Stars Tonight, 8, driven by John Dunn, gets up to win the Marlborough Cup prelude by a neck on Friday. Photo: Matt Brown.

Harness racing looking forward to next 100 years

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.

Clasina Maria takes out the 2019 Marlborough Cup at Waterlea, the 99th running of the province’s premier harness racing prize. Photo: Peter Jones.

Waterlea Raceway celebrates 100 years of harness action

By Peter Jones and Peter Craig

A century of harness racing in Marlborough will be celebrated at Waterlea Racecourse on Friday and Sunday.

The Marlborough Harness Racing Club’s annual two-day summer meeting will mark the commencement of harness racing at the Waterlea venue 100 years ago.

The inaugural meeting at Waterlea took place on Friday, March 12 1920.

Since 1920, trials, OTB (owners, trainers and breeders) and tote meetings have been held at the central Blenheim location. The only exception came during World War 2 when no meetings were held between 1939 and 1945.

The Marlborough area has facilitated horse racing for more than 150 years. The current Marlborough Trotting/Harness Racing Club commenced operations at the Riverlands course in February 1913 and raced there until the final meeting in 1919 when the action moved to Blenheim.

The Waterlea course opened in 1920, with the first thoroughbred meeting held on March 10 and the historic trotting meeting two days later.

Trotting races have been included on the card at many of the thoroughbred meetings held in the ensuing century, although not every season.

Waterlea soon developed as a spectator-friendly venue. A new members and stewards stand was completed in 1977 with the public stand being developed in the late 1980s.

The Waterlea grass track is utilised by both racing codes with an all-weather harness track becoming operational from December, 1981.

Two-year-old pacer Ahuriri set an elite national mile record in 1922. Photo: Supplied.
Two-year-old pacer Ahuriri set an elite national mile record in 1922. Photo: Supplied.

Varied venues

Other tracks/clubs which were utilised in the Marlborough area included the Wairau Racing Club (pre-1880) which raced at the Omaka Domain; the Marlborough Jockey Club (formed in 1880) initially operating at Omaka Domain and Riverlands prior to Waterlea; the Pelorus Jockey Club’s solitary meeting on New Year’s Day 1892 at Kaituna; the Upper Wairau Racing Club meetings from 1891-94 at the Miners Old Course, Renwick; the Marlborough Trotting Club meeting in 1894 at the Hibernian Society’s Sports Ground in Blenheim; the Wairau TC meeting in 1911 at the Awatere RC, Seddon.

Meeting venues, times

The Riverlands course hosted meetings for the following clubs: Marlborough HC (1891); Birthday RC (1892-1895); Blenheim TC (1892); Marlborough RC (1893-1919) and the Wairau TC (1903-1911).

The Marlborough Trotting Club held one summer meeting each year from 1913 until 1950, although no meetings were staged during the Second World War years.

A two-day summer carnival was then introduced, followed in 1974 by meetings on three days (one January, two February) while from 1975-1980, the two days in February were supplemented by the initial one-day winter meetings in June. This changed in 1981 to two-day summer and winter carnivals, held in February and June respectively.

In the mid-1990’s further meetings were held in addition to those meetings, while the current two-day meetings (Friday/Sunday) in mid-January and June have remained in place since 1999 with the exception of June, 2017 when, following the Kaikoura earthquakes, a one-day winter meeting was conducted at Addington Raceway.

In recent years, both summer and winter meetings have included preludes to the Marlborough Cup on Friday with the Cup at stake on Sunday.

The Sunday Summer meeting is now conducted as an Interislander Summer Festival meeting.

Currently two tracks are utilised by the club – summer meetings are held on the 1600m grass track, with a 350m straight, while winter events are contested on the 1506m all-weather track.

A large crowd filled the grandstand at Waterlea for this meeting in the early 1980s. Photo: Supplied.
A large crowd filled the grandstand at Waterlea for this meeting in the early 1980s. Photo: Supplied.

Mobile introduced

The mobile gate was first introduced to Waterlea Raceway in the 1983-4 season, principally due to Marlborough’s first staging of a heat of the DB three-year-old fillies series. This was the first of two classic race series to be staged by the club, the other being the Pelorus Trust four-year-old Classic).

