Racing: Steeplechase tough on horse - and jockey

By Mike Dillon

Three trips over the fearsome Ellerslie Hill has taken the finest riders close to exhaustion Ima Heroine can win her second successive Great Northern. Photo / Phil Walter
Three trips over the fearsome Ellerslie Hill has taken the finest riders close to exhaustion Ima Heroine can win her second successive Great Northern. Photo / Phil Walter

There is no tougher race on a horse's constitution than today's $100,000 Rodd & Gunn Great Northern Steeplechase at Ellerslie.

There's no news in that.

But the competitor most forgotten is the jockey.

Ask anyone who's ridden a competitive chance in a Great Northern - the only race with three trips over the fearsome Ellerslie Hill - and they'll tell you nothing takes you closer to exhaustion.

This writer remembers the late Ken Browne winning the Northern on Ascona in 1977.

The time Ascona took to win that race on a bottomless bog track was 8.52.06.

A year later Ballycastle lined up on a firm surface and led throughout with Grant Cooksley in the saddle to clock 7.39.35.

Even allowing the extreme distance of the Northern, the difference of 1 minute 12 seconds is remarkable.

Ken Browne was one of racing's all time fittest jockeys, even though he rode his entire career as an amateur.

He could have emerged not breathing too hard after swimming from Auckland to Sydney underwater.

So breathless was he after punching the dour Ascona through 6400m of mud and slush, he couldn't dismount in the weigh-in area and sat for what seemed like several minutes slumped forward with his head in Ascona's mane.

Browne was finally assisted off Ascona and weighed in.

Even for those without a true love for steeplechasing, the Great Northern Steeplechase is something special. It rarely fails to provide drama.

Memories of the performances of Eiffel Tower, Hunterville, Brookby Song and Hypnotize will never fade.

Nor will the drama of Baggy Hillis winning the famous race with a broken arm he kept secret for two weeks leading into guiding Brockton around as the victor.

When you say quickly that Hillis won on Brockton with a broken arm, the true effect is lost.

Really think about jumping 26 fences with a shattered forearm that couldn't be plastered because it had to be kept secret.

Most of us wouldn't want to sit on a stationary horse under those circumstances.

You hope if there's drama aplenty in this afternoon's Great Northern it doesn't greatly interfere with the chances of one of the runners.

As Mathew Gillies says of his chance on the favourite Ima Heroine: "I hope nothing falls in front of us and I can keep her away from trouble."

If he does, Ima Heroine will win her second successive Great Northern.

- NZ Herald

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