1999 Pacers Series
This stress is not restricted to the horses. Trainers need to be right on the ball in having a horse reach its peak, then expect it to peak again and again over a period of several months. The number of injuries in recent years to some of our best horses is an area of great concern. It is a problem also shared by the thoroughbred racing code.
Illness and injury had prevented the Melbourne public from seeing Christian Cullen racing at Moonee Valley. Injuries had also prevented the outstanding Agua Caliente from coming to Australia, and for the smart New Age Man being sidelined for long periods. Surfing Safari, two years earlier rated the Aussie pacer with the most potential to become No 1 on the Grand Circuit, was now almost the forgotten horse having not even made it back to racing after breaking down.
Perhaps there have been greater all-round pacers over the years than Our Sir Vancelot NZ, an opinion not reflected in the results come Inter Dominion time. What helped make this horse the undisputed champion of Australia in the later 1990s was his sound legs. Given time to develop before being put to the acid test, this horse raced by its NSW breeders had rewarded connections several times over for their patience.
The early betting on the Auckland Inter Dominion Pacing Championship several weeks before the carnival had Christian Cullen at even-money, the shortest-priced pre-race favourite in years. The only other pacers in single-figure odds at that time were Iraklis 7/1, Bogan Fella 8/1 and Our Sir Vancelot NZ 9/1.
The Inter Dominion formula of three rounds of heats and then seven days to the Grand Final had stood the test of time. However, the host club in scheduling this forthcoming Grand Final over 3200m from the mobile had caused some caustic comments from trainers who believed the distance would be too demanding on horses having had three hard races in a week to even earn a start in the final.
It had been many years since a Grand Final had been held over this distance. Auckland, the only track on the Grand Circuit to race the right-handed way of going, had always been keen on Grand Finals being a true staying test. Its first Inter Dominion in 1948 had been over 16 furlongs -- the longest distance ever in this annual event and twice as long as the accepted style of racing in North America. Auckland retained this distance in 1955 when it again hosted the series, and on subsequent championships at its Alexander Park track the distance for Grand Finals have usually been up around 2800m or so.
Almost three weeks before the series was to begin there were two important scratchings -- Holmes D G and Australia's top mare Tailamade Lombo. Connections of the two classy 4Y0s were reluctant to have them take on the older horses and the impressive Christian Cullen at this stage of their racing careers. Mick Lombardo expressed this opinion when he told the media: "Tailamade Lombo is not ready to tackle the championship, while there are some nice pickings in Victoria without busting her gut by going to Auckland. We can wait for next year in Melbourne", he said. Barry Purdon had not lost faith in Holmes D G developing into an outstanding open class performer, but he too felt his horse would do better when a 5YO.
Two weeks before opening night of the Auckland carnival there came a flood of money for the much vaunted Agua Caliente. On the fixed odds betting with the New Zealand TAB, Agua Caliente was backed in from $40 when listed as not a definite starter, to $8 for a win. This was only marginally behind second favourite Iraklis.
Agua Caliente had resumed racing after a long break at Auckland on February 20 off a handicap of 30m. The horse missed the start by a further 100 metres or more, yet still flashed home to finish a handy fourth, clocking 2:58.6 for its last 2400 metres.
There are some in New Zealand who at times have rated this horse at least the equal of Iraklis from mobile starts. A notoriously poor beginner from standing starts, it had spent more of his adult life out injured than he had racing. As a 4YO it had won New Zealand's two biggest races for this age group -- the Taylor Mile and the Messenger Stakes.
Not long after these impressive wins, the horse broke down with suspensory problems. When brought back to race after months on the sidelines, he again damaged the same leg and was turned out for another spell. When next put back into work the horse had to be operated on for a wind problem, then suffered an allergic reaction to antibiotics administered after the operation. After yet another spell away from racing, the horse caught a virus.
On numerous occasions when racing off handicaps, Agua Caliente had given away enormous starts before finishing hard on the heels of the placegetters in what were incredible efforts. His record from behind the mobile was 11 wins from just 14 starts. His prizemoney to then was $240,000. The horse was trained by Peter Wolfenden, of Cardigan Bay fame, and was driven in its races by Wolfenden's son Peter. This father-son combination had been second past the post in the 1995 Christchurch Grand Final with Victor Supreme, only to later be relegated by stewards with the title won by Australia's Golden Reign. The big question with Agua Caliente was would the horse start in this gruelling series? If so, could it remain sound and withstand the demanding two weeks of tough competition?
