Mike Dillon: Master trainer gives safer jumps carnivals thumbs up

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The five-year no-casualty gap that preceded Tuesday's and yesterday's sad losses is much more than even the most ardent jumps racing fan could have hoped for. Photo / iStock
The five-year no-casualty gap that preceded Tuesday's and yesterday's sad losses is much more than even the most ardent jumps racing fan could have hoped for. Photo / iStock

The animal rights protesters were still there as Warrnambool's iconic three-day jumps meeting began on Tuesday.

But the roar they created five and six years ago that came close to closing Victorian jumps racing down is not quite so loud these days. It hasn't needed to be, with no jumping fatalities in Victoria since 2011.

That was until Cliff's Dream had to be put down after fracturing a knee in a fall at the second-last fence in a hurdle race on Tuesday and yesterday the Galleywood Hurdle was marred by the death of veteran galloper Tuscan Fire.

Cliff's Dream was trained by former New Zealander Bryce Stanaway and ridden by another originally from this side of the Tasman, Richard Eynon.

The five-year no-casualty gap that preceded Tuesday's and yesterday's sad losses is much more than even the most ardent jumps racing fan could have hoped for.

And credit for making Victorian hurdles safer lies with Melbourne trainer Robbie Laing and possibly the best jumps jockey we've seen in Steve Pateman, his peers being Brett Scott and Craig Thornton.

Taranaki's master trainer John Wheeler, widely regarded as "The King" of Oakbank and Warrnambool's jumps carnivals, said the hurdles in Australia, designed by Laing and Pateman, are different to those we use in New Zealand, which were largely designed by the late Ken Browne.

"The Australian hurdles are collapsible which is important because gone are the days when jumpers were flat horses past their use-by date. To win over there now you need a speedy and nippy sort," says Wheeler.

"I won the Australian Grand National with Crafty Dancer, who was too slow to win even one flat race in New Zealand, but those days are gone. He wouldn't be seen now. They travel so fast in hurdle races over there, no slower than 13 seconds to the 200m sometimes faster, and you need something collapsible. There is no room for error if they hit them."

Wheeler's point was emphasised by Extra Zero, winner of A$1.5 million and second in last year's Australian Cup, finishing second in his jumping debut over hurdles at Warrnambool on Tuesday.

That's not the reason Wheeler is not at either Oakbank or Warrnambool this year.

"I had three horses to take and all three went amiss. Easter came very early this year and when my three went amiss it was too late to get others to catch up in fitness. But I'll be back there."

Indirectly, Wheeler nearly caused a catastrophic situation a handful of years ago when Banna Strand lost his rider in the Grand Annual Steeples (run today at Warrnambool), jumped a boundary fence down the back of the track and landed on spectators, viewing from the road outside the racecourse.

Unbelievably, although seven were admitted to hospital, not one was seriously injured. Wheeler phoned every one of those in hospital the night of the incident.

"There was not one among them that mentioned libel. One woman had a young boy knocked out of the pushchair and he broke his arm. She said 'well if that's the worst thing'.

"One woman sounded really old and she told me she had her mother with her and I said she must be old. She told me she was 94 and said it was actually a great thing.

"She said her mother had fallen off her horse aged 12 and she had a little while when she wasn't quite sure what was happening when Banna Strand brushed her and she thought she was 12 again.

"Remarkably, the boundary fence Banna Strand jumped, by a clear margin, was 7 foot 4 inches."

The jumping great, who came back and won the race two years later, after scattering the crown, jumped a police car and quietly trotted around.

- NZ Herald

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