Smith Sets Sights On McNeil Series

08 February 2018 | Chris Barsby
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Everyone has a target in life.

And they come in all shapes and sizes.

Many dare to dream big while many are happy to set themselves realistic goals, timing is key while striving to reach their tangible moment of satisfaction.

This is no different for Denis Smith, the 74 year-old trainer/driver who shares a deep passion for the trotters.

The Purga based horseman prepares his team of five equine athletes each and every day with total dedication and with complete focus.

His team includes three trotters and two pacers.

But his love of the straight out trotter has never waned, constantly amazed by the capabilities of the animal itself while fascinated by their speed and durability.

Smith played a key role with the reintroduction of the trotting gait in Queensland in the late 1990’s working closely with several enthusiasts to ensure the future of the breed.

The late Jim McNeil was certainly one of the driving forces behind the move to have the trotters back on the track and in the form guides; he invested plenty of time and most importantly, money.

McNeil purchased plenty of loosely assessed trotters from New Zealand before placing them into the hands of several local trainers which were also keen to see the gait prosper.

And close to 20 years later, the trotters are alive and well in the Sunshine State and steadily forging ahead.

While many horsemen speak of winning the biggest events like the Inter Dominion or the Miracle Mile, Smith has his sights firmly set on winning the $20,630 Jim McNeil Memorial Trotting Championship next month.

The opening round of heats are scheduled to start next Friday.

The feature sits alongside the Gr.2 $40,630 Darrell Alexander Memorial Trotting Championship as the state’s flagship trotting events.

Over the years, Smith has qualified only once for a McNeil final and it came last year when High Cloud Lass represented his stable, unfortunately the mare finished at the rear of the field in the stand-start feature.

Its Three By Two proved successful in the Jim McNeil feature last year.

But twelve months later, Smith enters the series with a leading contender in the shape of the talented Northern Muscle.

“This is the race I would most like to win.” Smith declared. “The fact it’s named after a generous man and devoted trotting enthusiast would give me great satisfaction, he was clearly one of the pioneers in getting trotting back up and running in this state. I’ve been in the game for over 45 years and I’ve never won a feature, this would be a great start.” He added.

Northern Muscle, a four-year-old homebred that is raced by Smith’s sister-in-law Kathryn McLachlan, has deliberately been set for the series and looks ready following an impressive trial effort on Tuesday at Albion Park.

The Down Under Muscles gelding proved too strong in the 2138m workout defeating likely fellow McNeil rivals in Springbank Eden and Needle in a time of 2:05.1.

Other likely rivals include Justabitlikemum, Maybetothemax, Quietly Spoken and former New Zealander Lavros Texas among others.

A winner of his past two starts, Northern Muscle was freshened and readied for the upcoming series and Smith is confident he is close to full fitness.

“It was a really pleasing trial for a number of reasons; he stepped away cleanly before enjoying a very easy trip throughout. It’s probably one of the softest trips he’s had throughout his career to date.

“Obviously the runners behind me will strip a lot fitter and loom as legitimate challengers but I’m confident my horse will race well. We’ve had a good opinion of him for some time and he looks like he’s still stepping up.

“Potentially, I think he’s the best I’ve prepared. He’s got speed and he’s strong, he proved that early in his career when I made use of him a few times in a race at Albion Park.”

Smith has prepared several handy pacers in his time including Sunsett (23 wins - $100k) and former North American pacer Fox Valley Appeal while his better trotters include Kano Salute, Just A Fling and Polatair.

Northern Muscle has won 6 of his 15 starts to date and all of his victories have come via Albion Park.

Interestingly, Northern Muscle is bred on the same cross as current Australian Trotter of the Year, freakish juvenile Wobelee (10 from 12 - $180k).

Northern Muscle is by former star performer Down Under Muscles from the Sundon mare Solar Gift.

Throughout his time in harness racing, Smith has worn many hats including trainer, driver, owner, breeder, administrator, farrier and even journalist.

But the title he most wants to wear is simple.

D. Smith – winner of Jim McNeil Trotting Championship.

And it may just happen this year.