It seems Christian Cullen was back to something like his pre-Christmas form. He won first up from his break in the $20,000 Cambridge Classic. This prompted Auckland trotting writer Michael Guerin to inform his readers that there was a chance the 4YO star could pace 1:50 in that week's Waikato Times Flying Mile at Cambridge, one of the fastest tracks in New Zealand.
A surprise decision by the NZ TAB to operate fixed-odds betting on the Cambridge Flying Mile led to them opening betting with Christian Cullen's price at $1.15. A spokesman for the TAB explained that framing such short odds meant the TAB was unlikely to lose too much if the horse again won, while it would also encourage punters the chance to support smart performers Brabham and Bogan Fella at the huge odds of $20 for a win.
The horse did win the Flying Mile at Cambridge, but of course, being so close to an Inter Dominion carnival saw driver Danny Campbell keen to win without placing too much stress on the horse who as a 4YO had taken harness racing by storm. If this new pacing star could maintain his winning run through this series, history would be rewritten by a worthy new champion.
The Regency Duty Free Inter Dominion began on the Friday night with Australia's main two hopes chalking up enough points to be rated strong chances of making it through to the Grand Final appearing to be defending titleholder (Our) Sir Vancelot, and the up-and-coming Country Duke. One Kiwi sportswriter that week referred to (Our) Sir Vancelot as the 'master', and Country Duke the 'apprentice'. After the opening night's racing, the writer then stated that perhaps the tide was turning for the 'apprentice', with its run being better than that of the luckless dual-Inter Dominion champion which could finish only eighth behind Agua Caliente in their heat.
Brian Hancock has never been one to panic easily, and was quick to point out how they had struck trouble during the race. "Not a great start," he stated after his heat. "But it was not the horse's fault. He is absolutely flying at the moment. You will see that as the series gets older. What he now needs is points. I've been in worse positions before. I remember Weona Warrior ran last in its heat in Sydney in 1994, but came back to win his next heat and then the Grand Final".
The hot favourite Christian Cullen had won its heat without looking overly impressive, just staving off a fast-finishing Country Duke. Trainer-driver Russell Thomson was delighted with the effort of 'The Duke'. "There wouldn't have been many people happier than me after the first round", he declared. "It was just what I wanted, some big points without having a hard run. I don't care what anybody says, I would have beaten Christian Cullen in a further few strides. The best thing is that my horse is still on the improve, and I could not be happier with the way he has settled over here".
Two other Australian pacers to show up that night were Nebulizer (WA) with a courageous fifth behind Christian Cullen, and Breeny's Fella. Craig Demmler described the effort of Breeny's Fella as being 'super'. "He missed valuable work before the race because of the flight delay coming across, but there was plenty to like about the way he hit the line. He wobbled around the last bend a bit, but he should be better for the run. I'm tipping my father (former world champion reinsman Ted Demmler) will be itching to get across to drive him now". Ted Demmler had only just resumed driving after a nine-month disqualification.
The morning after the opening round of heats at Alexander Park, Christian Cullen shocked his stable when there was swelling in a tendon. That day trainer Brian O'Meara constantly iced the horse's near-side tendon with his hopes of staying in the series rapidly declining. He reported that it was an old injury, which had again flared up while the favourite was winning its 14th successive race. When Sunday dawned, O'Meara was left little option but to withdraw the champion from the championship.
"There was some swelling prior to Friday night's race, but it wasn't bad, and I just thought he had bumped himself on the float or something like that. Danny told us he had driven perfectly in that race. Then the swelling came up again on the Saturday and we iced the leg and had him scanned on Sunday morning. There is a very small hole in his tendon that could tear, so there was a risk factor", said the trainer. Surprisingly, O'Meara added that had the race on Tuesday been a one-off event, he would have started the horse in it, then sent him for a spell. "There's too much risk taking on two further heats and a Grand Final," he said.
