logan Derby. Back in the Apple Isle he got to train this remarkable little pacer before it moved on to New Zealand where it would also make its own niche as an influential sire.

An interesting inclusion in the Danbury Park Cup over 2698m was Melbourne pacer Marbles, trained and driven by John ‘Bulldog’ Nicholson. He had come to Tasmania on a working holiday. Not surprisingly, this representative of a noted betting stable had solid support, firming in betting from 5/2 to run a 2/1 favourite with its 10m handicap not fazing stable supporters unduly. Kukri, down to be driven off 15m by Ahmed Taiba, was scratched after acceptances when the horse was reported by connections to have been sold.

Poor barrier manners certainly cost Marbles dearly.  It galloped away and then hung in several times when making up ground. Marbles finished second to Flashing Red (Mark Geeves), which had drifted in betting from 7/2 to 6/1. Third in was Pedestal Boy (Scott Ford), kept safe in the betting and sent out a 9/2 chance. After a slowly run first half of the last mile, the winner scooted home with its last two quarters both despatched in 28.9 seconds. The disappointments were the two horses from the strong stable of Barrie Rattray. Equal second favourites at 4/1, Harry McCool (Barrie Rattray) off 15m finished fourth, and King Carey (Gareth Rattray) was ninth.

As the spotlight moved south to Hobart for two standing start Preludes for the Hobart Pacing Cup, the Hobart Mercury ran with the story that Victorian trainers Debbie and Gary Quinlan were planning a three-pronged attack on the $100,000 Tasmanian Pacing Championship on December 28 with Petes Dream, Sunset Soky and Cyclone George. The trip was conditional on them being able to secure suitable flights into and out of Hobart. Petes Dream the previous season had won the $25,000 George Johnson at Hobart, the biggest race for mares in that State, and more recently was the emergency in the Miracle Mile. Unfortunately for the club, these plans did not come to fruition for the Quinlan trio.

Two handy fields gathered at Hobart on December 8 for the Hobart Pacing Cup Preludes. In the first Prelude, Marbles, along with Cam Strike (Paul Hill) and Daman (Ramon Pullen), were handicapped off the backmark of 20 metres. The latter was an interesting pacer. A son of the Torado Hanover USA mare Amazing Bay, it was now raced in Queensland by Pullen, a former Tassie horseman, in partnership with Cremorne owner Don McVilley. Back in 1980 McVilley drove Our Grattan to win the Tasmanian Championship. Now in retirement, he was enjoying success as an owner.

Daman actually began his racing career in Queensland, and before coming down to Tasmania, it had raced with success at Harold Park.

Bookmakers were not overly impressed with the six horses off the front. They opened Daman a short-priced favourite ahead of Marbles and Cam Strike. The big money came for the now Queensland-based Daman, sending it out an even-money favourite over Marbles (3/1) and Cam Strike (7/2) in what was a good betting race. Once again Marbles was slowly out, ending up missing a place behind Cam Strike, Manwarra Hi Grade (Heath Woods) and Daman (Ramon Pullan). Stewards later accepted Pullen’s reason for his lack of vigour with the whip in the closing stages with the favourite.

Flashing Red (Mark Geeves) was the sole backmarker off 20m in the Second Prelude. It opened a 5/2 equal favourite with Celtic Ross (Neville Webberley) and Pedestal Boy (Scott Ford). Once again the handicappers had served up an open race for punters, with Flashing Red and Celtic Ross starting joint favourites at 9/4, from Pedestal Boy an 11/4 chance, and former smart youngster Turbo Tyson (Christian Salter) unwanted in betting to start a 12/1 hope. Four off the front row galloped away, with former State champion reinsman Neville Webberley steering Celtic Ross to victory over Its The Captain (Paul Hill) and Pedestal Boy. Stewards noted Turbo Tyson was badly held up for a run in the final lap.

