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Watching the New Zealand Derby unfold in front of your eyes was something that had to be seen to be believed. Think Terror To Love’s first New Zealand Cup, Flashing Red’s second, and Father Christmas winning on debut at Oamaru. The last race may only be dear the heart of the scribe and his syndicate members, but you get my drift. This race had it all. From go to woe it was electric and by the end you were scrambling to catch your breath. Sitting behind the Chairman of Harness Racing New Zealand, Ken Spicer, I looked down at his reaction at having possibly bred a New Zealand Derby winner. Lips pursed and looking for encouragement, he didn’t find any in the faces of those around him! “I was standing behind Bob Masefield one of the owners of Sheriff. We couldn’t hear the commentary and Bob sought of shrugged his shoulders and slammed his race book and I thought bugger, we had just got beat in one of the biggest races of the season,” said Spicer. “Soon enough as the replays came up on the big screen and it became clear we had won, it was a great feeling and made for a great night.” Ken’s wife and co-breeder of Sheriff, Anne Marie, was a little more confident on the result having the aid of a commentator with an eye for a close finish. “I was standing down the stable watching on the TV so I knew he had won as when Mark McNamara calls a horse home he’s usually pretty much on the money. Watching the race I didn’t think he was going to win, he did so much work going down the back and never had a breather but it was incredible really,” she said. Despite a lot of goodwill on race night from friends and fellow race goer’s, the occasion took a while to sink in for the Spicer’s. “Watching the race was exciting but it wasn’t until a couple of days afterwards that it actually sunk in that as a breeder we’d actually bred a derby winner. It’s really just starting to sink in now, we’ve bred a derby winner and its really cool,” said Ken. It must be bloody cool when the horse who has just broken the clock in the biggest pacing race for three year olds in Australasia was raised in your own back yard. The story behind how Sherrif came about is also bloody cool, and one that goes to show that sometimes everything happens for a reason. “We’ve been friends with the Sandford’s for a long time and when it came time to retiring Inspiring Dash, I said to them that Anne Marie and I would be keen to breed from her with him when she had finished racing. We started breeding and her third foal Jen Marie came about,” said Ken. “The idea was that she was to go to the sales but she had a bit of a twisted front foot and wasn’t the best of lookers and was slightly on the small side.” “She failed the final inspection with PGGW so we paid the Sandford’s out and raced her in David Butt’s care where she won her first start. She had a lot of high speed, and that was shown in the first start where she beat Miss Moonlite who was a pretty good filly at the time. She got a bit crook and never showed her true potential. Her true potential would be in the broodmare paddock being from a prolific family that descended from broodmare gem, Witchlight. The dam of the derby winner Jen Marie is a direct descendant of Witchlight via Lochaime (Lordship), Awesome Dream (Soky’s Atom) and Inspiring Dash (Falcon Seelster). When you throw in her own dam sire, Christian Cullen, there really isn’t a weakness in the maternal line, particularly when you look at some of the other progeny who were around at the time from this family. The likes of Corumba, Flying Sands, Bella Chip (Bella’s Boy, Winter Rose, Bettor’s Strike), Lento and Awesome Armbro had all scorched the tracks prior to Jen Marie’s arrival from Inspiring Dash. Just after making a decision to retain Jen Marie upon her failed inspection, her full sister and first foal from Inspiring Dash was just starting to make some noise from the barn of Michael House. “She had awful front legs as Ken mentioned and when she was turned away from the sales we made the comment that she was always going to be a full sister to Rona Lorraine who at the time had just won the Caduceus Club fillies race for two year olds in Auckland. As it turned it out, she was actually a half-sister to Venus Serena as well. Lightning was to strike twice with another Group One winning daughter to be bred from the Sandford’s and Spicer’s broodmare gem, Inspiring Dash. A similar story to the plight of Jen Marie just about struck again when the Spicer’s took Venus Serena home from the sales. Only this time, the astute breeders were to pull on the wrong rein. “We ended up taking her home from the sales but we had another filly at the time that was a half to Cowgirls and Indians and we decided to keep her and let Bob and Jenny have Venus instead, which was a great choice to make in hindsight,” joked Spicer. Everything