By MICHAEL GUERIN in NEW JERSEY

For a guy who has taken more than his share of knocks this year, Graham Bruton still aims high.

The man once known as Steel Balls hopes to start tomorrow with his champion trotter Lyell Creek winning one of the world's great races and end the day as the South Island's leading reinsman.

When the champ starts second favourite in the Nat Ray at the Meadowlands tomorrow his majority owner will be watching in the glamorous surroundings of an Oamaru motel.

Bruton became a national laughing stock when a losing $20,000 sports bet led to his skipping the country. He had blown his $700,000 share of Lyell Creek's winnings.

Since then Lyell has won over $700,000 more and Bruton swears he has not had a bet and never will again.

Instead he has returned to the sulky.

"It is the only thing which gives me a similar buzz to punting," said Bruton.

"I would love to be at The Big M watching Lyell this weekend but I have got to go to Oamaru to drive at the Kurow meeting.

"I would love to see Lyell win then drive a couple of winners myself. Because it is the first South Island meeting of the season I might finish the day as our leading driver.

"It will be the only time in my life I get a chance to say that."

Bruton has driven a dozen winners at recent trials, including both his drives tomorrow, Sex Appeal and Russ The Legend.

Nearly 20 years ago Wellington-based owner Sir Roy MacKenzie listened on the phone as his champion trotter Arndon set a world record in the United States.

And then he headed to Hutt Park to drive in maiden trotting races just for the fun of it.