Records set

The one elite record set on the Waterlea track was on March 10, 1922 when Ahuriri established a NZ two-year-old pacers mile record of 2:20.0. A top performer, Ahuriri won two NZ Cups (1925, 1926) and the 1927 Auckland Cup. His breeder/owner was RM Morten, trainer Scotty Bryce and driver James Bryce.
Other NZ records established on the Waterlea track include Jack Shine’s 2:03.8 in the horses and geldings pacers mile standing start in June 1982 and Lady Eastburn’s mares pacing standing start mile record of 2:05.2, set in February 1982.

Century of cups

This year’s meeting includes another milestone, the running of the 100th Marlborough Cup for pacers.

The Marlborough Pacing Cup was first contested in 1913 – in fact there were two recorded instances of a Marlborough Cup that year, the first won by Lucy Wallace and the second by Ariadne. The 2020 edition being run on Sunday over 2850m (grass) represents the 100th recorded running of the Cup, which was not contested in 1916, 1939-45 or 1976. Previous winners have included Hayseed (1920, the first Cup winner at Waterlea), Waikato Prince (1937, winner of Dominion Hcp Trot), Auckland Cup winner Macklin (1957), ID heat winner Why Bill (1975), West Coast Bonus and Easter Cup winner Our Mana (1983), Blue Chip Rock (2004, Easter Cup) while dual winners have been Full Cry (1919, 1920) and Vikota (1929, 1930).

The Marlborough Winter Cup, held during the annual two-day June winter meeting commenced in 1975, won by Sidestep, and is run over 3200m. Winners have included Atom Love (2001, 1:49.4US) and Bettors Strike (2008, Victoria Cup) while Runaway Groom 1990, Atom Love 2001, Fifth Edition 2014 have won both Winter Cups at Nelson and Blenheim in the same year.

Fillies series

The three-year-old fillies classic series began in 1979 and featured a heat at Waterlea from 1984 until 2014.

Winners included Sweet Alli (1984, 2:05.2, second was Blue Water winner of final), Leigh Lumber (1985, first in 2:00.0), future open class pacers in Michele Bromac, Bionic Chance, Oaxaca Lass, Mainland Banner, fastest filly Miss Elsie (2011, 1:55.3) and last heat winner in Murphy Brown (2014). The only winner of the Marlborough heat and the Fillies final was outstanding filly Under Cover Lover (1998, 1:57.1).

Instituted in 2003, the Pelorus Trust 4yo Classic’s lifespan ran until the 2015 season. Leading lights to succeed in the Classic included London Legend, Likmesiah, Monkey King, Kiwi Ingenuity, Choise Achiever, Jason Rulz, Franco Nelson and final winner Isaiah (2015).

Notable trainers, administrators

According to Harness Racing NZ records, over 80 trainers have raced horses from Marlborough since the 1959-60 season.

Those most prominent have included Grant Anderson with 21 training victories to date at Waterlea since 1983, Pat O’Brien (13 – with son Mike a further six), Alan Shutkowski (12), Graham Neill (11), Mac Miller (10) and Peter Hope (eight) rounding out the leading half dozen trainers on a wins basis.

Others who have trained in the Blenheim area at some stage include Brent Weaver (two wins), Don Morrison (six), Dean Hunter (seven) and Brian Wastney (two).

Over the preceding four decades, 21 local victories were recorded.

Club presidents have included Bill Murray (1951-56, 1960-69), Pat O’Brien and Brian Wastney while the current chairperson is Petrina Shutkowski.

In recent years Barry Forbes spent just over two decades as club secretary, with previous secretaries including Graham Fuller (1954-1977/8), MA Peters (1978/9-1982/3) and Mike O’Brien (1983/4-1990/1).

Details courtesy of Marlborough HRC.

Matt Anderson drives Smokin By to the lead during the latter stages of Sunday's Winter Cup. Photo: Peter Jones.

Latecomer crashes Waterlea party

A latecomer crashed the party at Waterlea Raceway on Sunday when a classy pacer that did not run on the first day of the Marlborough Harness Racing Club’s winter meeting turned up trumps to take out the feature event.

Smokin By, a four-year-old gelding, trained by Mitchell Kerr in Rangiora got home by a long neck in the hands of Matt Anderson to claim the Wairau Covers Marlborough Winter Cup over 3200m.

In a tight finish, Doitson, driven by John Dunn ran second while The Kaik, and Kimberly Butt, was a nose further back.

The winner, who started off a 20m handicap, last competed at Addington in the Uncut Gems on June 14. His connections decided not to race him on Friday, the first day of the Marlborough meeting, a wise decision as it turned out.

The first day winner of the Cup Prelude was Southland pacer Paddyproudfoot.