happens for a reason as they say and although the daughter of Mach Three would go on to win just shy of $800,000 and Multiple Group 1’s, as Ken said; “That’s just how it goes.” Still with plenty to smile about, Jen Marie was just starting to leave her foals. “In a paddock of 14 mares, Jen Marie would be the last one you would pick out on type and she is also the smallest, but she leaves the most amazing foals every year. “She’s plain but the thing about her is she has a big backside, a big chest and she’s long barrelled but she’s not the prettiest thing as a complete package and her short tail does her no favours,” joked Ken. “We got it wrong slightly with the first mating going to Real Desire but as it transpired that foal won a couple of races (2012 - Real Dash) and she’s done a job with Bettor’s Delight. That she has, with the Robert Dun trained Wrangler being her second foal with earnings in excess of $60,000 in a brief career to date. Standing at 14.2 hands on a good day, Jen Marie might be what you would call a risky prospect for a commercial breeder to be sending to a sire like Bettor’s Delight. Size matters at the yearling sales and selling a small yearling can be a tall ask. Thankfully for the Spicer’s, Jen Marie’s progeny have only inherited the quality traits of their mother. “None of her foals are big but she throws the length in to them and you can see that with Sheriff who isn’t the biggest but has inherited his mother’s scope. Anyone that has been on the Canterbury Yearling tour has had an opportunity to take in the magnificent property that is Rosedale Farm on the outskirts of Christchurch for which the Spicer’s have developed over quite a lot of years.  “We’ve been here 30 years now and did all the planting ourselves, it used to be a dairy farm and only had water to a couple of paddocks and was covered in scotch thistles. It was just four big paddocks of over 40 acres. “We’ve just been around horses all our lives Brad having grown up in Ashburton going to the races and in his later years my dad actually trained a few. Anne Marie’s father was an MP and raced a good horse with George Noble called Seafield Rose. She was actually one of our first broodmares together and we started breeding from one of her daughters Bibi Maizoon,” said Ken. The early interest from both families has transpired into a lifelong passion of breeding commercially and the Spicer’s have been no stranger to success at the sales having bred multiple six figure horses such as Wrangler, Better Think Quick and Corona to name a few of the more recent ones. “We’re breeding from fourteen mares altogether and have some lovely maiden mares in foal for the first time this year. Kate Black who is Kate First’s last foal and Black Rain who is out of Rona Lorraine,” said Anne Marie. “We’re quite excited about a mare called Flo Jo who is an unraced Jereme’s Jet mare who we bought at the Mixed Sale and her first foal is Smokin By with Mitch Kerr who has won his first two starts. She’s a half-sister to Inspiring Dash and Gail Devers. Ken found himself wondering with so many from the same family whether the time had come to diversify slightly. “I was thinking 5 or 6 months ago maybe I had too much of the one breed, and Sheriff comes along and you think maybe it was a smart move. It can go either way cant it, if none of the mares produces quite as you hope then the pages start to look a little thin in the sales book but now we have the derby winner on nearly seven of our sales pages. As they say, you can’t have too much of a good thing! And that good thing has seen the Spicer’s reach the pinnacle in the past fortnight, a height that wouldn’t have been reached without the training brilliance of Nigel McGrath. “He’d been pestering us for 15 years to give him a horse and it was only when Maverick was sacked by Davie and Catherine that Maverick ended up there and he’s done a super job with him. “He deserves so much of the credit because he thinks outside of the box as a trainer and is very particular with minor details and coming up with a plan,” said Ken. “Winning a Derby was special but Maverick winning on Cup Day when he went 3:08 was my biggest thrill,” said Anne Marie. The next big thrill might be just around the corner with some of Sheriff’s younger brothers starting to come to the fore. “We’ve just gone and picked up Sheriff’s half-brother El Dorado (Art Major - 2016) from  Stephen Boyd’s place who we have a small share in with a group of friends that raced Kate Black, Mavericks half-sister with us previously. She’s in foal and has a beautiful Bettor’s Delight colt at foot presently which we believe is her best foal yet,” said Anne Marie.   This article featured in the Breeders Update, click here to read the most recent issue: https://goo.gl/gNZP9c Click here to subscribe: https://goo.gl/qDyGev Courtesy of Brad Reid NZ Standardbred Breeders Association

