Tomato sauce on the hot chips; lots of it too and dribbling down the side of the cup. Out to the birdcage to see which runner has that glint in their eye and that shine on their coat. The beer and tom sauce-stained racebook has as many crossings out as circled selections and scrawled and scratchy number and bet calculations. You know you should weight the bet a bit more on the Place side of things than you actually do, because it’s sensible, but whoever really does that?
This Saturday night, Alexandra Park in Auckland sees the running of the Inter Dominion Pacing and Trotting finals. The series began away back in 1936, and features Aussie and Kiwi standardbreds; effectively horses especially bred for harness racing. The series is held in this country once every four years, with 2011 being the last time it came to Alexandra Park. Although that was because Addington in Christchurch couldn’t be used after the earthquake. There are always two finals- for Trotters and Pacers.
When the championship was a bit more of a big deal with the general public than it is now, any New Zealand-based winner was elevated to hero status. Not exactly to the level of a local Melbourne Cup winner, but prestigious enough.
The past forty-five years have seen some thrilling finishes. For Kiwis, one of the best moments came in 1975 at Alexandra Park when ‘Young Quinn’ broke the Australasian pacing record over 2700 metres, comfortably winning the final and being unbeaten in his four races at the carnival. A victory incidentally that became notable enough to warrant inclusion in one of the iconic books on New Zealand sport: ‘Memorable Moments in NZ Sport’, published by Moa in 1979. (A crying shame there hasn’t been another- though the book would end up being a sporting tome that would weigh an absolute ton if everything worthy since the end of the 70s were fitted in.)
The next Inter-Doms NZ edition, at Addington, Christchurch in 1979, saw surprise package ‘Rondel’ pip ‘Sapling’ in the shadows of the winning post in the Pacers’ Final with an improbable rails run that only someone as talented as the legendary Peter Wolfenden could have engineered. Crowd favourite ‘Lord Module’ couldn’t unleash one of his famous, withering bursts in the straight, and the Auckland, Kumeu-based horse stole through on the rails. These were absolutely the days when about half the town turned up to watch:
To 1983 at Alexandra Park and the highly-rated Aussie trotter ‘Scotch Notch’ and driver Graeme Lang were invinicible. There was no Kiwi star around of the Lyell Creek variety to put up a challenge. Second-placed ‘Jenner’ came a mile back in second (although it’s worth noting that the third placegetter, ‘Sir Castleton’ downed the Aussie star on his home soil in 1984- how sweet that must have been.)
In the ‘83 Pacers’ final, the Victorian ‘Gammalite’ and Bruce Clarke got the quinella with another Aussie invader, ‘Popular Alm’, with the youthful, tragic Vin Knight as co-trainer and driver. Alexandra Park heroine ‘Delightful Lady’ came with a late surge for third. Gammalite sat parked on Popular Alm’s tail and once they hit the final straight, ‘Gammy’ was gone- as you’ll see here:
The presentation ceremony was notable for the somewhat raucous reception Prime Minister Muldoon received. Around that time he’d announced a national wage-price freeze- another one of his rather interesting remedies for an ailing economy. Clearly the move hadn’t go down too well with some at the track:
The next time in NZ was 1987 at Addington Raceway and an aghast crowd watched on as this time the Australians didn’t just quinella the placings in the Pacers’ final as in 1983; they trifected them, with ‘ Lightning Blue’ winning from ‘Paleface Bubble’ and the brilliantly named ‘Sunset Candios’. Lightning Blue’s convincing victory being quite amazing in light of the fact he hadn’t even qualified for the final, only making it in as the first emergency runner and then having a seemingly impossible draw. It was another NZ victory for the state of Victoria. And a significant lowering of the mast of star Kiwis ‘Master Mood’ and ‘Luxury Liner’.
1991 and up to Auckland again, where the Purdons reigned supreme. Not with father Roy and eldest son Barry, but with the younger of the flock, Mark- who drove his namesake ‘Mark Hanover’ to a quite surprise victory at over 7-1 odds against some really classy performers like ‘Inky Lord’, ‘Reba Lord’ and ‘Letterkenny Lad’. The ultra-consistent ‘Christopher Vance’ was a close second. The recent hoodoo of Aussie domination in NZ Inter-Dom Pacing finals was blasted away with ‘Franco Ice’ finishing quickly for third to complete a Kiwi trifecta.
These are the four New Zealand Inter-Dominion carnivals I recall the most vividly. I was only five years of age when ‘Young Quinn’ went unbeaten in 1975, so I can’t count that one as an actual memory. Had to rely on second-hand information for that one.
This Saturday is finals night of the 2019 Inter-Doms, but unfortunately I won’t be at Alex Park, and I’m a bit devastated. Some friends will coming over for a BBQ for my 50th. Bad timing and lack of pre-planning on my silly, dumb behalf. Maybe I’ll have to sneak off to the television at some stage- to cheer on ‘AG’s White Socks’ in the Pacers’ final, piloted by the enduring legend that is Maurice McKendry- what an Inter-Doms fairytale that would be. ‘Ultimate Sniper’ and ‘Cruz Bromac’ will be more than formidable opposition, however.
Any evening at the ‘trots’ is invariably a really good one, but one at the Inter-Doms is just a wee bit special.