Connections of Christian Cullen were not the only ones who felt devastated over the shock withdrawal. Auckland Trotting Club's Racing Manager, Robert Death, explained how this horse had been dragging crowds back to harness racing. "The whole carnival has been focused on him", he said. "Now we have just 10 days to refocus our marketing strategies and perhaps get back to the actual focus of what the Inter Dominions are all about", he said.
Death said he now believed the Championship would be a battle royal between the North Island's Agua Caliente, the South Island's Iraklis, and Australia's (Our) Sir Vancelot. (When in New Zealand, the dual Inter Dominion champion would be simple referred to as Sir Vancelot. The 'Our' had been included in the name by Australian authorities.) The Auckland official also advised punters to keep the Mark Purdon-trained Bogan Fella safe, as it could well blow its rivals away.
The shock scratching of the short-priced favourite provided a handy windfall for the New Zealand TAB and any Australian bookmakers betting on the series prior to opening night. Perhaps it would mean some punters who had taken big odds about other starters, might just be fortunate enough to land some rich pickings if their selection should become the new Inter Dominion champion.
After scratching his horse, trainer Brian O'Meara told the media the injured tendon was not serious in the long-term. It meant Christian Cullen now having several months away from racing to fully recover. O'Meara then seemed to contradict this statement when he then claimed it was more than likely the 4YO stallion had run its last race. "Obviously, I would like to have him racing again, but I think all of his fans would understand the horse is so valuable at stud, and that be the way we should go. I don't think he has got anything else to prove," he said.
O'Meara also explained how his horse had first hurt the same leg in a trial when he was only a 2YO. "I think it is racing the Auckland way that has aggravated things. I have always bandaged the problem area very tightly when he races, but I had to take much of the bandaging off to help him handle the reverse way of racing in Auckland. It now seems obvious to me that this has taken some of the support away".
The big stallion's record was quite outstanding having at four won more than a million dollars with 21 wins from 27 starts. He had only started racing in open class the previous September, and had put together a winning streak of 14 races. Among these victories were five at Grand Circuit level -- the New Zealand Cup, the NZ Free-For-All, Miracle Mile, Treuer Memorial and Auckland Cup. It was an extraordinary record. It was this obvious talent and handsome looks that had developed this horse into a champion in the minds of many.
On the other side of the balance sheet, the horse was developing a history of controversial scratchings from noteworthy events. As a 3YO Christian Cullen was withdrawn from the Miracle Mile by stewards only minutes before the scheduled start of that race. The horse was also scratched before the final of the rich John Brandon Series, which usually decided the top 3YO in New Zealand. And more recently after arriving in Melbourne to the biggest fanfare bestowed on any pacer in recent years, the Kiwi star was again withdrawn two days before the Victoria Cup.
The withdrawal of the short-priced favourite from the series followed shortly after by Agua Caliente missing its second-round heat, led to a major reshuffle in betting on the outcome of the 1999 championship with Iraklis marginally favourite over (Our) Sir Vancelot. The second round of heats would be over 2700m. Horses to have finished back in the field on opening night, now needed to earn valuable points to be realistic chances of making the Grand Final.
Kate's First, New Zealand's top pacing mare, was sent out a short-priced favourite in Heat 4. Quantum Lobell led early from the pole, with Brian Hancock then happy to hand over the lead to Adio Routine. An extremely slow first half would have worried drivers caught on the inside back in the field, with Happy Asset locked away three back on the inside seemingly being quite vulnerable at that stage.
It was not surprising the leaders sprinted home hard at the business end of this heat, with quarters of 29.5 and 27.7. Adio Routine hung on to beat Quantum Lobell with Happy Asset flashing home to be a nice third. The mile rate was 2.00.9. Kate's First was right behind the placegetters, and Queensland's Pocket Battleship was a handy fifth. Franco Hat Trick was the big disappointment.
On the strength of its big run on opening night, punters had Bogan Fella an odds-on favourite in Heat 5. It began fast from barrier 5 to cross to the lead ahead of Anvil Vance, with Victoria's Breeny's Fella three back on the inside and needing a little luck. Because of the early leisurely pace, Bogan Fella went to the line strongly in 29.1 and 27.4 to win comfortably over the fast-finishing Breeny's Fella and Anvil Vance. The mile rate of 2:00.5 was only marginally quicker than the previous heat.
