The Marlborough Harness Racing Club are looking confidently to the future after seeing off their first 100 years in appropriate fashion over the weekend.
The Waterlea-based club celebrated 100 years of racing at the Blenheim venue with a well-attended two-day meeting.
MHRC chairperson Petrina Shutkowski said that there was high-class, exciting racing action on both Friday and Sunday, with good numbers turning out for the Interislander Summer Festival Day on Sunday.
“We had a really good crowd on course [on Sunday] because the weather was good and there were lots of activities for kids. On-course turnover was also strong.
“The fields were really strong, with good form. We had to eliminate some horses from the original nominations because we just didn’t have spaces in the fields for them.”
There was also live entertainment on-course, plus a special centenary race book designed to mark the occasion, a display of memorabilia in the Waterlea Hall and some vintage cars to honour the historic occasion.
“People were just happy to be involved,” suggested Petrina, who envisages a bright future for the sport in this region.
“I think harness racing in Marlborough is pretty strong. There are a number of trainers and a base of horses here … that’s what drives these meetings … so it’s still positive for harness here.”
Although the two-day summer carnival will be the only harness event staged at Waterlea in future, with the winter meeting not taking place, Petrina is confident support levels are high going forward.
“Harness Racing New Zealand have been pleased with us in recent years, especially since we have moved to the grass track. We have attracted really strong fields and good numbers of nominations.
“Also, the visiting trainers enjoy themselves [in the top of the south] … they brought the kids, stayed in Nelson for a few extra days, went to the beaches and the wineries. They mark it in their calendar as a sort of summer holiday.”
To help co-ordinate harness racing in the area a Seddon Shields District organisation has recently been formed, involving representatives from Reefton, Westport, Marlborough, Nelson and Kaikoura. They have combined to purchase a mobile start 4WD vehicle, with a view to sharing resources, knowledge and information.
Meanwhile, on the track at the weekend, Stars Tonight, superbly driven by top reinsman John Dunn, claimed a notable Waterlea double.
The four-year-old gelding, trained by Robert Dunn at Woodend Beach, took out the “100 Years Racing at Waterlea Cup Prelude” on Friday evening, then prevailed in the 100th racing of the Marlborough Cup on Sunday. He was the favourite on both occasions.
On Friday he won by a neck from Dadndave, while on Sunday he truly underlined his dominance, scoring by three and a quarter lengths from Hayden’s Meddle, followed by Dadndave in third.
On the first day Dunn drove Stars Tonight astutely, staying parked midfield until the final bend when he surged to the lead then held off a fast-finishing Dadndave.
Two days later Stars Tonight was well clear at the line. After a strong start he went to the head of the field with a round to go and, despite having to hold off a challenger on the bend, kicked well clear halfway down the straight to win the 100th Cup in fine style.
Petrina suggested that Stars Tonight had run “probably the fastest last half on the grass track that has ever been”.
“That’s an indication of the quality of the track and the horses as well … it was pretty impressive.”
Stars Tonight was one of two double winners across the historic meeting, the other being Heavyweight Hero, trained and driven by Bob Butt from Woodend Beach, who won the sixth race on each day.
John Dunn, with three wins was the leading driver across the two days, while Robbie Close, Blair Orange, Sarah O’Reilly and Bob Butt drove two winners apiece.
Robert Dunn was the top trainer, with three successes, while Jim and James Geddes and Butt managed two training successes each.
Madiba, until recently trained by local trainer Don Morrison, also picked up a win on the first day.