Harness racing 3yo Sheriff has smashed the NZ mobile 2600m all comers record when winning the $200,000 (Gr1) New Zealand Derby at Addington Raceway tonight . The Nigel McGrath trained pacer ran the mobile 2600m in a blistering 3-05.4 which obliterated the old record held by the Purdon/Rasmussen trained Vincent by more than half a second.  McGrath had three nice chances in the race as he also trained race rivals Aloka and Star Commander, but he rated Sheriff the best of the horses he had in the race. "He has come up nice this year and every start this season he has found the line really well. "He ran a good third in the Northern Derby and I think he is ready tonight," he said before the race. Sheriff (Bettor's Delight - Jen Marie) had to work hard to loop the field on a hot pace and he finally found the the lead with 700m to go. The classy pacer then had to withstand all the challenges in the straight, but lasted to beat a fast finishing Pat's Delight by a nose at the line. Driver Blair Orange was ecstatic after the race and said, "It was a great win and Nigel had him peaking at the right time. "I had a good battle with Dexter up the straight but luckily the coin flipped my way." Sheriff rated 1-54.7 over the 2600m mobile and zipped over his last 800m in 56.4 with a closing 400m in 27.5 seconds.   Sheriff winning the NZ Derby   Harnesslink Media

Blair Orange knows all about beating the seemingly unbeatable. He is doing it right now, day by day, as he continues on his surprising path to the national driver’s premiership, downing perennial champion Dexter Dunn. Barring injury, a huge suspension or a freakish Dunn performance between now and  August 1, Orange will beat the man who has won the last 10 premierships. But at Addington tonight he has to do something even tougher. He has to try and beat the All Stars in a Derby. Like the premiership, Orange thinks he can do just that with Sheriff and like the premiership he knows it won’t be easy. Sheriff has a second line draw and four All Stars runners, headlined by Anthem and Sicario, to contend with in the $200,000 New Zealand Derby. Nobody knows more than Orange how hard it is to beat the legendary stable in the Derby, after all it was working for the All Stars that he made his name. “I think we can win, because they are beatable. Everybody is beatable,” says Orange.   “But I also know how good Mark and Nat are at what they do, how ready the horses will be.  “And they have numbers of their side. We might be good enough to beat three of theirs but you have to beat all four.  “But I think Sheriff is as good as their ones, especially with Chase Auckland out.”  On paper it appears Sheriff has slightly the better draw of the three favourites as he follows out a fast beginner in Pat’s Delight but Orange says that means little.  “You look at these races and think who you are following out matters but it very rarely does,” he says.  “If I try and punch through behind it at the start then I am probably three wide on a hot pace for the first 800m and I think they will go very hard.  “So I don’t see that happening but what it does mean is I might be able to settle in front of Sicario and Anthem and that could help.”  The reality of the Derby is all three favourites are likely to settle in the second half of the field, not a bad thing with a likely hot tempo, then move together and the one who ends up in the one-one with 1000m to go becomes the one to beat.  “That sort of luck will play a huge role but this is a horse who can win a Derby so we have our chance.”  While so many Derbys in the modern era are won by horses on the marker pegs saving valuable ground tonight’s 2600m mobile could be an exception, with Sicario and Anthem such good stayers, but the race looms as one of the more competitive classics in years.  It it matched by the Trotting Derby where the northern stable of John and Josh Dickie have a strong two-horse punch in Girls On Film and Paramount King, with backing both not the worst play.  The Dickies have another group one shot with Speeding Spur, who is the horse to beat in the $100,000 Trotting Champs on form and with the best draw.   Michael Guerin

Nigel McGrath isn't giving up. And the 16 new horses he has in his stable are proof of that as much as the two he has in Friday night's $250,000 Woodlands Derby at Alexandra Park. McGrath has Sheriff and Aloka in the classic, again up against the might of the All Stars stables, who have the favourites in Chase Auckland and Sicario. The All Stars pair relegated Sheriff to third in last Friday's Derby prelude, a position McGrath was not unused to. But he and fellow Derby trainer Cran Dalgety are two southern horsemen who in recent years have been able to, at least on occasion, halt the All Stars domination of our classics and Jewels. Dalgety has Pat's Delight in this Friday trying to emulate Raukapuka Ruler's shock Derby win of 12 months ago, while last season McGrath trained Dizzy Miss Lizzy to win a Jewels and Sales Series Pace over the best of the Purdon-Rasmussen fillies. He says training in such a rare, elite era is a challenge rather than discouraging. "It has been said by a few people before but it is like finding a way to beat the All Blacks, it's not easy but it's not impossible," says McGrath. "We did it a couple of times in major races last season and we have done it before in Sales Series races up here (Auckland). "I think you can only keep analysing what you do as a trainer and keep trying to get better. "But of course it also comes down to what stock you have and that is why the yearling sales are so important. "I took 16 yearlings home this year from the sales and I bought them to win Derby and Sires' Stakes races, not run second or third. "Those yearlings are my future and my owners' future so we are in for the fight," McGrath says. McGrath is bringing that attitude to Friday night's Derby, saying he will instruct driver Blair Orange to use Sheriff's barrier draw to try and stay in front of the All Stars pair. "I think often if you hand up you are running for second or third at best. "And sometimes that is fine because each horse has to be rated to its strengths. "But I think Sheriff is good enough to try his luck and make them work." McGrath's second-stringer, Aloka, cost punters plenty when galloping in front in a lower-grade race last Friday but the trainer is not expecting a repeat of that problem: "He is a place chance at least ..." While Chase Auckland lost his unbeaten record to Sicario last Friday, he will open as Derby favourite, having been forced to sit parked, and should improve with the run, his first in two months. This Derby has real depth, incredible because it is an unusual year for our elite pacing three-year-olds, with sales, sickness and exports having halved the number of stars available. Of the 13 top juveniles who made it to the Jewels last June, only two return for Friday's Derby while Australasian Breeders Crown winner King Of Swing has been sold to Perth. So the fact Alexandra Park has been able to attract nine genuine top-class three-year-olds is surprising. The classic is the highlight of a huge meeting, with two rich juvenile finals, the City of Auckland Free-For-All, Greenlane Trotters Cup and Northern Mares Classic making it the strongest Alexandra Park meeting for the rest of the season. Woodlands Derby Alex Park, 8.48pm Friday $250,000, 2700m mobile The field 1: Culpeka (1) 2: American Brave (2) 3: Triple Eight (3) 4: Sheriff (4) 5: Aloka (5) 6: Chase Auckland (6) 7: On The Cards (7) 8: Pat's Delight (8) 9: Sicario (1 second line) Michael Guerin

