I first discovered harness racing at the age of 11. My father had been appointed as the inaugural principal of brand new Waimea College, Richmond, Nelson, and in January 1957 the family removed from Wellington to Richmond. An 11 year-old is a bit of a pain when carpets and furniture are being unpacked, so I was allowed to wander down to see what was going so colourfully on down at the Agricultural and Pastoral Society’s grounds. What father didn’t realise, until some time later, was that the A&P grounds contain Richmond racetrack, and ‘what was going on’ was not a country fair but the Nelson Harness Racing Club’s summer meeting. That was the day I first got hooked on the sport. And, I suppose, if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t now have the farm of 'Gerolstein' and all its horses, I wouldn’t have been the proud achiever of 28 racing wins. There would have been no Davey Crockett, no Master Ado, no Lite Gasp, and, Zeus forbid, no Elena de Gerolstein. I’d be a lot richer. But much less happier.
It wasn’t till I started telling someone how long ago I’d first come racing in Richmond that it hit me. Today was my half century. Fifty years exactly from my first glimpse of Rosyth, Somerset Lad and the world of harness racing. Well, it turned out to be a truly wonderful ‘birthday’. I can’t remember when I last enjoyed myself at the races so much.
All the old Nelson/Richmond pals from the 1990s were there, and we had joyous reunions. All the horsey pals from down the years were there … who would miss Nelson? … and in holiday mode. None of the ‘rush to Addington on a windy Friday night, run your horse and get home as quickly as possible’. Here, everyone is happy to linger.
Wayne Higgs, who trained all my early horses for me, was there with a team. He’d grinned to me not long ago that he would win a dozen races on the holiday circuits this year. So I passed the news on to my punting friends. I’m afraid they scoffed. Well, I’m here to say that Wayne took out three races on 11 January alone, and at tidy odds too!
And Murray Edmonds, who drove our dear Davey Crockett at Nelson one year (he came 4th, I have the video) and now trains my Wanda, Fritzl and Seppl: as every year, he was there with a tidy team, including my Gwen’s half-brother, Boomdiddiboom, and her ‘nephew’, Ronnie Coute.
None of mine, alas. I’m having what’s politely called a fallow period, but I get just as much fun watching the rest of the red-white-and-yellow horses running. With Murray, Wayne and the other pals there in force, I always had at least two or three horses to cheer on per race.
And, of course, there was ‘Chrissie’. Chrissie is Konni Kase, and she’s trained and driven by Wendy’s sister, Jan. She’s five now, and hasn’t really shown anything on the track since a promising first start, way back. But she had trialled well last week, so hope was in the air.
Well, Wayne hit hard and first with his triple whammy. And Murray almost pipped the redhot expensively-bought favourite with a once wild beast named Barmy Army. I took my photo an instant too soon .. he got even closer than in this picture.
Ronnie ran very well for fourth (he will be hot fave on day two after that!), and Boom just behind him in his usual honest 6th, so Gwen and Duchess’s ‘family’ were far from disgraced.
Then it was Chrissie’s turn. Here she is parading in the birdcage before the race: she’s grown into a fine specimen.
I needed six eyes for this race, the Hoani Jack Cup, because, apart from Chrissie, my friends Erin and Arkie had a new horse running, and old pal Les St Clair had one in too. But of course, I watched Chrissie. She’d drawn 17, so she was lastish when they settled. But Jan took her courage in her hands, looped the field three wide, put the horse handy and Chrissie ran on stoutly to finish sixth just 3 lengths from the winner and just a length off getting in the money! That’s her on the outside, in the yellow jacket. She’s making ground all the time, and was closer by the end. Oh, and by the way, she was the rank outsider of the field, paying 100-1! Not next time!
This picture however, tells a further tale. That one sneaking through on the inside to win the race – that’s Fire Dancer aka ‘Erin’, and the one pushing through the middle to second? That’s Les’s horse! So Erin and Arkie got to take home the Hoani Jack Cup, and the remaining races of the day passed in a flood of joy, great company and cold chardonnay, under the glorious Nelson sunshine.
Yes, this is why I got into harness racing. Why have I stopped doing this thought of thing? Well, I know why I stopped. But now, I must start again ... next summer Red Ted the Suzuki Alto is going to have to work a bit more for his living!
And so my anniversary day, Johnny’s birthday, was a splendid one, finishing with a quiet little supper and a nice bottle of local wine with mother, and -- oh, bliss! -- a good night’s sleep. So, who thought he’d never be happy again…?