FROM drought-breaking and first-time winners, to incredible streaks and comebacks, regional racing at Lord's Raceway has tossed up no shortage of memorable moments.
But from Monday, the Victorian harness racing landscape will undergo another change when the the current six-region structure is reduced to three, with Bendigo to join Shepparton, Kilmore and Cranbourne as the newly devised East region.
With the last of 14 Bendigo meetings under the first phase of regional racing run at Lord's Raceway on Thursday night, it's time to look back at some of the highlights of the past eight weeks.
8. Track records
Two horses were able to add their name to the Bendigo Harness Racing Club honour roll. The Shaun McNaulty-trained Hashtag equalled Belittled's 1650m mobile start record for pacers, set only two months earlier, with a blistering performance on April 15, while Brad Angove's star trotter Sundons Courage made the 2150m mobile start record his own with an authoritative victory on May 7.
7. First training double for Tim Mannix
It was a moment Tim Mannix had waited 10 years to celebrate - his first double as a trainer. Sadly for him, he was not trackside. Mannix was kilometres away from Lord's Raceway at work. Still, nothing could take away from his feat and those of his promising youngster Valkyrie and the inconspicuous grey All Whitey Then.
6. French finishes with a flurry
It's likely no driver was in as good form by the end of the eight weeks as Tayla French. The young Heathcote reinswoman was desperately unlucky not to finish with more than three winners during April, after an alarming number of minor placings. But French was at the top of her game in May to lead all drivers with seven winners, including back-to-back doubles aboard Joeys Hangover and Betternbetter (May 5) and for the aforementioned Tim Mannix on May 7. French will now head into the second phase of regional racing against her counterparts from the Shepparton, Kilmore and Cranbourne regions as a force to be reckoned with.
5. Ashwood puts on a masterclass
There was no shortage of brilliant driving performances across the past eight weeks, including a treble apiece to Ellen Tormey (April 15) and comeback reinsman Rod Lakey (April 20). But no single win haul was bigger than Alex Ashwood's four on April 27. The former Tasmanian started the meeting in a blaze of glory by steering the Trevor Patching-trained Pippa One Two to her first race win. Without a drive in the second race, Ashwood duly saluted in the third aboard his own stable's horse Wicked Azz, before adding wins for Kent Harpley and Trevor Patching on Belltopperboy and Busters Grin in the next two races, to give him four drives for four wins. His other two drives for night produced thirds on Belittled and Aleppo Murphy. It's little wonder Ashwood topped all drivers during the period with 19.5 winners, 4.5 ahead of nearest rival Tormey.
4. Patching breaks three droughts
Central Victorian region racing proved a real boon for smaller and hobby trainers and there was perhaps no better example than Marong's Trevor Patching. His victory with Busters Grin on April 14 was the injury-prone seven-year-old gelding's first win in four years. Not to be outdone by his stable-mate, Pippa One Two, who was out of racing herself for nearly four years due to injury, won four meetings later on April 27. But that was only the half of it, with Busters Grin helping himself to a second win in three starts on the same night, giving Patching his first training double in 12 years.
3. Gath winds back the clock/Nephew Of Sonoko comes of age
With more than 3600 winners to his name, including a 1978 Inter Dominion victory with Markovina, Brian Gath needs no introduction. He might not get the number of drives he once did, but one can only ask why? The 75-year-old made every single drive count and finished with eight winners and a swag of placings. Gath formed a fruitful partnership with one of the rising stars of Victorian trotting in Nephew Of Sonoko, winning three of five races, and finishing second in the other two. The four-year-old's trainer Ross Graham summed it best when asked about Gath's performance after regional racing win number three on May 18. "He's still one of the best drivers going around." It was a fruitful regional racing period too for Nephew Of Sonoko, one of six horses to finish with three wins. Bigger things await the son of Danny Bouchea and Sister Of Sonoko once racing returns to normal, potentially from July 1.
2. Double the joy for Shane Organ
The young Junortoun trainer will undoubtedly look back at the regional racing period with fondness for years to come. Organ, who suffers from MS and trains just the one horse, went nearly three and a half years without a victory with his beloved nine-year-old gelding Tiza Nightmare, before the drought was broken on April 23. Proving that 'good things come in pairs', Organ followed up by notching his first ever driving win aboard the Glenn Sharp-trained Mystic Chip on May 11. It's fair to say no participant left the course without a smile that night, all pleased with the 23-year-old's good fortune.
1. Rod Lakey's comeback
It was the comeback that kept giving and giving. Ending a 14-year absence from professional race driving, 44-year-old Lakey kick-started his comeback in style by partnering the Shaun McNaulty-trained Gobsmacked to a victory on the opening night of regional racing on April 3. The trainer-driver partnership was one that served each other well, and the highlights for Lakey would continue to flow at an impressive rate. On April 15, he landed a double, impressively graduating to a treble at the very next meeting on April 20. The double included his part in the McNaulty-trained Hashtag equalling a Lord's Raceway track record. Only a few short days after celebrating his 45th birthday, Lakey was back where it all began, notching up another win aboard Gobsmacked, to give him 13 in total during the first phase of regional racing, at the startling average win price of more than $12.
Central region leaders board
45 individual trainers and 24 individual drivers scored winners across 14 meetings.
Trainers: Glenn Douglas (20); Kate Hargreaves (8); Shaun McNaulty (7); Justin Brewin (5); Keith Cotchin (4); Gary Donaldson (4); Tim Mannix (4).
Drivers: Alex Ashwood (19.5); Ellen Tormey (15); Rod Lakey (12); Tayla French (10); Glenn Douglas (10); Brian Gath (8); Shannon O'Sullivan (6); Anthony Crossland (6).
Horses: Nephew Of Sonoko (3); Elegant Jewel (3); Paying Your Way (3); Gobsmacked (3); Lola Devereaux (3); Betternbetter (3).
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