2002 Trotters Series
An interesting newcomer from across the Tasman was Game Bid NZ. A year earlier it had been placed on the market for $20,000 by part-owner and agent Brent Lilley. The lack of interest suggested this amount was well above its perceived ability. Even Lilley at the time thought the horse to be just another “run of the mill trotter.” When there was no interest at that price, Lilley began training the horse himself for he and his brother Shane.
In the following months he was pleasantly surprised when it showed improvement. Game Bid NZ had made just a brief appearance on the Grand Circuit back in November when beating only two home in the Dominion Handicap. It had come off the front when driven by David Butt, yet another of the Butt family. This horseman had also been a well known rugby player.
Brent Lilley was one of the younger New Zealander horsemen who, from time to time, sold horses to Australia. He had spent an apprenticeship working at various times for Barry and Mark Purdon. On one of his numerous visits to Victoria he had accepted the position of travelling foreman for the much-respected trainer Graeme Morgan for three months.
A six-year-old son of Gee Whiz II USA, it seems this trotter slowly but surely went on improving. In its last start before being flown to Sydney, Game Bid NZ obviously impressed another agent acting on behalf of Victorian interests keen to have a starter in the Inter Dominion. Just a year after having no interest in a sale, Lilley actually now knocked back an offer of $80,000. It’s not every year one can see their horse compete in an Inter Dominion.
To enable Anthony Butt to drive Game Bid NZ in its two heats, it had purposely been drawn away from Take A Moment NZ. Game Bid NZ would go into this Inter Dominion one of the outsiders on some Australian pre-post betting markets, though in the betting in New Zealand operations.
The cutely named Victorian Twebby Twotter, a winner of a Victorian Oaks, was also fronting up for its debut on the Grand Circuit. It would be driven by former Sydney horseman David Aiken. These days this son of noted Sydney bloodstock auctioneer George Aiken, has his stables in northern Victoria at Seymour, the fine property earlier established by trainer Graeme Morgan.
La Coocaracha, the short-priced favourite to win the series, had never previously raced at Harold Park, a track that some visiting horses do seem to be uncomfortable with when handling the turns. The mare did win her opening heat narrowly without being driven out in the home straight.
“With the mare having her first look at the track, Kerryn and I decided it would be better to finish third or fourth rather than have her gallop and then have to go into the final round under pressure to qualify,” explained trainer Andy Gath. The trainer was quick to add: “Don’t get me wrong. We wanted to win, but we thought how we just had to take things cautiously with the mare having her first start at this track.”
The other heat that night was won by Special Force NZ off 20 metres. The two heat winners each chalked up 18 points, followed by Twebby Trotter and Stirling Kiwi NZ 15, the virtually unknown Aquinas NZ and Game Bid NZ 13, then Take A Moment NZ and Djerriwarrh with 11.
In the second night of heats, Anthony Butt dashed Game Bid NZ to the early lead in the first, with Djerriwarrh racing at its wheel. When Special Force NZ moved three wide on the turn racing for the bell, Twebby Twotter latched on its back to gain a cart-up into the race. Game Bid NZ trotted clear in the closing stages to win from Djerriwarrh and Twebby Twotter.
Waikare Gold led them up in the final heat with Stirling Kiwi NZ going to the front at the bell. La Coocaracha was not being ‘cuddled’ this night. After moving around the field with her customary plan of finding the ‘death,’ the mare dashed away for a clear-cut win over Take A Moment NZ and Waikare Gold. Aquinas NZ, owned in NSW, finished fourth after breaking at the start.
After the win, Andy Gath said his wife Kerryn had gone into this race with much more confidence than she had on the opening night. Although the mare had not put a foot wrong in her two heat wins, the trainer said La Coocaracha was not 100 percent comfortable racing at Harold Park. "She wobbles a bit around the turns, which she also can do at Moonee Valley. But she is trotting well, and that is what counts.”
