This season hasn’t exactly been my best horsey time. I went to New Zealand thinking I was going to watch four or five of my babies race regularly over the summer, and one by one they fell by the wayside. Or had to be spelled. Or patched up. The only Gerolsteiner joy came from the excellent form of Wendy’s Mikie (Fifteen C) who won at Motukarara, and the flash in the pan by our Gerolstein-bred Seppl who won for someone else in Australia.
But there was an answer. They say, ‘they never run well when you are there’, and I am living witness to that. Of my 46 wins over the last 15 years, I’ve been in the relevant country for few and on track for less. And it looks as if it may be that way again. I flew out of New Zealand 31 March with a seasonal record of 3 starts: all unplaced.
And it began. The soft-boiled egg colours came out of the cupboard. New baby Thomas went for his first learner’s heat.
Dearly beloved Fritzl, who won his last start … in February 2011 … has come back after injury and retirement and he ran a delicate 3rd on the same day. Could he really make it back to the races? (Wendy is known as the trainer who brought Kotare Atom back twice, after broken legs, to win!).
And then there is Agnes. Sister to the beautiful but problematic Elena de Gerolstein (1 win). Agnes is a big girl. Lanky. So we didn’t ask her to race till her 4 year-old season. She qualified impressively, fouled her first race up utterly, and ran promisingly for 6th, before Wendy decided another year would help her. So Agnes went into the paddock, where she ran into a post in an earthquake, and Lord knows what else on other occasions: one accident after another.
Eventually she got to the workouts and the races and ran horribly. Vet check. Virus. Expletive.
Fixed. Off to Addington. This time it was her sulky that was in the wars. One who shall not be named locked wheels with her, and she came back with an expensively bent cart and another 0 in the form line. Could it get worse? Yes.
Next up, she drew a splendid 5 at the barrier. She was standing perfectly when no 6 decided to do a rodeo act. Now, in civilised countries no 6 would have been immediately scratched or put on a third row, but New Zealand is notoriously limp-wristed about start matters, and by the time no6 was sent to the outside Agnes was in tatters. 'They were SCREAMING at me!' 'No they weren’t, dear, it was no 6'. She was so frightened (as big girls often are) that when the tape finally flew she looked left and right, said ‘is it real this time?’ and missed away. Another zero. And to add insult to ill-management ... was number 6 condemned to two trials before racing again? No. Limp-wristed. But Agnes was apparently (noone told us) given a starter’s warning. Sometimes my respect for the stipendiary stewards is sorely tested.
With five noughts to her credit, it became difficult to get her a start, in spite of some fine trials. Akaroa turned her down twice (well b**** you Akaroa) while including horses that had finished lengths behind her at the workouts. But my beloved Rangiora came to the party, and last night – at 2.45am Berlin time -- Agnes lined up in a rather hot maiden 2600m. $1.80 favourite Gotta Go Grunter with three starts for three seconds. Agnes thirteenth favourite of the fifteen starters at about 100-1.
This time all the horses behaved properly, went away smoothly, and Chris (McDowell) settled my big girl mid-field on the outside as second favourite Stunin Dude stormed intimidatingly to the front. But Chris and Agnes weren’t intimidated. Into the last lap, they followed the equally unintimidated Taranto around, and Agnes went past her poisson pilot and took on the leader. The 100-1 outsider!
Johnny Dunn on Stunin Dude shot a warning look at Chris, but our driver doesn’t shrivel even under the glare of champions and the Gerolstein team stuck a head in front as they came to the turn. And then, disaster.
Stunin Dude failed to take the corner, left its line and pushed Agnes way wide, losing her several lengths, much impetus, and letting the trailing (Pacific Rose) and trailing-trailing (Millwood Chloe) horses through for an inside rails run.
Chris urged her on, and she surged forward – ‘kicked again’ the commentator described it: past Pacific Rose, perhaps to the lead. But in the final metres the economically driven Millwood Chloe edged ahead (she had, after all, run 30 odd metres less than Agnes) and my girl was beaten 3/4 length. The 100-1 outsider. Gotta Go Grunter was back amongst the also-rans. Stunin Dude ended up almost last.
That was a second place that to me was worth a fistful of wins. The real Agnes finally got to show her skills. With enormous help from Chris. Now it is confirmed that, after four years of Wendy’s careful preparation, we have a racehorse.
Unfortunately, we have a racehorse in April. There are only two races remaining this month to which a maiden Canterbury mare can go. All the rest are miserable mobile starts (we don’t do those) or too far away. Harness Racing New Zealand has, alas, absolutely no interest in supporting owners – what do they care that we’ve spent 6 months preparing our horse – they care only for tote turnover, and toys for the boys. Why isn’t there a meeting at Rangiora or Motukarara every week during the autumn and winter? That’s where the horses like to go. Addington is on its way to becoming a 6-horse-race playground for Purdons, Butts and Dalgetys: so let’s have some lovely, big, winter races elsewhere – no mobiles, no miles – real Kiwi racing.
Well, I’m not the man who makes the rules. I should be. I’d make large changes to everything from programming to (especially) the feeble breaking-horses and start-behaviour rules. But I’m too old. And not there enough. So my only ‘out’ is just that. To get out. Which I will soon.
But not till Agnes has finished her career!