Matt Anderson, who is a regular visitor to the south as he chases the junior drivers premiership, has a bit of a following. When he returned to the stabling area with Invercargill Cup winner Maverick he received plenty of calls of ‘well done’ from those in the South Stand.  Maverick, who started off the 20 metre mark with favourite Robbie Burn, stayed out of the early action as Hopes And Dreams and Nathan Williamson set the pace in the 3200 metre Group Three feature. Inside the last 800 metres Anderson sped the six year old forward. By the time the horse had reached the 400 he had his head in front of a tiring Hopes And Dreams. He held on tenaciously to beat stablemate My Wee Man and Robbie Burns, who both fought bravely. The winning margin was a length and a quarter.  Maverick (8) and Matt Anderson winning the Invercargill Cup - Photo Bruce Stewart. “We navigated around the handicap and picked our time to move. When we did I asked plenty of him and he delivered,” said Anderson. The winner is trained by Nigel McGrath who won the Invercargill Cup last year with Classie Brigade in a sensational time of 3-23.5. Today's winning time was 4-05.2. It was Anderson's second winning drive in the cup. He won with the Brent Shirley trained Costa Del Magnifico in 2016.  "I owe Brent Shirley a big thanks. He’s worked on my relationship with Nigel McGrath. I’m really grateful.” Maverick has now won ten races and $121,065 for his connections which include HRNZ Chairman Ken Spicer and his wife Anne- Marie who also bred the gelding. He's by Bettor's Delight out of the Auckland Cup winner Kate's First.   Bruce Stewart Southland Harness Racing  

The most impressive winner on Cup Day at Ascot Park yesterday was the Nigel McGrath trained Sheriff which won the McKnight and Brown Mobile Pace. Driver Ricky May drove the three year old colt like he was the best horse in the race - which he was. He blasted out from gate six, took the lead and went to the line untouched to win by four and three quarters of a length from Ana Malak which came from last to run second. The winning time on an off track was 2-40.2. “It was a pretty easy drive really- he just went super. He was jogging all the way to be fair. He’s got a bit of a future this fella. If he keeps improving he’ll be right up with the top ones,” said May. Heading back                         - Photo Bruce Stewart. This was the second time May has driven the colt. He also drove him when he ran sixth in Chase Auckland's PGG Wrightson New Zealand Yearling Sales Three Year Old Final.  “He drew bad, had no luck and he ran on really strongly.”   May says that Sheriff will make an ideal Southern Supremacy Stakes runner for McGrath later in the season. Winning connections with sponsor Bernie Brown - Photo Bruce Stewart. Like Maverick, he was also bred by Ken and Anne-Marie Spicer. He's out of the Christian Cullen mare Jen Marie. The Spicers are offering a half-brother by Art Major in next month's sale in Christchurch. His name is El Dorado.  Bruce Stewart Southland Harness Racing    

It's great when a plan comes off - and it did yesterday when the Nigel McGrath trained three year old Aloka won the House Of Travel Lakers Summer Cup at the Northern Southland Meeting.  "Nigel wanted the race run at tempo from the front. He was on his hands and knees at the finish but everything else was as well luckily," said driver Blair Orange. Orange took the Bettor's Delight colt straight to the lead and made sure the race was run at even quarters.  "He's not with the top tier of three year olds but he is with the ones in the middle. There's still a few things he does wrong but I think he'll get better and be a better horse in twelve months." The winning margin was two and a half lengths with a game The Big Boss, which sat parked for most of the trip, finishing second.  The overall time for the 2700 metres mobile was 3-21.0, a second outside the track and Southland record for three year olds of 3-19.1 held jointly by Highview Tommy (2009) and Eamon Maguire (2017). Aloka remains unbeaten at Ascot Park. In his only other start on the track last April as a two year old, he won the Diamond Creek Farm Two Year Old Classic. Returning to the birdcage                                           - Photo Bruce Stewart. The win was one of three for Orange, the country's leading reinsman. The others were with the Clark Barron trained Giftofjoy and another McGrath trained runner Gore Bay.  Orange says it's likely Aloka will be back in late April to contest the $45,000 Group Two Alabar Southern Supremacy Stakes on Diamonds Day.  Aloka has a full-brother in next months Sale of the Stars in Christchurch. Meanwhile Ryal Bush trainer Brett Gray and stable driver Brent Barclay scored a treble at the meeting yesterday. The three winners were Bettor B Ready, Zealand Star and The Heart Rulz. Bruce Stewart Southland Harness Racing Aloka winning his race.

