Allocation of another race day permit was well received by Banks Peninsula Trotting Club in 1977, with this eventuality scheduled for Saturday 24th December. It represented a development which would positively impact the Club’s general wellbeing and significantly affect evolution of its annual feature race. However, prior to that occurrence was completion of the traditional Spring Meeting, on a day that will be long remembered as beyond difficult at best and certainly embroiled in controversy.
Following substantial early season rain which had left vehicle parking areas under water, the committee contemplated whether its Motukarara venue could support a day’s racing. After considerable deliberation, it confirmed a proposed meeting transfer to Hororata Domain, approximately 60 kilometres west of Christchurch. This of course was not unprecedented, as Banks Peninsula’s annual meeting in 1969 had been conducted at Rangiora Raceway due to an unsuitable Motukarara track surface. Decision makers considered various scenarios, but wishing to retain a country atmosphere, selected Hororata as the most appropriate option. One week earlier Ashburton Trotting Club conducted their Spring Meeting at Addington Raceway, due to major construction work of a new members’ stand and administration facility on its own course.
Unbeknown to Banks Peninsula Trotting Club Officials, disaster struck in the form of an estimated one inch of rain falling around Hororata within twenty four hours preceding racing. Information that light rain was prevalent, although track conditions remained fast was received by Club Representatives early on Saturday morning. Those details relayed in good faith to the public, via broadcast media at 8.15 a.m. The accuracy and integrity of this information was later widely questioned, with President Mr Les Woods required to defend his Club’s position.
Alias Armbro, Now, and Nigel Craig had dominated all three early season open class trotting events at Addington, astonishingly finishing in that exact order on each occasion. Not surprisingly, initial comparisons or ratings assessing this year’s field were centred on those well performed runners, with Banks Peninsula’s race accordingly billed as predominately a clash between the top trotters. When trainer Brian Gliddon allowed Alias Armbro to forego this race, most analysts viewed a probable outcome as being simply between the other two.
“Not When, but Now” penned Christchurch Star racing journalist Dave Cannan, with a magnificent play on words, as he correctly described Bill Doyle “the master trainer of straight out trotters.” He opted for Now, When’s 7yo daughter, even though she had only completed two of her seven victories on grass. Cannan concluded that Doyle possessed real prospects of claiming his third Banks Peninsula Cup, after mares When and Going had provided the Leeston legend with those first two victories.
Named after co trainer Bevan Heron’s sons, last year’s brilliant winner Nigel Craig was building towards forthcoming targets at Alexandra Park, then more importantly during the New Zealand Cup Carnival. With his fitness improved as a result of three Addington Spring outings, Nigel Craig warranted serious consideration even from 30 metres.
1976 Dominion Handicap winner Armbro Lady had subsequently been disappointing, but her first up effort in the Ordeal Trotting Cup indicated she may be approaching worthwhile form for driver K.D. (Kevin) Townley. She rounded out her preparation for this assignment with a pleasing mid week trial at Methven. Sharmbro driven by Felix Newfield, impressed when beating the intermediate grade trotters first up at Addington, but then made a mess of an inside draw two weeks later.
9yo Tuft gelding Be Free had proven consistent this season for trainer Derek Jones, after being prepared earlier in his career by Rolleston horseman Ray Morris.
Place chances were accorded Greenpark’s Lord Rodney and Mighty Lee, along with Southern Comfort who although fresh, looked very forward at a recent Addington trial. With Jack Smolenski engaged, 1975 winner Waipounamu would have to overcome a 25 metre handicap before contemplating dual success. Most of the others were either considered unreliable, or unlikely to threaten given their disclosed form. Despite that, fate would play its hand with Rip Silver scratched prior to race day, leaving Isla Voss representing the Ashburton stable of J.A. (Ripper) Reid. More significantly and not surprisingly Nigel Craig was a late scratching; one of many defections throughout the day due to deteriorating track conditions.