Heat 6 would help punters decide a clear-cut favourite for the final as Iraklis would clash with (Our) Sir Vancelot. Hancock was keen to take up the early running and had to spend more petrol than he would have liked in heading off Sam Malone. Having no early luck, Ricky May eased Iraklis back to last from barrier 7. At the bell lap, Iraklis circled the field to race in the 'death'. In a slogging finish, (Our) Sir Vancelot was a clear winner over its arch rival with Silk Brocade a promising third. Kliklite (fourth) and Surprise Package (fifth) both did their best work at the finish. This was the fastest of the three heats, returning a mile rate of 1:59.7.
When (Our) Sir Vancelot clearly defeated Iraklis, the Australian pacer was installed the new favourite for the Grand Final. It probably escaped many, but for Brian Hancock, the most successful driver in Grand Circuit history, this had been his first win on New Zealand soil. "I'm relieved we got top points tonight, but I never had any doubts about how well the horse was going", he said. Then added: "I can't believe they actually bet $14 about my horse to win the Final at one stage when Christian Cullen was in the series. He felt really super tonight despite working hard early".
Hancock spoke candidly about his horse, explaining it had been sick earlier in the season. "I did not know he was crook last August. If I did, he would not have raced then, and I damn near killed him on the training track. As a result, he raced only on seven cylinders instead of eight. But now he is 100 percent, with the five weeks break from racing having helped turn things around".
Russ Thomson would have been greatly disappointed with the result of Country Duke's heat. It was well back after the start and became trapped out four wide from the 1000 metres. It was not surprising to see it weaken out of the finish to be 10th.
The top 21 horses on the progress points after two rounds were:
29 Bogan Fella, Iraklis
With Christian Cullen and now Agua Caliente both out of the series, the New Zealand fixed odds betting had now moved (Our) Sir Vancelot to the top line on their markets. With one final round of heats to be held over a one-mile dash, the New Zealand tote quoted the dual-Inter Dominion champion at $3.50 for the Grand Final, followed by Iraklis and Bogan Fella both at $3.75, then a big drop to Kate's First at $10. Quantum Lobell was at $22 and Country Duke was out to $50.
Iraklis had now established a place its place in the big Final. Many punters seemed to place little faith in those unsubstantiated rumours of trainers keen to give their horse an easy run once having stitched up a start in the Grand Final, as Iraklis was sent out a short-priced favourite in Heat 7. Country Duke swept to the early lead. Russ Thomson would have been quite frustrated when constantly attacked up front by several now desperate drivers in their last-chance to grab enough points to make the Final. Racing on the back of Country Duke was the Queensland outsider Melton Luciand. Up the home straight the last time Robbie Byrnes dashed Melton Luciand through along the passing lane to grab first points, returning a tote dividend of $52. Iraklis, after being wide in the last lap, finished a gallant second, with Nebulizer running on for third. With the pace having been right on early, the winner's time for the mile was a quick 1:54.6.
Australians will remember Brabham for having let them down in big races when campaigning on visits to Melbourne. However, this former Victoria Cup winner was considered a better sprinter than a stayer, and in Heat 8 he was the odds-on favourite. Beaten for the early lead by Journey's End, Brabham was unfortunate to suffer a check from the galloping Pocket Battleship, and was pushed to three back on the inside. Slow mid-race sectionals played into the hands of the leaders, with the consistent Adio Routine gaining full points in beating Brabham and Masterclass. Mark Purdon had been able to switch Brabham away from the inside line at the 1000m to be one-one. It seems Purdon was caught out when his brother Barry had come with a rush on Masterclass from the tail of the field. By the time he had the boilers in Brabham stoked right up, the horse was too late in its bid to run-down the outsider, having to be content with second. The mile rate was 1:58.2.
Heat 9 appeared as the big race of the night with punters finding it difficult to separate Bogan Fella and (Our) Sir Vancelot for favouritism. They were sent out with the tote showing $2.30 a win for both. With the dual Inter Dominion appearing to have booked a place in the Grand Final, Brian Hancock seemed content to have his horse three back on the inside. Bogan Fella was having little luck in the run, being trapped out in the breeze.