"I thought the other horse had won actually. Blair told me he'd got me," said trainer driver Nigel McGrath after backmarker Maverick beat stablemate My Wee Man in the Sir Lincoln at Alabar Riverton Trotting Cup at Ascot Park on Sunday. The winning margin was a nose. "He (Blair Orange) goes round more than me so I thought he must be right." The six year old Bettor's Delight gelding which is part-owned by McGrath with Ken and Ann-Marie Spicer has now won nine races. "He's had a Methven Workout and he's been to the beach a few times and he's started to work really good in the last few weeks. I thought 35 (metres) might be a bit tough today." He now carries a rating of 102 and McGrath says it'll be very hard to place Maverick in races that he's competitive in. "Very hard. He's not very far away from being retired. He'll go away and a be a hack. He's a lovely quiet horse." McGrath has had the gelding since he was a late three year old. He won one race for David and Catherine Butt. He's out of the nineteen win Holmes Hanover mare Kate's First whose wins include the 1997 Auckland Cup.  The win on Sunday was McGraths 500th. His first was Lasting Vance at Westport in December 1999.  Meanwhile quality colt Franco Santino won the SBS Bank Nugget Final holding off a late charging Lawrence to win by a length. He's owned by Riverton fisherman Neville Cleaver. As part of the Riverton Trotting Clubs Owner For The Day promotion the horse was also 'gifted' to Monique and Christian Harvey. Oliver Kite, Franco Santino, Neville Cleaver and Monique and Christian Harvey -  Photo Bruce Stewart. Bruce Stewart Southland Harness Racing

Harness racing trainer Nigel McGrath trained his 500th winner yesterday when Maverick, a six year old gelding won the Riverton Trotting Cup for him at Ascot Park.  McGrath started his training career in 1999 and racked up 9 wins in his first season, with his first training win coming on Lasting Vance at Greymouth on the 26 December 1999.  He has been stacking up the wins ever since, with his best season coming in 2004, which provided him with 46 wins and a further 46 placings. Maverick a son of Bettor's Delight won his ninth race yesterday and took his stake earnings past $100,000. He had to be good to win the race after starting from a handicap of 35m and working hard during the running. McGrath also in the sulky for the win, was up parked with a lap to go after beginning quickly from the standing start. In the straight Maverick was pressured by the stablemate My Wee Man and Blair Orange, but dug deep and fought back to win by a nose at the line. The winner paced the 2700m form the standing start in 3-25.4, with the last 800m cut out in 58.2 and the 400m in 28.2 seconds. Maverick winning at Ascot park yesterday! Harnesslink Media

The Nigel McGrath trained My Wee Man, impressive winner of the First In Windsor Mobile Pace will stay in the province this week and start in this Sunday's $14,999. Sir Lincoln Riverton Cup. My Wee Man is owned by Peter Boag and his wife Karen who were both on-course today to see their four year old by Changeover win. "He's a good tough wee horse. He sort of likes to race near the speed. He was bought at the sales for $18,000 off Grant Crabbe. He qualified as a two year old and ran second in the Sires Stakes Silver. He missed a bit of racing as a three year old because we had to geld him. He was a wee bit colty. It's made a big difference," said Boag. The Boags who operate a sheep and beef farm in the Greta Valley, also own Dizzy Miss Lizzy which McGrath bought for them at the Sales. She won her first start at the Northern Southland Meeting in March before winning the end of season Two Year Old Diamond on Harness Jewels Day at Ashburton. She won three of her four starts for the McGrath stable. They also have a full sister to Dizzy Miss Lizzy by Bettor's Delight called Good Day Sunshine. She was purchased by Peter at the sales for $20,000.  "He (McGrath) thinks she'll run as a two year old and hopefully she'll come down here and race in the Caduceus Club of Southland Two Year Old Classic in March." That race was won by Dizzy Miss Lizzy last season.  Boag's father Peter Senior trained forty nine winners between 1980 and 2001 including Unique Blue Chip (9 wins). He also owned Sundon trotter Unique Star (15 wins). Incidently Unique Star at the end of his career was trained by Leonne Jones who trained Belmont's Greatest to win at long odds for driver Craig Ferguson today. Belmont's Greatest (5) beating Grace O'Malley (7)             Photo Bruce Stewart.   Bruce Stewart Southland Harness Racing

