Catch up on the week’s harness racing action in our weekly review, thanks to Darren Clayton.
The trotting gait in Queensland continues to go from strength to strength.
However, the square gaiter may not even be in existence in Queensland were it not for the foresight and generosity of one man - Jim McNeil.
The deeds of McNeil are remembered annually with the Group 3 Jim McNeil Memorial Trotting Championship and the latest edition of that series concluded on Saturday night with the victory of Unknown Son.
Trained by Graham Dwyer and driven to victory by Pete McMullen, Dwyer became the 10th trainer to win the McNeil Final at its 11th running.
Doug Lee is the only trainer to win the race twice, while Gary Whitaker is the only driver to have claimed success in the Final on two occasions.
Following two rounds of heats, Unknown Son entered the Final with a win and a second placing, and had the support of the punters, sent to the post as the $3.60 favourite.
The other 13 runners were left chasing all the way, as Unknown Son and McMullen controlled the tempo to score.
Holding a two-and-a-half-metre winning margin over the Grant Dixon trained and driven Aladdin Sane, there was a further 12-metres back to third placed Van Sank for Adam Sanderson for trainer Shannon Price.
It has been a whirlwind ride to this point with the four-year-old Unknown Son taking his record to four wins from just nine starts with his McNeil success.
The victory was a breakthrough moment for Dwyer and his family that run Kingslodge, landing their first Group victory.
Saturday night’s Jim McNeil victory was also the first time that the red Kingslodge branded racing silks had been worn in a race.
After their most successful season by winners last term, Dwyer and the Kingslodge team have continued the successful run, guiding home 16 winners after two months of the season to be firmly entrenched in the top 10 trainers in the state.
Despite the impressive victory, it was not all smooth sailing for Unknown Son, the gelding providing connections with some extremely anxious moments as the field was waiting to be released.
Fractious behind the tapes, Unknown Son reared high and as he came down, he landed and struck Spiders Devil standing next to him on the front-line tape.
That led to a brief delay as a vet inspection passed Spiders Devil of any injury, before Unknown Son continued to be fractious and was keen to get the race underway.
Again rearing, this time the four-year-old lost his balance and fell to the track and all the hard-work to get the gelding to this point was teetering on the edge.
Luckily, he was able to get straight to his feet and after vet Mark McGarry ran a careful eye over the gelding, he was passed fit to start, but was repositioned to the outside of the front line.
After all the early drama, Unknown Son would possibly have been forgiven if making an early error, yet he was safely into stride.
With the capacity field quickly settling into order, McMullen sent Unknown Son forward and after 600 metres had assumed control of the race in front, a position he would maintain throughout.
Unknown Son joins Its Three By Two as the only winners of the Series to come from the front-line tape, with the other nine winners having all come from a handicap.
The win was made even sweeter, with Unknown Son bred by Marty with close friend Denis Grieve.
Grieve and Dwyer bred the well-named Unknown Son from a mare they raced in partnership - Im Anonymiss - with that mare winning one race at Albion Park and contested the 2015 Jim McNeil Final, finishing in eighth position when prepared by Dwyer.
Unknown Son is the first and only foal to date from the mare Im Anonymiss and is by the champion sire Majestic Son, a stallion that has really made his mark in the Southern Hemisphere.
Ever the pragmatist, ask Graham what could add to the racing arsenal of Unknown Son and the answer comes back quickly - “it would be good if he was a QBRED.”
Taleah McMullen closed out Saturday’s race meeting with a milestone moment when scoring victory in the final two races on the card.
Taking the reins aboard Red Castleton - trained by her partner Trent Lethaby and owned by the pair - the eight-year-old was able to score a smart win in the Trotters Marathon.
The win was a mix of firsts all round, with the Group 3 win providing McMullen and Lethaby with their first Group success as owners, as a trainer and as a driver.
Beginning safely from the 10-metre handicap, Red Castleton was sent forward and after 700 metres had worked to the front before releasing to Gee Up Neddy following the completion of one lap.
The moves continued to come and soon Red Castleton was buried three back along the inside.
Knowing the speed the gelding possesses, McMullen was content to bide her time, and with a saloon passage presenting along the inside, sprinted clear to score.
Red Castleton has been super consistent since arriving from New Zealand, with the eight-year-old racking up two wins and three minors in seven outings.
One race later and Taleah was back for more success, this time with a pacer she owns and trains.
Gosling In Flight made great use of an easy run in behind the speed to sprint clear in the stretch to claim the Marburg to Albion Final.
Since taking on the gelding back in September, Taleah has placed him expertly, claiming nine victories and five minors in 20 starts and still with a rating of just 58.
The double also added more funds to the Team Teal initiative, with McMullen proving she has been a worthy ambassador in 2021.
In a super start to the season and the year, Taleah is currently third in the State Drivers Premiership and the leading female driver in the state with 27 wins to date.
The Jack Butler stable is riding the crest of a wave at present, leading the Queensland Trainer Premiership two months into the season.
Butler has put the polish on 31 winners for the season to date, to sit second overall on the National Premiership.
Only Tasmania’s Ben Yole has trained more winners in the season - currently with 48 - however Butler’s winners have come from just 160 starters.
In Queensland, Butler holds an eight-win buffer over Grant Dixon in second and sits 11 wins clear of third placed Chantal Turpin.
With the retirement of Hectorjayjay at the end of last season, Rock With Sam is now the best credentialed pacer in the barn and the seven-year-old was successful in the opening race on Saturday.
Pressing forward, he was never headed once in control to claim career victory number 21, with 19 of those coming at The Creek.
On Friday, Franco Hampton remained undefeated for the stable when scoring from the front to make it three wins since joining forced with Butler.
The winning rate of 1.52.4 equalled his win from the previous week, while on Tuesday Casino Tommy was in beast mode when successful.
Recently re-joining Butler after being claimed by a former owner, Casino Tommy sat parked over the mile and flexed his muscle in a monster crush.
Putting At West Point away, the eight-year-old was brutal in pacing the mile in 1.51.8, to make it wins in his past four starts.
There will be six race meetings this week in Queensland with Redcliffe and Albion Park each playing host to three meetings.
The Creek will be the venue for the regular Tuesday and Friday afternoon meetings to coincide with the metropolitan fixture on Saturday night.
Redcliffe will have an extra meeting this week, with the regular Wednesday and Thursday cards complemented with racing at The Triangle on Sunday night.
After six weeks, the Team Teal promotion will also wrap up this week, with the last meeting for the fundraising initiative held on Saturday.
A female driver invitation race will be held in recognition of the great work of the past six weeks, with the Team Teal Invitation Pace over the mile offering $14,060 and a penalty exemption to the winner.