It was a huge night for the Aiken stable on Shepparton Cup night and it could get even better.
Reinsman Josh Aiken and Kima Frenning (middle) are pictured with part owner Matt McLellan (left) after the dashing cup win of Hectorjayjay.
The other superstar pacer in the Aiken stable, Lennytheshark, makes his return from injury in tomorrow night’s $120000 Ballarat Pacing Cup, where he takes on New Zealand champions Lazarus and Inter Dominion winner Smolda in the most anticipated clash so far this year.
Lennytheshark has not raced since the final heat of the Inter Dominion in Perth on December 2, but has trialled well for his return.
Lennytheshark has drawn barrier four, Smoda barrier three and Lazarus, who will be a short priced favourite, the outside of the front row in the 2710m marathon.
Pleased with cup crowd
Shepparton Harness Racing Club officials were more than happy with its cup meeting.
The club’s general manager Ian McDonald said most country cup meetings crowd-wise so far this season had been a little disappointing, but his club was pleased with the numbers who attended last Saturday night.
‘‘It wasn’t a record crowd, but it was still a big crowd and it was a great night weather-wise, so we were fortunate in that respect,’’ he said.
McDonald said new Harness Racing Victoria chief executive David Martin attended the meeting and was impressed.
‘‘He congratulated us on putting on such a good cup meeting and was impressed with the facilities our club offers,’’ he said.
McDonald said on-course betting was about $10000 down on last year’s cup meeting of $100000, but this was still a satisfactory result.
Off-course tote betting amounted to $485000, which was the best result so far on country cups meetings.
Aiken on a Roll
The Shepparton Gold Cup meeting’s man of the moment Josh Aiken predicted a bright future for pacer Roll With It before the four-year-old stepped out in a C3-C5 race.
Those who did not know much about the Rock N Roll Heaven four-year-old certainly would have agreed with Aiken after the race.
Roll With It zoomed across from gate four and with a blistering 56.4 last half left his rivals in his wake. He had more than 13m to spare on runner-up Picobella at the finishing post.
Some punters may have been a bit nervous about taking the odds-on offered about Roll With It, given his poor effort at his previous start when he suffered a bout of cardiac arrhythmia and was stood down until he trialled.
But two trials showed he was not affected by the setback and he proved it on Saturday night when he took his record to seven wins in 15 starts.
Aiken said Roll With It had the potential to be racing in the best company in 18 months and he will get no argument on that after Saturday night’s emphatic win.
Aiken’s huge weekend extended into Tuesday at Bendigo when he reined the Finley-owned trotter Eljaykay Phoenix to his 17th career win.
Aiken has driven the five-year-old to all his career wins bar one when Gavin Lang took the drive.
It was a milestone win as Eljaykay Phoenix took his prize money earnings to more than $250000.
Petite packs plenty
There is nothing of her and it looked a David and Goliath scenario in The George Gath feature at Shepparton last Saturday night, but locally-trained Sky Petite would have gained more admirers than she would have lost with her gallant second placing.
Backed into favourite in probably her biggest test to date, Sky Petite was forced to sit without cover and pulled her head off matching it stride for stride with the favourite and Australian Trotting Mare of the Year, Maori Time.
The Dean Pattison-trained and Noel Pattison-owned mare even had the audacity to hit the front in the home stretch after dispensing of giant mare Maori Time, only to be cut down near the finishing line by the all-conquering Team Aiken mare Vics Cheval.
Vics Cheval, who was a 26-1 shot on the tote, has always been a talented trotter, but had been off the boil a bit in recent runs.
But with a soft run she was able to get back on the winners’ list much to the delight of the Aikens, especially the trainer’s wife, Colleen, who owns the mare.
The seven-year-old bred by Clive Palmer’s Cold Mountain Stud has won 18 of her 70 starts and just on $160000 in prize money.
Apart from Vics Cheval’s return to form, the race did prove though that tiny Sky Petite is going to measure up in much bigger assignments this season as she is fully matured as a five-year-old.
Croweater a cracker
Usually South Australian form does not stack up too well against Victorian form, but there was an exception at the Shepparton Cup meeting.
Winner of the Graham Head Memorial Three Year Old Classic, Emain Macha is a Victorian-bred Croweater — although trained just across the border at Naracoorte by Greg Scholefield, who has as good a strike rate as any small trainer in the land.
Why Emain Macha was a generous 11-1 shot on the tote was because of the appearance in the race of another extra smart interstater, the John McCarthy-trained and Luke McCarthy-driven Astride and also the Josh Aiken-trained and driven The Defiant, an impressive winner at his previous start at Melton.
The Defiant, who was attempting to complete the quadrella and also five straight wins on the program for Team Aiken, firmed into a $1.60 favourite.
It looked a two-horse war turning for home, but Emain Macha, who lost the back of Astride and The Defiant when the leaders put in a 26.4 third quarter, rallied in the home stretch to run down his more favoured rivals.
There is a strong local connection to Emain Macha as he was bred by Shepparton horseman Heath Redwood and is by Safari out of the Redwood broodmare Machabella.