Final points: La Coocaracha 36, Game Bid NZ 31, Special Force NZ and Twebby Twotter 28, Take A Moment NZ and Djerriwarrh 26, Aquinas NZ and Stirling Kiwi NZ 24, Waikare Gold 23, Georgian Flight 19, Jacobs Whiz NZ and Truscott Steel 18, Queens Rhapsody NZ 16, King Whiz NZ 15. The disappointments in not reaching the final were Alabamas Idol 8 and Son Of Flair 8.
The field in barrier order for the final was: 1 Djerriwarrh fr, 2 Truscott Steel fr, 3 Game Bid NZ fr, 4 Waikare Gold fr, 5 King Whiz NZ fr, 6 Aquinas NZ fr, 7 Jacobs Whiz NZ fr, 8 Stirling Kiwi NZ, 9 The Specialist fr (2nd E), 10 Sheyton fr (1st E), 11 Georgian Flight fr, 12 Queens Rhapsody fr, 13 Twebby Twotter fr, 14 Special Force NZ 20m, 15 Take A Moment NZ 25m, 16 La Coocaracha 25m.
With Anthony Butt required to drive the defending titleholder Take A Moment NZ, connections of Game Bid NZ moved to engage the man so many Australians regard as the nation’s finest reinsman – Gavin Lang. Pre-post betting on the final not surprisingly had the Victorian La Coocaracha a short-priced favourite. Victoria is without question the strongest State for trotting in Australia. However, one has to go back to 1988 to find the last trotter from this State to be the Inter Dominion Champion. That horse was True Roman, driven at Harold Park that night by Gavin Lang.
The 2002 Inter Dominion Trotters Final will be remembered by those who witnessed a great spectacle for two major reasons. Firstly, La Coocaracha went through the series as the best horse in the field. And secondly, the aggressive and timely tactics used by master reinsman Gavin Lang, brought about the downfall of La Coocaracha in the final. With the early advantage of a 25-metre handicap over the favourite, Lang, out-drove Kerryn Gath at the business end of the race with the mare finishing a gallant second to the much improved Game Bid NZ.
So often during the season when La Coocaracha had characteristically raced around fields seeking the ‘death’, no rival had risked making a move to go with her. It was not until the night of the Inter Dominion Final that someone did. Having raced much of the race out three wide, Kerryn Gath clicked her mare up when racing up the straight for the bell. It was a move Lang had been expecting.
He quickly came off the back of the leader (Waikare Gold) with Game Bid NZ, and could hardly believe his good fortune when the driver of the favourite pressed on out three wide. In a race over more than two miles, the effort of coming off the back-mark, then racing three wide even before launching her attack 700 metres from home, finally took its toll.
This wonderful trotting mare did not shirk the issue. With Game Bid NZ having enjoyed a far easier passage, the tough Kiwi went to the post strongly, leaving the favourite in his wake. The winner trotted its last 400 metres in 29.8. The mile rate of 2:05.2 broke the track record for the distance. Goodness only knows what La Coocaracha’s effort out wide had been equalled to.
Gavin Lang summed it up immediately after the race. “If I had not made that move and allowed La Coocaracha to go past me, then she would have won the race. It was the first time I have driven Game Bid, and I guess the way I drove him could have been detrimental to his winning chances. But I was out there to win, not run second. I simply did what I had to do.”
Lang added that all the pre-race hype about the mare probably played into his hands. “I knew La Coocaracha was always going to have problems with the track, and she was also giving my horse 25 metres start. There is no question the mare was the best horse in the race, but sometimes the best horse doesn’t always win,” he said.
Somewhere in Victoria that night a prospective owner must have been wondering what might have been had the Lilley brothers sold the six-year-old in the week or two before the Inter Dominion series. “The $80,000 would have come in handy if we had sold him, but the cheque for tonight’s prizemoney will be $120,000. And we still have the horse,” said Brent Lilley.