Day At The Track

Miracle Mile is “the race” to win

07:49 AM 06 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Smoken Up,Harness racing

The Miracle Mile is “the race” to win, says champion harness horseman Lance Justice. 

He acknowledges “it’s not very Victorian of me” but Justice, 60, grew up full of admiration for the New South Wales based Australian Grand Circuit sprint.

“It’s a special race,” he said.

And Justice knows how to win one. In fact he knows how to win four.

Since the turn of the millennium, Justice has produced four of Victoria’s five Miracle Mile winners – Sokyola back-to-back in 2003 and ‘04 and Smoken Up in 2010 and ’11.

“I’d finally done something in harness racing that actually stood out,” he said this week recalling the moments immediately following his first Miracle Mile win in ’03.

He was sitting in the sulky behind Sokyola and he realised he'd made it. He'd joined a list of drivers that he always saw as "immortal". 

The build-up to the 2003 Miracle Mile was an interesting journey for Justice. 

For starters he had to sweat as invites were handed out one by one before Sokyola was finally awarded his ticket very late. 

“I didn’t think they were going to put him in. It was like they weren’t taking his Victorian form into account,” Justice said.

At the eleventh hour officials extended the dream offer. And come race night, Justice prevailed.

A different era, the fledgling pre-race coverage of the day on Sky Channel saw drivers asked for their tactics heading into that Miracle Mile.

Justice remembers feeling like everyone had forgotten Sokyola possessed early toe.

“He’d been drawing the back row a lot due to the system we had at the time. They said to me, ‘Sokyola’s not renowned for his gate speed is he?’,” Justice recalls.

“I responded, ‘I’m just happy to be here’.”

But Justice knew what was under the hood and largely his tactics had been decided in his mind, but he was still refining his thinking very late – in fact during the pre-race warm-up.

“I got out on the track with Sokyola and I was running him down the front straight and I looked at the signs on the outside fence. There was an airline company sign, I think maybe Qantas, and I looked it and thought if I could aim for the tail of the aeroplane on that sign I knew I’d have some breathing space to get across the field at the start,” he said.

Sure enough Justice and Sokyola jetted off the arm, gunned it to the tail end of that sign and glided across the face of the field to assume the top.

“Being the last one invited the last thing I wanted to do was knock them over in the Miracle Mile,” he said.

In the run Justice was measured, a couple of times having to hold himself back from launching too early. 

“I remember going down the back straight and thinking I had the favourite (The Falcon Strike) beaten. He’d loomed up and started to eyeball me and said to me, ‘I’m taking the top’. I said no you’re not and we went just outside the track record.

“I thought I might kick for home ... but instead I said no, count to three.

"Then I told myself don’t panic coming off the back and so I counted to three again. Then I asked him to stride.” 

And stride like a superstar did Sokyola. Game over. He ripped home for a famous win as a $14 outsider.

“I was actually a bit overwhelmed when I first got there (that night). I looked at the racebook and thought I was getting $12,000 minimum for going around. Win, lose or draw he’s a winner for being here already.”

Twelve months later Sokyola and Justice were back in town and chasing another Miracle, but this time Justice was confined to the grandstand after copping a suspension in the lead-up at Yarra Valley.

“It was shattering,” Justice said of the ban.

“I took it to appeal and the judge only had to lift one day off so I could drive, but they wouldn’t allow it.”

Justice needed a catch driver for Sokyola and he turned to Jodi Quinlan.

“She’s a really good driver and I wanted to factor in the weight, too. Jodi weighs nothing,” he said.

This time around Sokyola was the first horse invited and drew gate one, almost a complete reversal compared to the build-up the year prior.

Except the end result was the same.

“The two hardest things to do in the Miracle Mile are firstly, get into the field, and secondly draw a good gate,” Justice said.

Most would agree you can probably throw in a third task. Winning it.

Sokyola and Quinlan led, controlled the first half of the mile in 59.2seconds before dashing home in 56.7secs for a comfortable win.

“It was funny because after the win I went down to give Jodi a hug and she was heavier because it turns out she had all these lucky charms on,” Justice laughed. 

“She had a horseshoe and other things around her neck… I’m thinking I’ve put her on to save weight and she’s carrying 20kg worth of charms!”

Six years later and Justice claimed his third Miracle Mile, this time behind stable champion Smoken Up (aka Trigger). And Justice was supremely confident.