Canterbury trainer Nigel McGrath is just 10 wins away from reaching the notable milestone of 500 career training wins and will soon launch an impressive spring racing team. Classie Brigade, the winner of 11 from 35 starts, is being aimed at the New Zealand Cup (3200m) on the second Tuesday of November at Addington. “He’s back in work and looking toward the New Zealand Cup,” McGrath said of the five-year-old Bettor’s Delight stallion, who has not raced since May.  He won six from 13 last season, including the 3200m Invercargill Cup in January in 3:53.5, after starting from 30m behind. Lazarus clocked 3:51.3 in winning the NZ Cup by 10 lengths. “Ears Burning [seven wins] will head in the same direction. It won’t be easy but both deserve the shot.” Also waiting in the wings until the weather turns are Aloka, Sherriff, Star Commander and Dizzy Miss Lizzy - all capable of doing very good things this season. “On what they all showed in their previous campaigns you would like to think that one or two of them will take the next step up. “Aloka showed how good he can be early on, while Sherriff and Star Commander both have a heap of potential. “Dizzy Miss Lizzy will be aimed towards the filly races which will see her come in a bit later on in the season. “They’ll all target the classic races.” But before the big guns start firing, McGrath has some useful firepower to help him edge towards the 500-win mark, after starting training in the year 2000. Two of them will step out at Sunday’s Rangiora meeting, with Turkish Trousers and My Wee Man both flying the stable flag. Both horses are fresh-up and will derive benefit from their races, but both are strong chances after trialling well. Turkish Trousers, second at Rangiora in January, was tidy at a recent workout and McGrath is expecting a good showing from the one draw on Sunday in race four, the first leg of a $25,000 Pick6. “She’s a nice enough mare who is more than capable of going close fresh-up. I wouldn’t say she’s a world beater, but she should do a nice enough job this time in. With her good gate speed I would expect her to settle handy to the speed. “I thought her workout last week was pretty good. She’ll improve with the run, but gets a good chance fresh-up.” My Wee Man is a horse who McGrath has always had plenty of time for. “We had issues with his gait last time, but the motor has always been there. I think he will do a good job this time in and gelding him really seems to have worked the oracle. Hopefully, he lives up to what I think he is capable off.” A four-year-old entire by Changeover, My Wee Man’s sole win in nine starts was at Rangiora. He takes on impressive Ashburton winner The Kiwi Way in race nine, who has drawn the ace for trainer-driver Robbie Holmes. NZ Harness News http://www.theinformant.co.nz/

The real Heaven Rocks has been revealed. Because it turns out the two-times Jewels winner isn’t actually the intimidating bully  he looked at Ashburton on Saturday, with driver Natalie Rasmussen believing he is really a big pussycat. Heaven Rocks confirmed his reputation as the most exciting pacer in New Zealand --- not the best, that title still belongs to stablemate Lazarus --- with his crushing win in the $150,000 Four-Year-Old Emerald. As always he was allowed to lag behind his rivals at the start before working three wide to parked and then dispatching them at the top of the straight, winning by four and a half lengths but it could have easily been eight. It wouldn’t have been a Heaven Rocks performance without at least one moment of concern, as Rasmussen had to take hold soon after he made his winning move as he attempted to duck in. But his co-trainer says those now common theatrics from Heaven Rocks are not because he is pig-headed or crazy, in fact the exact opposite. “He is actually a very timid horse,” explains Rasmussen, who trains Heaven Rocks with partner Mark Purdon. “As a young horse he broke a pastern bone and I think that is where all this stems from. “Obviously it hurt him and dented his confidence and while he doesn’t feel any pain from it now it has changed him mentally. “That is why he is a bit wayward some times. It is not because he has any dirt in him, he is still getting over what happened.” Heaven Rocks clearly has the motor of a superstar but to take the next step, to that New Zealand Cup/Miracle Mile-type level, his rough edges will need smoothing out and Rasmussen is confident that can be achieved. “It has been a battle with him getting that confidence back but I think we are winning and giving him a break now when he is feeling good about life will help. “I think he can be better again next season, but he will need to be to actually win those top races.” Heaven Rocks shone the brightest of the stars on show on Saturday but stablemate and fellow Rasmussen drive Spanish Armada was almost as dominant, completing one of the great domestic seasons by a three-year-old pacing filly. Her 25.5 second last 400m is one of the fastest official sectionals recorded in New Zealand and she adds a Jewels to her Sires’ Stakes, Sales Series, Nevele R Final and NZ Oaks, with the Breeders Crown in Melbourne still to come and possibly a Queensland Oaks stopover as a reward. But while plenty of Jewels winners have gone on to the Breeders Crown in August, that won’t be the case for Dizzy Miss Lizzy, who was brilliant winning the opener on Saturday or juvenile trot winner Paramount King. “I’d love to be taking her over there but sadly she isn’t eligible,” said Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s trainer Nigel McGrath. And Paramount King’s co-trainer Josh Dickie knows the lanky trotter needs a break, with only his deft training skills getting him home on Saturday at a stage of the season when he looks ready for the spelling paddock. Piccadilly Princess also needs a break, winning her four-year-old mares division in steady but hardly spectacular fashion while Ashley Locaz saved the bookies by flashing past red hot favourite stablemate Spankem in the juvenile boys pace in national record time. Michael Guerin

