YEAR: 2007



Having already trained the winners of six Dominion Handicaps, it's hard to imagine Tim Butt feeling like he was in unfamiliar territory this year.

The Dominion is a race that Tim and his brother Anthony have virtually 'owned' during the last decade, because they won it half a dozen times in a row from 1999-2005. but when Tim took his place in the Addington stand 12 nights ago, ready to watch it all unfold once again, he knew that things had been different in the build-up. Missing was the hype surrounding his stable's representative, the public's focus aimed squarely in other directions; unlike the champions Lyell Creek and Take A Moment before him, Mountbatten wasn't weighed down with a tonne of expectation. The son of Earl didn't own a trotting crown yet, so there was nothing to defend.

A little over four minutes later, that'd all changed. "We got got bit of a kick out of this one," Tim said, comparing Mountbatten's victory to his previous Dominion titles. "Lyell wasn't quite the favourite when he won it the first time, and Take A Moment was third in the betting when he won his first Dominion...all the other times the two of them were red-hot. So their wins were a relief more than anything."

To take home a seventh Dominion Handicap trophy within the space of nine seasons truly is a remarkable achievement by Premier Stables and its three wise men - Tim, 'Ants' and Phil ('Prop') Anderson, who's been part of the team for many years and official co-trainer for the last two. Even more sweeter is the fact that they snared both big plums from this year's Cup carnival, with Mountbatten's victory coming hard on the heels of a mind-blowing performance by Flashing Red. We'd barely finished shaking our heads in disbelief when Mountbatten re-delivered the message, loud and clear: these guys are masters when it comes to setting horses for the big events.

Its quite amazing to think that Mountbatten started the season as a one-win horse, yet 12 weeks later he tears away with the 'NZ Cup of Trotting'. But Tim says he had the Dominion in the back of his mind pretty early on. "I first started to think about it when he won his second start this term, by eight lengths. Obviously none of the big guns were there, but he beat a couple of handy ones in 3.22 - and I timed him to run some bloddy good sectionals that night too. It reminded me just how far ahead of them he was."

Tim says that when mapping out a programme leading up to the Cup Meeting, with a trotter like Mountbatten he'd normally "wait" and kick him off in the four-win grade on Cup Day - which gives them the chance to start on each day of the carnival, and win three races. It's a formula that's proved successful in the past...Take A Moment(three wins in 2000 and two wins in '01), Sonofthedon(two wins and a second in '02), Genius(two wins in '05) and Moment Of Truth(a win and two seconds last year) each putting in three appearances at the meeting. "But I suggested to Mountbatten's owners that I thought we should try and win what we can and dominate," Tim said.

"When he won at Ashburton on Labour weekend he had a hard run, but did it with a leg in the air. And his sectioals that day (56.9 and 27.5) showed that he's got that 'X Factor' as far as speed goes. Then at Kaikoura, I wasn't worried about the fact that he broke because it was it was all about the trip up there. He's a highly-strung horse and can be a bit flighty - most times at home we have to warm him up on the lead with a galloping pacemaker. So Kaikoura was good for him because he saw all the crowds, and stood all day in his box there next to the track where he got to see every race. He's settled down a bit since then."

Next stop was the NZ Trotting Free-For-All on Show Day, a race that Tim admits he set him for. With a two week break from the racetrack since Kaikoura - "a freshener after he'd hardened up" - Mountbatten was right where his trainers wanted him. "He was ready to go," Tim said. "And I was rapt with his run, because it was only in the last thirty metres that they got him. He'd come out of the gate, and eventually gotten to the lead with a lap to go - so he'd sprinted three times before he turned for home." Mountbatten came within half a length of victory in this, his first real test against the big boys, and they'd gone so fast that the eventual winner Romper Stomper shaved a tenth of a second off the national record held by none other than Lyell Creek - the one he set in the very same event three years earlier.