“I just had a feeling he’d win," he said.

"He was racing really good, he loved Menangle, and the year before people forget he’d actually run third in the Inter Dominion final there (at Menangle) and second in the Miracle Mile the year before when Melpark Major sat outside him and took us on all the way.

“We were a sitting shot to get beaten at the end that year and Monkey King dived at us on the post. Smoken Up’s run was huge. I just knew he was going to win.”

To secure his third victory however Smoken Up would have to overcome mighty Queenslander Blacks A Fake. 

“Blackie drew well. I drew outside him and straight away I knew I was going to have trouble leading Blackie,” Justice said.

“He was one horse I’d struggle leading. I could muscle across pretty much all the others, but Blackie was one I struggled to get across because he was just so dominant and strong.”

So Justice hatched a plan.

"I decided I was going to come out of the gate without trying to even get the front. I drove to beat Blacks A Fake, that’s all. I sat outside him, I made sure every quarter the pressure was enough for Blackie not to be comfortable.”

Justice said Blacks A Fake was always under a touch of pressure during the run.  

“Smoken Up could do that – he could worry a horse to death when sitting outside. Lots of horses just don’t like another horse niggling away at them the whole time.”

When Mr Feelgood launched down the back straight to make a line of three upfront, Justice said that actually aided Smoken Up’s cause.

“It helped because Smoken Up worked up to the other horse even more and Blackie didn’t appreciate it," he said. 

Turning for home Blackie and Smoken Up were neck-a-neck and they duly engaged in one of the most memorable one-on-one stoushes of all time up the straight.

It was only in the shadows of the post, when both charges had dug well beyond their reserves and were pulsing on sheer guts and determination, that Smoken Up got his head in front for the narrowest of victories.

“It’s strength and it's instinct,” Justice said.

“So many races Smoken Up turned for home with horses all around him and you just knew when they got to the post when the others had enough, they just couldn’t last like he could.”

The last of Justice’s Miracle Miles to date came in 2011 as Smoken Up made it back-to-back wins after overcoming an early shock.

Drawing gate one, most had envisaged Smoken Up would be leading early doors. But Trigger’s West Australian foe Im Themightyquinn crossed him soon after the mobile arms folded back.

“It was purely pilot error,” Justice admits.

“Mighty Quinn was hanging back at the start so I thought I’d get the same flyer as him. Smoken Up wasn’t that sort of horse though. He was a horse that liked to be up on the gate and just storm out at top speed. I tried to turn him into a horse to get a fly-in and it didn’t work.

“When the gate went Mighty Quinn got past and actually contacted our legs getting by. He did exactly what I didn’t want to do on Sokyola in that first Miracle Mile.

“He (Gary Hall Jr) knew I was upset with him so I suppose he expected me to take it out on him.”

 Justice peeled straight off the fence and drove forward.

“I went up to say, ‘OK Mighty Quinn, let’s see how good you are’, because we had a good rivalry and we had a lot of fun. I was going to do the same as I did to Blacks A Fake, but instead Mighty Quinn just handed straight up to me.”

Justice found himself in front and jammed on the brakes.

“I thought I’d probably gutted him a little bit early trying to do that fly thing, then working around, so I thought I’d have a little rest. That’s not the best thing for Smoken Up but it worked all right.”

In the straight Smoken Up kicked on strongly, having the measure of Im Themightyquinn, and fending off a late and rather unexpected challenge from veteran Karloo Mick.

“When he (Karloo Mick) loomed up to my wheel I thought, ‘no you don’t, you’re too old to win’. He kept coming and I thought he can’t win. I kept thinking ‘you should not be there’... But we held him off and I looked back to Mighty Quinn and he was just floundering.” 

And just like that Justice was a four-time Miracle Mile champion.

“It is pretty special looking back,” he said.

“I was standing outside the drivers’ room at Menangle one night and Brian Hancock walked up, and for all the winners he’d had, he’d never driven a Miracle Mile winner. He said he would have given his eye teeth to drive a winner in that race.

"It’s the race to win.”

The 2020 Miracle Mile will be held on Saturday night at Tabcorp Park Menangle with Lochinvar Art and Code Bailey carrying Victoria's hopes of victory.

 

HRV Trots Media - Cody Winnell

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