Emain Macha was a talented two-year-old who won the Botra two-year-old colts and geldings Golden Nursery final last season and is unbeaten in three starts this season.
His impressive CV reads 10 wins and two seconds from 12 starts netting more than $67000 in prize money for his owners, which includes the trainer.
Watch for him in the coming three-year-old classics.
Flexed her muscles
Veteran Elmore trainer Jim Beecroft was a winner on Shepparton Gold Cup night with his smart trotting mare Jay Bee Flex claiming a heat of the Trotting Mares Sprint Championship over the 1690m trip.
Jay Bee Flex did not get any favours in the run, forced to sit in the death seat throughout, but she fought on bravely to the finishing line to just hold out the fast-finishing favourite, Verbier.
It was the third career win for Jay Bee Flex, who was bred by Kyabram horseman Rob Shellie and is by the Muscles Yankee stallion The Pres out of the Safely Kept mare Black Curlew.
Level playing field?
As a long-standing fan of the trotter, it is great to see some country clubs are no longer discriminating in terms of prize money between their pacing and trotters cups.
Some clubs have even taken the initiative to up the prize money for their pacers and trotters cups. Other clubs are bridging the gap gradually between the values of their pacing and trotters cups.
St Arnaud is offering $14000 for its pacing and trotters cups on March 5, while the Boort cups on March 19 are each worth $14500.
The Wedderburn cups last month were worth $12000.
At the Gunbower cups in November there was little between the prize money, with the pacers cup worth $14000 and the trotters cup $12000.
Last month’s Cobram Pacing Cup was worth $30000 and the trotters cup $20000. It was the same scenario at Yarra Valley and Maryborough.
Wangaratta is offering $12000 for its trotters cup next Wednesday night and $14000 for its pacing cup on March 12.
It was only four years ago that breeder and supporter of the straight out trotter, Aldebaran Park principal Duncan McPherson, predicted one day trotting would take over from the pacing gait as the more prominent gait in harness horses in Australia.
With some clubs staging up to five trots races at meetings, McPherson’s prediction may have more merit than some people gave it credit for at the time.
The trotter is also proving a financial winner at the moment for the Victorian harness industry due to coverage and betting on Victorian trotters races being beamed into Europe and Scandinavia, which are producing generous monetary returns for the Victorian industry.
Persuading potential new owners to take on a trotter more than a decade or so ago was a huge challenge because of the extra time and care most trotters took to fulfil their potential than pacers.
But the trotting breed has improved so much in the past decade because of the availability of world class sires from America and Europe.
With this happening, surely it is time prize money discrimination between the pacer and trotter ended or at least evened up a bit more.
After all, costs of training a trotter are just the same as a pacer and it is the poor old owner — the backbone of the sport — who is suffering most in this once lopsided contest.
What a purple patch
The Shakahari purple patch continued at Melton last Friday night for Shepparton trainer Steve O’Donoghue and reinswoman Bec Bartley.
Bouncing back from her first loss in six starts at her previous start, the Courage Under Fire five-year-old mare tracked into the race three-wide from the bell and prevailed by a short half-head in a crowded finish, with just more than 3m covering the first five placegetters.
Up to and including her four-year-old year, Shakahari had won just two races from 17 starts, but has taken that record to eight wins from 25 starts.
Also enjoying a win at Melton last Friday was the Amanda Turnbull-trained and driven Without You, who has won six of her past eight starts and looks destined for bigger spoils in the future.
Blur back home
Top trotter Kyvalley Blur arrived back in Australia on Wednesday night to prepare for tilts at the Dullard Cup and Great Southern Star next month and in March.
His Kyvalley owner Jim Connelly said Kyvalley Blur had been recovering in New Zealand from a bruised check ligament behind a knee after his gallant third in The Dominion Trot in New Zealand in November.
The Brent Lilley-trained star had four starts for a win and two thirds when campaigning in New Zealand in October-November.
‘‘It’s wasn’t a major (injury) and he has been doing a lot of swimming and he’s coming along fine,’’ Connelly said.
Potter has double
Avenel trainer Wayne Potter had a big night at Bendigo on Tuesday night with a winning double.
Potter won with Wegottarocketmachine, who was driven by Chris Alford, and was also successful with That Chill Devine, who was driven by Zac Phillips.
Wegottarocketmachine has saluted seven times in 26 starts with eight minor placings, while That Chill Devine, a five-year-old Courage Under Fire mare, has been in the winners’ circle five times with 15 placings from 39 starts.
Wangaratta stages one of its two meetings for the season next Wednesday night with the $12000 Wangaratta Trotters Cup the feature event. Wangaratta’s Pacing Cup meeting is on March 12.
Today: Melton (n).
Tomorrow: Ballarat Cup (n).
Sunday: Bendigo (t).
Monday: Melton (n).
Tuesday: Mildura (n).
Wednesday: Wangaratta (n).
Thursday: Stawell (d), Cranbourne (n).
- Gus Underwood