At 1.55 p.m. Ron Carter dispatched today’s field with the outsider Waitaki Gamble breaking hopelessly for trainer Stewie Sutherland and playing no further part in proceedings. Well supported Rangiora gelding Sharmbro, alongside a fresh Southern Comfort were also both off stride early; neither able to subsequently improve, after working hard in maintaining contact with the field.
Leeston stablemates Now Charles, driven by Doody Townley and favourite Now settled forward of Western Approach on track conditions described as a bog. Now Charles who had been off the scene for almost twelve months, assumed a pacemaking role, with those most in contention adopting Indian file. Be Free stepped safely settling in front of Armbro lady, Mighty Lee and Ilsa Voss. Lord Rodney was slow and found himself toward the rear, just forward of backmarker Waipounamu. After trotting for 200 metres, Armbro Lady became unbalanced, broke and drifted toward the rear before settling. There were no further positional changes, in part due to prevailing track conditions, as they approached the home turn. Upon straightening up Isla Voss became prominent for Robert Cameron, with Waipounamu drawn very wide in search of better footing. Now, given a splendid trail by Bill Doyle’s Son in Law Denis Nyhan, mastered her older half brother two hundred metres from home, but was all at sea ploughing through the mud.
After being positioned three back, it was Western Approach driven for the first time by Mike de Filippi, who handled conditions best. The light weight Broadfield reinsman had been a late engagement for trainer Bob Day. Western Approach’s head winning margin over hot favourite Now, fully reflected today’s desperate finish, with three quarters of a length to Now Charles; close up in third place. Backmarker Waipounamu’s commendable performance from 25 metres earned his connections fourth money, two and a half lengths further afield. The remainder headed by Isla Voss and Mighty Lee, who was handled by Wes Butt, arrived at intervals. The last 800 metres was completed in 71.3 seconds, the 2,600 metre journey enduring a full four minutes. These times accurately reflect the extreme conditions encountered by equine athletes and horsemen.
For owner Bob Day who also trained the gelding, it was another triumph having scored in 1970 with Merrin. This change of fortune provided some belated compensation for Day after Western Approach had been relegated, subsequent to provisionally winning the 1975 New Zealand Trotting Stakes, also on a slushy track. Having his first lifetime start at $150 – 1, Western Approach galloped just short of the Judges line. Ironically the promoted winner on that occasion was last year’s Banks Peninsula Cup runner up Alias Armbro. Bob Day joined Bill Doyle on Banks Peninsula’s Honours Board in a capacity of dual winning owner and trainer, as Western Approach narrowly denied Doyle his treble.
The only winner from his dam’s eleven live foals, Western Approach was sired by Jerry Adios together with unsound Tinwald mare Race Book, who relished conditions when scoring comfortably in the second leg of today’s double. Driven by Kevin Townley, it was Race Book’s third success upon a heavy grass track, something noted by punters who had delivered her strong support on the win machine. Of added interest, Jerry Adios sired only seven trotting winners, five of those including Western Approach were from Light Brigade mares.
One notable undercard feature was the performance of a 4yo gelding by Tarport Coulter, having just his second start. Scotch Tar remained unbeaten, disposing of his rivals in the Akaroa Handicap by five lengths, for driver and former trainer Robert Cameron.
Delivering his contemplation of events on Monday morning, The Press journalist G.K. (Geoff) Yule was scathing in an attack directed at Club Administrators for proceeding with events. He described conditions as appalling, with facilities at Hororata primitive. “The Club did little for itself, or trotting as a whole.” He reflected.
In another incident, Police enquiries were made into an unauthorised, but fortunately unsuccessful attempt to scratch a horse from the meeting.
Although accolades sat deservedly with Bob Day, Mike de Filippi and Western Approach, a very unfortunate set of circumstances almost conspired to destroy the occasion. Clearly, learning’s were taken on board and hindsight has always proven to be a wonderful commodity. These trying experiences are now archived in context with other historical data relative to the Banks Peninsula Trotting Club and its marquee event.