From a maiden pace on a Sunday afternoon to a $200,000 event on a premier Friday night might seem like worlds apart, but Nigel McGrath is hoping his latest find, Star Commander, is up to the challenge. The imposing son of Art Major has been long touted by his trainer as being a little bit better than average and showed with a rather effortless victory on Sunday at Rangiora that he’s got the necessary to mix it with the best two-year-old’s in the land. “I’ve always liked him, he’s got all the right signs of being a good horse,” McGrath said. “The improvement in him from his first run to Sunday was quite noticeable and hopefully he can improve again for this week.” This week’s assignment is the $200,000 is the PGG Wrightson NZ Yearling Sales Open Final at Listed level where he will have to square up with the well credentialed pacers Spankem, All You Need Is Faith, The Devil’s Own, Alta Maestro, Mach Shard and his talented stablemate, Aloka. “It’s a big jump up in class, but I think he’s good enough to be competitive,” McGrath said. A $56,000 purchase at the Christchurch Yearling Sales last year, Star Commander is the fourth foal of Group One winning mare, Susie Maguire. A daughter of Presidential Ball, she won the Caduceus Club Classic and the NZ Sires’ Stakes 2YO Fillies Championship at two and then won the Ladyship Stakes as a three-year-old and ran second to Lizzie Maguire in the 2YO Emerald at the inaugural running of the Harness Jewels at Ashburton in 2007. Third on debut behind Aloka and Ashley Locaz on Diamonds Day at Invercargill 10 days ago, a much more tractable and kind Star Commander showed up to Rangiora. “He got pretty keen down South, and in the end it might have taken it out of him and cost him finishing closer. “He didn’t really lose any ground on the two good ones, but more held his own. “So we made some changes to his gear during the week and they seemed to work.” Ricky May produced a confident drive on the favourite and put him into the race before taking cover and unleashing at the top of the straight where he cleared away to win by a comfortable one and half lengths. Star Commander stopped the clock in a slick 2.26.6 for the 2000 metres. “He was knocking off a bit there at the finish, so he had a bit in store which is always a good sign.” McGrath got mixed news when the draws were released for Friday night’s $200,000 event with Aloka drawing up well on the front line and Star Commander set to start from four on the second line, but with the added advantage of speed horses in front of him in Alta Maestro and Mach Shard as well as Aloka. Matt Markham

The run of Southland feature-race wins continued on Sunday for Canterbury trainer Nigel McGrath and North Island owners, Grant and Colin Eynon of Tauranga and Mark McKinnon of Auckland. Their latest winner was Aloka in the $38,000 group three Diamond Creek Farm Two Year Old Classic. A colt by Bettor's Delight, Aloka was driven by Blair Orange who in January won the Invercargill Cup aboard Classie Brigade for the same connections. He said Aloka was doing what he had to and keeps improving, suggesting he will have a bit of a future. McGrath also had the third placed Star Commander in the race, was pleased with both of them and said a place in the Jewels for the pair is the aim. Aloka cut out the trip in a Southland record 2:43.7 for those of his age. It's just the fourth year of the Two Year Old Classic and the third at 2200 metres with the winner going progressively faster each time. Lazarus took 2:47.0 when winning in 2015 and Mongolian Hero 2:43.8 last year. Orange had been aboard Mongolian Hero last year to give him two Diamond Creeks in a row. He was back on the three year old on Sunday when he won the Transport Engineering Southland Mobile 2200 in a blistering 2:39.6, a new all-comers record for Ascot Park Dark Horse was also in record setting mode, winning the Plumbing World Handicap Trot in 3:26.7, a Southland 2700 metres stand-start record for a trotting mare. Her trainer and driver Nathan Williamson said Dark Horse was trotting better than ever on Sunday and when she's right is “just a good horse”. The Jewels is the next aim for Dark Horse and he will let her tell him if she needs another run before hand. However, he feels she is needing more racing as she gets older and sees a mobile start race at Winton on 13 May as an appropriate option. Trainer driver Kirk Larsen had some worrying moments before Bettor Ops was declared winner of the bMAC Sheetmetal Southern Country Cups Final by a head over Glenferrie Classic. Sent out favourite and trailling the second favourite Glenferrie Classic to the turn, Bettor Ops took the passing lane, went to a clear lead, but just lasted. “He's a bugger for knocking off and he wasn't going to get going again,” Larsen said. The win was Larsen's first in the Country Cups Final since Howard Bromac in 2004 and like the former top-liner, Bettor Ops has Australian connections. “He's owned by Reg Turner and his son David from Sydney, we bought him at the sales, I've had a couple for them,” Larsen said. “He's a big horse and took a bit of organising but is hitting his straps now. We'll keep him going, he's in the Jewels, that might be a bit rich for him, and there's that new $40,000 Sires Stakes race in June.”   Mac Henry