In hindsight it was the ideal 'top off' for Mountbatten's assault on the Dominion a week later, an occasion where, yet again, Anthony would produce a drive that was out of this world. Making a safe enough beginning to land in the one-one for the first mile, Mountbatten lost the cover soon afterwards and Anthony then thought briefly about having a go for the lead himself. The three-wide train had started moving by then though so he opted against it, and their position became more and more precarious as the race got older. Nearing the home turn they were back in the middle and surrounded by horses inside and out...was Anthony going to be able to find some room? You bet! Once balanced as he straightened for home, Mountbatten was set alight by his pilot and they pierced through a gap so small that it didn't even exist. The 5-year-old flattened out beautifully, and Dominion Handicap number seven was in the bag! "Winning these sorts of races isn't about having the best horse," Tim said. "Because in all fairness, horse like One Over Kenny and Stig if he'd started are probably better than him at this stage of his career. It's a case of having them right on the right day."

Talking of days, one that Tim will never forget in the occasion when he first laid eyes on Mountbatten at John 'Coaster' Howe's property some four years ago. He was just a yearling at the time, having not long been broken in, and I went to trial him," Tim said. "Some of the boys were there, standing near a bend of the track by a gate laughing and carrying on. When Mountbatten came around the corner he shied at them, and the next thing I know we're heading inwards, down over a bit of a bank and onto another track, but he never missed a beat, and kept trotting the whole way; most young horses would've had a gallop for sure. I bought him right there and then."

Tim didn't have any trouble rounding up a group to race the precocious youngster, and by the time he made his debut as a 2-year-old in April 2005 Mountbatten was owned by Pete Darby, Bev Hickman, Kevin Schmack and the five-member Foxtrot Syndicate, a group comprising of Graham and Shona Stoddart along with Alister, Ross and Raewyn McCutcheon.

The son of Earl and Sundon mare Sunvette never missed a cheque in his first two seasons, starting 10 times for two wins, two seconds, three thirds, two fourths and a fifth. Then a bump in the road... "He went lame," Tim said. "So we boxed him for two months, and he spent another couple of months in a paddock after that, but when we started on him again he got really sore. In the end he had two screws put into his pastern and was away from the racetrack for more than a year; the injury's not serious, we've just got to hope that he doesn't develop arthritis in it in the future."

That future's looking pretty rosy too, with a fully fit and race-hardened Mountbatten currently on top of his game. He will go north later this month for three races, and then Tim will float the idea about crossing the Tasman. "See, he'll get ten metres in the Rowe Cup now," he said. "But he could also target races like the Dullard Cup and then the Inter-Dominions. I reckon he'd be great in Aussie, because they are good front-runners tracks and he's got that real zip to go past them and take the lead."

So Cup Week in Christchurch has come and gone for another season. Quite simply, this year's carnival belonged to the Butt brothers, their right-hand man 'Prop', and the team at Premier Stables. Their NZ Cup/ Dominion Handicap double was unprecedented - and it might be a long time until we ever see it happen again, if at all.

Tim isn't one to bask in glory, but as a professional he gains a lot of satisfaction from 'a job well done'. Like most people that excel in their chosen field, he's got where he is today through sheer hard work. Yet, he hasn't forgotten that things were pretty humble in the beginning either..."We probably battled for ten years, buying cheap horses from down south and trying to get owners," he said. "We're quite pro-active though, and aren't afraid to get out there and have a crack. Early on we didn't have the resources or quality stock, and back in the year 2000 when we bought fifty acres where we are now, we started from scratch. I work hard on getting horses and owners, because that's where my next Flashing Red's coming from."

If anything, this year's results at the Cup carnival reflect the stable's main focus. "Our forte is Grand Curcuit horses," he said. "And ours always improve from year to year, that's our style of training - we're looking at the long-term picture. Take Goldie Blue for example...he finished third in this season's Sires' Stakes Silver at Ashburton, so at the moment he's probably only just in the top fifteen 3-year-olds going around. But you just wait - in two years time, he'll be one of the top three in that same group. I think a lot of him."

Credit: John Robinson writing in HRWeekly 5Dec07

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