With the two favourites under pressure, it was yet another pacer finishing along the passing lane that took the honours. For Franco Hat Trick, it was the first real glimpse of its best form it had shown in the series, winning by a half-head from roughie Frosty Mota with Kliklite a head away third. This was the closest finish of the series, as Anvil’s Star was just a nose away fourth, with a similar margin to Bogan Fella. (Our) Sir Vancelot could not get clear and finished sixth, giving trainer-driver Hancock the fright of his life when it was later found the horse would make it into the Grand Final only after a count-back. The winner's mile rate was 1:57.4.
give several horses their very last opportunity to clinch a place in the Grand
Final. The usually fast beginning Sam Malone went to the front from barrier 3,
with Ritchi right on its back. Quantum Lobell was caught facing the breeze,
which was not its style of racing. A very slow second quarter guaranteed there
would be a real sprint to the post. When Ritchi made its move along the passing
lane, it quickly put paid to Sam Malone, with Surprise Package an impressive
second and Breeny's Fella edging out Quantum Lobell for third. The eye-catching
run of the race was Breeny's Fella, as it had charged home, giving the
impression it would go into the Grand Final at the peak of his form. The
winner's mile was paced in 1:58.5.
Three weeks earlier New Zealand appeared to have a strong grip on this series. Most Australians would have then been hard-pressed expressing confidence in our chances of beating the Kiwis on their home soil. The withdrawal of Christian Cullen and Agua Caliente had helped to throw the likely outcome into total confusion.
Iraklis was the horse to have come through the heats with the most consistent form and had thoroughly earned the right to favouritism. However, on the morning after its final heat, there was some swelling in a tendon. Trainer and part-owner Robert Cameron was advised the problem was not serious enough to think about scratching the horse. But any set-back at this late stage was likely to lead to a loss of sleep for connections. When the injury responded well to treatment, Cameron breathed a little easier.
When the market was framed several days before the race, it had Iraklis and (Our) Sir Vancelot joint favourites at 3/1, followed by Bogan Fella NZ 7/2. Then 10 Brabham, Adio Routine, Kate's First; 15 Breeny's Fella, 16 Masterclass, 20 Surprise Package, 33 Franco Hat Trick, 50 Quantum Lobell, 80 Ritchi, 100 Anvil Vance, and 125/1 the emergency Happy Asset.
For the third successive year the Hancock stables had qualified the same two horses, a remarkable feat in the long history of this annual series. Quantum Lobell had a curious record in Inter Dominion Championships. He had raced in a total of seven heats for four wins, two seconds and a third. A fine record by any comparison. Yet, his two starts in Grand Finals had been shockers. The third Aussie pacer to come through the heats with sufficient points was Breeny's Fella.
For the record, Quantum Lobell was the only one in the field officially bred in Australia. Its stablemate, (Our) Sir Vancelot was from the Australian mare Teeny Teeny, sent across to New Zealand by breeder Trevor Allamby to get in foal to the outstanding stallion Vance Hanover. Mare and her young colt later were brought back to NSW with the colt being named Our Sir Vancelot NZ.
This rising 9YO may well have just made it into the Grand Final field by a count-back, but trainer-driver Brian Hancock was now extremely confident his horse could make it three Inter championships in a row. When the ageing star drew the front line along with Iraklis, and Bogan Fella the outside of the second line, many Aussie punters were ready to climb aboard the Hancock band-wagon, while just as many New Zealanders then moved to line up behind Iraklis.
"The two miles makes it very tough, but he's a fighter and loves a scrap", said Hancock. And he's right at the top of his game. He will win", he told the Australian media. It was not difficult to know what his tactics would be from the front row. "I'll be looking for the lead, though it might not be all that easy, as you would think Ricky May (Iraklis) will have the same idea. Perhaps we are lucky to even be in the field, but he has not had a hard run over here, and he's ready for one this week. He'll win", he again asserted.
He was not the only trainer extremely confident. When Robert Cameron was asked what horse was his selection to take out the title, his reaction was simple. "There's only one really in it, and his name is Iraklis ".