The $25,000 Hobart Pacing Cup on December 22 had just two pacers handicapped off the backmark of 20m – Marbles and Daman. (This race had been won in both previous seasons by horses handicapped even further behind 20m.) Flashing Red and Cam Strike would come off 10m, with King Carey, Manwarra Hi Grade, Joriki, Pedestal Boy, Its the Captain and Celtic Ross off the front in that barrier order. Again punters threw in heavily on Daman for it to start an even-money favourite. Because of the dislike for standing start races, Marbles was becoming expensive for its supporters. It eased from 7/2 to 5/1, then firmed late in betting to start second favourite (4/1) just ahead of Celtic Ross.

Marbles was again up to its tricks from the standing start, and would beat only two home. The race over 2750m was won by Turbo Tyson (Christian Salter) after a gutsy effort. Trained out of Launceston by Dick Eaves for Bridport owner Phyllis France, Eaves is no stranger to winning feature races. Some years ago when private trainer for Geoff and Cheryl Finan, they captured an Oaks on the mainland among numerous black type races. An excited Eaves said after this latest win how he rated Turbo Tyson up with the best of his recent smart mares such as Strezlecki Lady, Cottro and Lindy’s Ticket.  Turbo Tyson had finished finished fast to beat the consistent Daman and Cam Strike.

Hopes that Melbourne pacer Orse M Wheels Bro NZ would be coming across Bass Strait to contest the $100,000 Tasmanian Pacing Championship would be dashed after the horse failed to please trainer Andy Gath when finishing only fifth in the Stawell Cup. “The horse struggled to get around the Stawell track, so we don’t think he would handle Hobart”, Gath said in explaining the change of plans. He added that stablemate Hearts Legend would also not be going over because of the tight Tassie circuit. (The day of the big race in Hobart, Hearts Legend broke down while being worked at its Great Western stables, and would not race again this season. The former Tassie pacer had won nine of its 16 starts since joining the stables of Andy Gath.

Another pacer Gath had been involved with, Pentameter, would contest the Tasmanian Championship and would be driven by Gath’s brother Glen. This horse was owned by former Tasmanian veterinarian Dr Anne McConnell and her husband Darren Jacobson. Before her marriage, she had spent two years as the resident vet with Australia’s largest stud, Alabar Farms at Echuca. The couple now lived close to where Andy Gath and his father-in-law, Peter Manning, trained their horses. Pentameter had actually finished second in the Stawell Cup.

Two new horses from the mainland to be among acceptors for the Tasmanian Championship were the Victorian Island Vinny, and from NSW Thorpedo. Island Vinny was yet one more example of the uncanny success Kyneton trainer Tony Xiriha was enjoying with horses usually purchased out of Victorian claiming races. When the small-sized Island Vinny had first arrived at the Kyneton stables, it had been lame because of a foot abscess. Two weeks in the paddock helped rectify this problem. From seven starts for Xiriha, this pacer had now chalked up three wins, two seconds, a fourth, and an unlucky sixth in the Shepparton Gold Cup at its latest outing.

Thorpedo was trained by Neal Wardle at Toongabbie in New South Wales. A five-year-old stallion, he had been lightly raced, winning 14 of its 32 lifetime starts. The horse had finished third to Daman at Harold Park on September 20, and had rated a smart 1:59.2 winning at Harold Park on November 22. Sydney reinsman Greg Bennett would come to Hobart to pilot the horse in the Championship.

When the barrier draw for the Championship was made, Celtic Ross drew the pole, always an advantage around Hobart. This gelded son of local sire Ticket To Heaven USA would be driven by Neville Webberley, a highly successful Tasmanian horseman who had already driven three winners of Tasmanian Championships.

For once, the most successful stable in the Apple Isle in the past 15 years, the Rattrays founded by Wayne who drove the winner in 1956, and whose son Barrie has won the race twice since with the family’s pacers, would this season not have a starter. His twin sons Gareth and James were also now reinsmen, with Gareth chosen to represent the State in the forthcoming Australasian Young Drivers Championship. James had made a later start in the sulky, and earlier in the month had steered home his first winner at Hobart. With the sons now being given more of the stable driving, the days of their father dominating the drivers’ premiership may well be in the past. 

