Never Ending Photo by Pacepix (Scott Hamilton)
JUSTIN Prentice remembers "shaking a bit" a couple of years ago when he splurged the most he ever has on a yearling he just had to have.
But it has proven the best money the top young Western Australian trainer has spent.
That yearling was a son of Sweet Lou out of a Die Laughing mare called Endless Journey and is now known as Never Ending, the most exciting young pacer in Australia.
The three-year-old should be unbeaten. His only loss in 13 starts came when he galloped at the start, lost all hope and still ran on well late to finish third.
"He still could've won that day if I'd really chased hard, but it could've been the undoing of him long term, so I didn't," champion driver Gary Hall Jr said.
Never Ending will chase his biggest win yet in Friday night's $A200,000 Group 1 WA Derby at Gloucester Park.
Prentice spent $A75,000 to secure Never Ending at the 2021 APG Perth Yearling sale. It's not a lot in the grander scheme, but it was well outside the conservative Prentice's comfort zone.
"It looks cheap now, hey, but it didn't feel like it at the time. I was shaking a bit when the hammer went down," he said. "But I like everything about him. He was perfectly put together and such a good looker."
"Steve Johnson's one of our biggest breeders over here, and I've had a lot of luck buying from him, including a horse like Major Martini (10 wins from 20 starts and earned $A322,483), who was from the same family."
"Thankfully, it didn't take long to pull together some owners to race him. Most of my regulars in horses like Major Martini and Mighty Ronaldo jumped in, plus a few others."
One of them is a prominent WA businessman and passionate harness owner and sponsor, Glen Mortimer.
"I didn't hesitate to jump in. We've got a core group of owners who have been in quite a few nice horses with Justin, along with a few new faces in this guy. He could be the best yet. It's very exciting," he said.
Prentice, who is renowned for his patience and conservative approach as a trainer, knew Never Ending had plenty of talent, but it wasn't until his first race start at Pinjarra on July 11 last year when he started to get really excited.
And he wasn't the only one.
Well-known WA form analyst Russell Betts almost jumped out of his chair.
"Knowing Justin errs on the side of having his horses underdone, especially first-up, I knew I'd seen something special when he ran a 54.6sec last half and hit the line with so much in reserve," he said.
"I said then he's the best two-year-old I'd seen here (in Western Australia) since Chandon 30 years ago, and he was a champion."
"It hasn't surprised me to see him go on and do what he does, and he's the right hands with Justin to keep going on with it from here."
"I've watched a lot of good horses, but he's a fair dinkum freak this guy."
"If he stays sound, he could be one of those rare horses that transcends racing and take the sport to a much bigger audience."
Prentice vividly remembers that first start.
"I'd never seen a two-year-old do what he did … it was the first light bulb moment of a few he's given me already," he said.
"The times that he runs are unreal, and the fact he just doesn't look to be going that quick."
"I've had some really nice horses, but he's definitely the most naturally talented I've had … he just hasn't got the ringcraft yet."
Although Prentice has trained Group 1 Grand Circuit winning pacers like Mighty Ronaldo and Rocknroll Lincoln, he admits to leaning on Hall Jr, one of Australia's most decorated drivers, for a broader perspective on Never Ending's potential.
It's a fair call when you consider Hall Jr travelled all around Australia and NZ to win a plethora of major races, including three Inter Dominion finals, with Im Themightyquinn. He won 58 races and is the second richest Down Under earning pacer of all time, with almost $A4.6 million between 2008-14.
"I'm really looking forward to going away and travelling with this horse when the time is right because I learnt so much through the 'Quinny' times," Hall Jr said.
"He's got all the makings of being elite, and you think with Justin in his corner, he will keep getting better."
"Justin's patience has been such a huge factor with this horse. There's others who would've seen his raw talent early and possibly blown him up, but all Justin and I have wanted is to try and slow him down and get him to relax."
"I don't think he's got Quinny's sheer point-to-point speed, but he's definitely a much better three-year-old than Quinny was. He's second only to Quinny for horses I've driven, with the potential to keep closing the gap."
"I've been lucky to drive some wonderful horses over the years, so it takes a lot to get me really excited these days, but this guy does."
It's one thing beating your own age, but the speculation is already building towards what stage of next year we will see Never Ending step into the big league.
One option is the $A1.2mil Nullarbor slot race at Gloucester Park in April.
"Let me get through this Derby before I even start thinking about things like that," Prentice said.
"Of course, we have to consider the Nullarbor in our own backyard worth that sort of money, but it's just a maybe."
"The TAB Eureka is an obvious target given it's worth so much ($A2.1mil) and restricted to three and four-year-olds, and it's not until next September."
"It's more a matter of what I do with him between now and then. There's lots of options, but we've all been patient so far, and there's no need to rush any decision now."
For now, it's all about Never Ending snaring his biggest win yet at Perth's Gloucester Park in Friday night's Derby.