Mark Purdon had qualified two horses -- Bogan Fella and Brabham. He elected to drive the former, with David Butcher picking up the drive on Brabham. Purdon's brother Barry had done even better, qualifying three -- Surprise Package, Franco Hat Trick and Masterclass. All three were considered outsiders for the title.
Victoria's Breeny's Fella had eased in betting when drawing barrier 8, the extreme outside off the front road. Its form going into the race was not too bad. But from this tricky draw, it was obvious the horse would need a great deal of luck.
The passing lane on this right-handed track had led to some critics firing off shots during the series, with Australia's National Trotting Weekly claiming it to be the most biased passing lane of them all. It documented the number of times during the heats that a race had been fought out between the leading horse and the one on its back peeling off and finishing stoutly along the passing lane. Quinella punters able to select the likely leader would have had a field day betting on this series.
Because of the important scratchings of Christian Cullen and Agua Caliente after the opening round, whichever horse now won the Grand Final would, rightly or wrongly, have some prepared to down-grade the effort. Trainer Peter Wolfenden had earlier been granted permission by the host club to scratch Agua Caliente from the second night of heats and still be available to contest the remainder of the series. This decision drew much criticism with calls for the rules to be addressed so this could never happen again. Wolfenden's constant work on the horse's suspect leg was to no avail, and the Auckland trainer was finally forced to withdraw his pacer, ending this controversy, even if only temporarily. (Refer Postscript).
True to his word, Brian Hancock came out of the barrier hell-bent to cross and take up the lead. Surprisingly, Ricky May showed little interest in making it a two-way contest, preferring to latch Iraklis onto the back of Hancock in the hope that towards the end of the two miles, his horse when using the passing lane could out-sprint the leader. This simple manoeuvre would there and then slam the door on all of their rivals.
(Our) Sir Vancelot, after setting its own leisurely pace out in front, was packing too many guns for Iraklis in the race for the line and harness racing history. Bogan Fella did well to claim third place.
In several newspaper accounts of this Grand Final, words such as 'boring' and 'uneventful' were generously thrown about. The slow speed mid-race and the lack of tactical moves had some drivers caught well back in the field a target for the critics. Several reinsmen later made an interesting point. Had the race not been over such a long journey, they might have made early moves. But knowing the two favourites were up front, there seemed little point in knocking your horse about getting into the race then be faced with a sprint to the post against the favourites who had enjoyed a leisurely run.
To win an Inter Dominion Championship is the hallmark of an outstanding horse. To win it twice makes a horse special. To be the first to win three successive Grand Finals is the stuff legends are made about. In years to come there will be many who struggle to compare (Our) Sir Vancelot NZ in the same breath as Popular Alm, Pure Steel and Paleface Adios. Yet, in spite of their many great deeds, winning an Inter Dominion always eluded them.
The victory by (Our) Sir Vancelot, his 47th, saw him leap past Village Kid to become the second richest Australian standardbred of all time with $2,189,590 -- second only to Westburn Grant whose 38 wins had earned it $2,374,016. The winner's mile rate was 3.6 seconds slower than what Happy Asset (Tim Butt) took to win the Consolation.
With the compression of the second week of the Series there was a precautionary need to draw Agua Caliente in the third and final heat of the Series. In this way no redrawing of barrier positions would be necessary if the horse sought reinstatement in the Series. After discussion Mick Carrigg, Chairman of Stewards directed the connections to trial Agua Caliente on the day following the second night of heats. They were advised that should the horse compete in the final heat of the Series and gain sufficient points to be eligible for the Grand Final that a case for its inclusion would be required to be put to the Inter Dominion Grand Council on the following Saturday morning. Robert Death, Auckland Trotting Club’s Manager was instructed that should Agua Caliente trial successfully and be reincluded in the Series that inclusion in the Grand Final field was not automatic and would be decided by the Inter Dominion Grand Council after its meeting with the connections. The Auckland Trotting club was advised on the morning of the trial that Agua Caliente’s scratching would stand and would not be seeking reinstatement in the Series.
The Inter Dominion Grand Council acted in accordance with the Series rules in protecting the interests of Harness Racing, the Series and all parties.