For the first time in a decade the race had not attracted a Group One winner from the mainland. Never-the-less, the race brought together an interesting and open field, highlighted by mainland drivers with Grand Circuit success. Brian Hancock was down from Sydney to warm the cart of Cyclone George, Gavin Lang would drive Island Vinny. Leading reinswoman Kerryn Gath was to have handled Pentameter until Victorian stewards that week suspended her at Charlton for whip-related incidents. This was a blow for Hobart’s promotion of the night, as she was also listed to have two other drives on the program and be a major part of club promotion of the meeting. Pentameter would now be driven by Glen Gath, a brother of trainer Andy. The horse was now listed as being in the care of Darren Jacobson. 

Only one pacer would be handicapped behind the front. This was the well performed Mountain Glory to be driven by Ricky Duggan. Two years earlier this pacer had enjoyed great success in Sydney when its then trainer-driver Barrie Rattray campaigned several horses at Harold Park. That season they returned to Hobart for the Group One race with Mountain Glory second to Shakamaker. Mountain Glory had later suffered a career-threatening leg injury, spending 10 months on the sidelines. On the night of the Hobart Cup, it had won the Governor’s Cup over 2360m. Mountain Glory was essentially a mobile start horse, with its standing-start record not flattering.

One thing about the 11 starters for this 2002 championship, it was full of chances, making for an opening race in betting. The locals may not have seen Island Vinny perform in the flesh, but being driven by Gavin Lang was enough to prime the interest of many racegoers, as such was the reputation by this gifted reinsman. Its stablemate The Proxy would be driven by its trainer, using Lang on his main hope. 

Island Vinny, with two recent wins at Moonee Valley to its credit, was the best-backed pacer and would start a 9/4 favourite. There was also good support for Daman (5/2), Mountain Glory (5/1) and Cyclone George (6/1). Though Marbles had the ability to win, as shown by its win the previous month in the Tasmanian version of the Miracle Mile, punters by now had had enough of its barrier manners from standing starts. It had lost its ‘marbles’ at each of its standing start events when galloping away. It eased in betting fluctuations from 14/1 to start at 25/1.

Three of the 11 starters galloped away from the strands – Celtic Ross, Island Vinny and Marbles. So much ground did Island Vinny lose that it appeared to have no possible chance as early as the first turn.  Up on the pace, Greg Bennett had Thorpedo away nicely. This horseman had won two events on previous Grand Circuits, but this was his first drive in Tasmania. He was more than happy to have Thorpedo latch on to the back of Daman after Ramon Pullen had dashed that horse to an early lead.

If this Group One race had started in dramatic fashion with the well-backed Island Vinny breaking up at barrier-rise, it would also end in dramatic circumstances. For much of the journey Daman had done the work out in front, reeling off modest quarters at the start of the last mile of 31.2 then 31.3. Pullen was then happy to slip into gear with a 29.2 quarter, followed by a 29.3 in the run to the post. However, when rounding the home-turn the final time, the Queensland-based pacer was just about to be acclaimed the likely winner when under pressure the horse started to roll off the marker pegs. Quick as a flash, Bennett sent Thorpedo through the opening and edged out Daman on the line by a half-head.

Daman had been most consistent in all of its races since coming to Tasmania, and would have given connections a popular win for the locals. Winning driver Greg Bennett did say after the race that their plans had been to drive Thorpedo for luck, and the stable could not have scripted it better. Marbles had finished on strongly to grab third placing, with the biggest run in the race coming from Island Vinny. After being tailed off early, Gavin Lang brought the unlucky favourite home for a most impressive fourth, eight metres astern of the photo finish that decided the first two placings.

Thorpedo was trained by Neal Wardle, 23, for his brother Brad, 27. The brothers had grown up around horses, with Neal working for the noted Denis Wilson stable, and Brad in automotive finance. Brad Wardle had paid $2800 for Thorpedo when it was a rising yearling, then had entered it for the 1999 Australian Gold Sale, placing a reserve of $12,000 on it. When this price was not realised, he had taken the horse home and had given it to his brother to train.


1977-1991 known as Australian Grand Circuit.  1992 New Zealand included, and Circuit renamed Australasian Grand Circuit.

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