What happens next for yesterday’s Rangiora Classic winner, Classie Brigade, remains up in the air. The brilliant Nigel McGrath trained pacer continued a grand season on the tracks with a big win in yesterday’s feature event at Rangiora, downing some highly credentialed pacers as he continues his rise up the pacing ranks of New Zealand. And the question now for McGrath and the four-year-old’s connections is, where to next? The absence of Lazarus from the Harness Jewels makes continuing on for a few more weeks quite enticing, but there’s also Waikiki Beach and Heaven Rocks waiting for that assignment too. So heading to the paddock now and aiming towards a New Zealand Trotting Cup campaign in the spring is also on the table. “I’m not sure what way we will go,” McGrath said. “I’ll have that discussion with the owners this week and we will lock in a plan.” What McGrath does know though is that whatever decision is made, he’s going to have a very nice open class pacer next season, whether he starts fresh or remains a Harness Jewels contender or not. “He’s had a great season and has really developed into a good stayer. “I thought his Invercargill Cup win, which was run in the second fastest time ever over two miles in New Zealand was a huge performance, but maybe that run yesterday was better considering what he was up against. “When you look at the field they have all done some really good things in their careers and we had a bit of bad luck coming off the back but were still able to get home over the top of them in a really quick time, it was a great performance especially after the early burn.” Classie Brigade reunited with Ricky May for yesterday’s feature after May was the man who piloted him through most of his three-year-old season. After igniting early to get down to the markers and engaging in battle with Field Marshal, May must have been concerned when the leader stopped in his lap at the 400 metre mark and cost him valuable lengths while his rivals surged clear. “It didn’t look good at that point,” McGrath said. “You don’t expect a good horse like Field Marshal to stop on you, but Ricky never panicked and once he found clear air he really drove to the line.” Classie Brigade has now had 11 starts this season for five wins and three placings with his stake earning now more than $200,00. Chase The Dream returned to form with a bold run for second while there was plenty of merit in the performances of both Franco Nelson and Piccadilly Princess who really put the speed on at rounding the final bend. May was in action earlier in the day too winning the three-year-old feature with Mongolian Hero for Paul Court.  Matt Markham

Regular Canterbury visitor Nigel McGrath won two of the harness racing three Group Three features at Ascot Park yesterday. First starter Dizzy Miss Lizzy surprised him when she easily won the Alabar NZ/Caduceus Club Of Southland Fillies Mobile Pace. After leading all the way she easily beat the trailing horse I'mallaboutthebase by three and three quarter lengths.  "She's only won one unqualified workout and one official trial so it was more hoping for the best. She's going to go to Auckland in the next couple of months so she was going to have to have a trip away. I thought she might need a run today so I was quite pleased and Blair said she found the line pretty good," he said. Dizzy Miss Lizzy and Blair Orange out on their own                                 - Photo Bruce Stewart.  Dizzy Miss Lizzy is a two year old filly by Changeover out of Back In The USSR -  a Presidential Ball mare which won two races. McGrath won this race with Joanne's A Delight in 2014.  Later in the programme he scored with Ears Burning in the Yaldhurst Hotel Northern Southland Cup. It was pleasing to see the four year old step out of the shadow of his better performed stable-mates Maverick and Classie Brigade.  Ears Burning getting up to beat a game Titan Banner on the inside - Photo Bruce Stewart. "He's been behind them all season so it's good that he got himself a big race." As Captain Dolmio and Titan Banner went to war up front McGrath was able to sit Ears Burning nicely in the trial.  "He felt real great - probably the best he's ever felt. I was in two minds on whether I should wait for the passing lane but he was going so good on the bend I didn't want to wait for it. That's why I came out. He was travelling so good."  At the finish the winning margin was just a neck from a game Titan Banner which sat parked and was on the nickel for the later part of the journey. Captain Dolmio was a further length and a half back in third. This was Ears Burning's seventh win in just nineteen starts and McGrath says the hard racing has improved the Grinfromeartoear four year old.  "I think racing in those better fields has done him good.  It's toughened him up. I've chucked him into the deep end a couple of times latterly and I think mentally it's made him stronger." He's raced by Dave and Kath Rankin, Ian Rule and Stu Rankin. "They've (the Rankins) been massive supporters of me. The first horse they had with me was Dave Star who won six races and they also raced a horse with me called Chilli which went to open class."  So between Ears Burning and Dizzy Miss Lizzy the McGrath stable won $36,250 in stakes yesterday.  "The stake money you guys are putting on is great. Today's stake (in the cup) was better than the Invercargill Cup and the Ashburton Cup so it's full credit to a club like Northern Southland. That's what we need." This was McGrath's second big win in the province this season. He won the Invercargill Cup in January with Classie Brigade.   Bruce Stewart Southland Harness Racing      

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