The slow hopeless horse who took 86 starts to bloom
There are countless stories about millionaires and their pampered thoroughbreds at this time of year. This is not one of them.
This is a story about a 74 year old bush harness racing trainer, an 84 year old owner and the slow, hopeless horse they wouldn’t send to the knackery, despite the fact it had raced 85 times without winning.
It’s a story of persistence, of friendship, and of the remarkable thing that happened just the other Thursday in Ararat, Victoria, in the lengthening twilight shadows of the Grampians.
The story begins in Mt Gambier, South Australia, at the stables of retired dairy farmer Tony Glynn. Glynn trains pacers as a hobby. His Dad used to train gallopers but Tony prefers the harness horses. Standardbreds are more durable than those thin-boned, flighty thoroughbreds, even if they test a man’s patience to its limits.
In ordinary circumstances, a horse like Tony Glynn’s eight year old black gelding Zechief would have been cast aside years ago. Early this year, his record was 60 starts for no wins, and just $900 in stakes. You’ve got two choices with a horse like that. Standardbreds make good pets. They make even better pet food.
But Zechief had sentimental value. He is owned by a Mrs Frida Badenoch, a widow who used to run a deli on the outskirts of Mount Gambier with her late husband. The husband was injured in a harness racing accident and could barely walk for the last seven years of his life. Zechief was foaled just before he died. This was to be Mrs Badenoch’s last horse, and there was no way she was getting rid of it.
Tony Glynn, a lifelong friend of Mrs Badenoch, broke the horse in and trained it from day one. “He was an honest little trier,” Glynn says. “A nice horse, very pretty, very stylish in his action.”
Alas, his substance didn’t match his style. Then one day, Zechief was injured in the float, and missed 12 months of racing. On his return to the track, he was even slower than usual. So Glynn changed his training method.
Instead of driving the horse himself in the sulky at trackwork, he tethered the horse to a “jogger” – an improvised device which trails behind his ute. That got old Zechief’s mind on the job. By October this year, he’d racked up 10 career placings and lifetime stakes of $4,463. But he still hadn’t cracked that breakthrough win.
In a typical race in the western Victorian meetings Glynn frequents, the $5,000 prize pool is divided as follows: $3,375 for 1st, $750 for 2nd, $500 for 3rd, $250 for 4th and $125 for 5th.
Glynn’s float is large enough to carry two horses, three at a squeeze. If one of them finishes fifth, the $125 cheque more or less covers the cost of petrol for the trip. Glynn is a realist. He’s not trying to get rich. All the same, the occasional $3,375 winner’s cheque doesn’t go astray. Oats aren’t free, after all.
October 13 2011 dawned clear and sunny in Mount Gambier. Tony Glynn hitched up his float in the early afternoon and drove the three hours to Ararat. Alongside him, as usual, was Mrs Badenoch. She travelled everywhere with her horse. Has done since day one.
Early evening. Zechief was running in Race Two. He had drawn “the pole”, which is harness racing jargon for the prized inside draw. Glynn had another thing going for him. He had managed to book champion reinswoman Kerryn Manning to drive Zechief
“I can win for you tonight,” Manning told Glynn on his arrival at the track. “He’s been knocking on the door. A win is just around the corner.”
You’ve got to love her optimism. Zechief’s previous five runs were an 8th, a 4th, a 6th, an 8th and another 8th. If that’s knocking on the door, you’d have to say he wasn’t knocking very loudly.
But Manning, who is easily one of the best in the country despite living in the bush, was serious. She’d driven other horses for Glynn before, and knew and trusted him. She had no reason to sweet talk him.
We’ll put you out of your misery. Zechief won. At his 86th start, all the little things that usually went wrong finally went right for once. Lady luck, not to mention a fine lady reinswoman, was at last on his side.
Zechief started well from his inside draw and settled behind the leader and favourite Xbolt. Leaders often win at the trots, but there was a battle for the lead up front which sapped Xbolt of vital energy.
While that was going on, Manning sat “smoking the pipe” on Zechief. That’s racing jargon for patiently awaiting an opening. The opening came in the home straight, and Manning steered Zechief along the inside for a narrow but decisive win.
The race caller didn’t make a song and dance. A horse winning its first race after 86 starts is probably commonplace out Ararat way. But to Tony Glynn, it meant plenty, not least because he’d had a little wager at 10-1.
That gave him enough to give Kerryn Manning a little extra something. He also paid $100 to buy a framed photo of the finish. They give those photos away at the gallops. Not at the trots, they don’t. Only the dust and flies are free at the trots.
Tony Glynn had watched the win trackside, near the wining post. When he turned around, he saw Mrs Badenoch alone in the tiny rickety stand, grinning from ear to ear.
“She was tickled pink,” Glynn recalls. “She must have said ‘it’s a good feeling’ 50 times on the way home.”
Somewhere in a flash Melbourne restaurant this week, a group of wealthy men and women will toast their fast horse and their extra millions. But here’s an even safer bet. I bet you they don’t feel as satisfied deep down inside as a certain Mount Gambier widow by the name of Frida Badenoch.
Hoofnote: Zechief has had two runs since his Ararat win, missing a place both times. He’s having a well-earned rest now, and will resume competitive duties in a few weeks. Should we duck down the TAB and bet on him? “I wouldn’t go crazy,” Glynn advises. “But you never know, he could bob up again.”
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