The four-year-old gelding, in the hands of Gavin Smith, made sure the long trip north was worthwhile, claiming the 2300m feature race   over 2300m by half a length from favourite Storm Prince, with The Kaik third by a neck.

Paddyproudfoot, who finished fifth on Sunday, is trained by the Southland duo of Kirstin Barclay and Paul Ellis at Oreti Beach, near Invercargill.

A highlight for local stables came in race seven on Friday when Waterlea-based owner/trainer/driver Merv Bryers got Monaro Maro home by half a length in the feature trotting race.

Mitchell Kerr was the most successful trainer over the two days, picking up three wins.

Sheree Tomlinson took out the Mike Turner Junior Driver award from Korbyn Newman.

Greg Ruffell, with sons Hunter and Max, celebrate Divinia Bellezza’s win at Waterlea in January. Photo supplied.

Local horse owner in the money at Addington

Marlborough harness racing enthusiast and owner Greg Ruffell discovered his own glittering jewel at Addington Raceway recently.

Divinia Bellezza, the four-year-old mare Greg part owns with Loburn-based trainer Andrew Stuart and his fiancé Becky, finished second in the group one Woodland Diamond Pace, one of the most prestigious on the NZ harness racing circuit.

On Jewels Day at the Christchurch course, the American Ideal-Siena Franco mare, superbly driven by Blair Orange, picked up $22,500 in stakes for the owners, who became partners in the horse in 2018.

Greg and Andrew have been friends for many years, racing “seven or eight” horses together, including seven-time-winner Mr Chrome, who had to be retired young after suffering arthritis.

Greg suggests family connections sparked his prolonged interest in racing.

“The old man and my grandad have always had horses and I have always followed the races, so I guess it just progressed from that.

“But this is the biggest result I have had so far, it was a group one race … massive.”

Entry to the Jewels Day at Addington was restricted, places in the final field decided by how much stake money contenders had won.

The winner of the four-year-old mares race was the Purdon/Rasmussen hot shot Elle Mac, who prevailed by two lengths.

Greg said the driving skills of Orange played a huge part in Divinia Bellezza featuring in the finish of the feature.

“It was a freakish drive. He was last and on the rails and he managed to come straight through the middle of the field, they just opened up and she flew through.”

Greg was on course with Blenheim mates Geoff Barnett and Travis Haymes to see his charge pay $8.10 for a place at the TAB, laughingly suggesting, “It was Travis’s first collect off the TAB for two years”.

Given the efforts of Divinia Bellezza, who has racked up over $58,000 in stakes so far and won four times, there may be more to come.

Next up, is a trip to Auckland for a literal change in direction.

The mare will race clockwise on the northern tracks, a direction she prefers after going anti-clockwise in the South Island, added Greg.

She is likely to start in the June 14 meeting at Alexandra Park.

Camino Rocoso claims Waterlea double

Veteran jockey Chris Johnson and five-year-old gelding Camino Rocoso completed a notable double with wins in the feature races on both days of the Marlborough Racing Club’s meeting at Waterlea.

After taking out the Kam Transport Marlborough Cup Prelude on Friday, the duo backed it up on Sunday with victory in the Cup race itself.

Camino Rocoso prevailed by a length over Smoke House Bay, in the hands of Tina Comignaghi, with Duffers Creek third in a six-horse race.

Overtheriver, who completed the Prelude/Cup double last year, ended up fifth.

On Friday Camino Rosoco won the Cup Prelude by half a neck over six-year-old Guy Fox, ridden by Sarah MacNab.

The gelding’s win on Sunday was the fifth success of the meeting for the training partnership of John and Karen Parsons at Balcairn, while Lisa Allpress was the most successful rider, saddling up five winners over the two days.

The highly-experienced Allpress, who leads the jockey’s premiership with over 100 wins and almost $2 million in stakes, said she always enjoyed her time in Marlborough.

“The course is beautiful and they look after us really well during the day … I really enjoy country racing.”

Allpress would not be drawn on the recent well-publicized plans to cut some country meetings from the thoroughbred calendar, including Waterlea, but added, “if they still have meetings here and I am chasing a premiership I will be coming back to ride here.”

The powerful Kevin Myers’ contingent from Whanganui won three races, while apprentice jockey Tina Comignaghi picked up three wins for the meeting.

With reasonable crowds on course both days for the 99th Marlborough Racing Club meeting and some quality racing on show the future looks bright for the club’s centennial meeting in 2020.