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WRACKLER & HARRY NICOLL: CHAMPIONS BOTH
What a combination it was. On our left was Wrackler rated "on all evidence available the world's best double gaited horse" and still the only one to win both the New Zealand Cup pacing and the Dominion Handicap trotting. On the right was his owner Harry Nicoll, arguably the greatest administrator in the history of the harness sport. An autocrat, he was the president of the New Zealand Trotting Conference (HRNZ) for over 25 years and of his Ashburton club for a staggering 48 years. Without Harry Nicholl the Inter-Dominion Championships would never have got off the ground.
An oarsman of international standard in his youth, it was said that Harry had never been to a trotting meeting until 1906 when the Ashburton club invited him to its meeting. It was not quite true. But the club was almost broke and Nicoll, a local business who successfully raced gallopers as "Mr J Case" and ran the local Racing Club was seen as a possible saviour.
Within two years Nicoll had embraced trotting and won the New Zealand Cup with Durbar, a 12-year-old he had bought here from an Australian and who raced on until he was 18. Nicoll was soon the leading owner and leading the code into class racing and handicapping by yards instead of clocks. After being thwarted by politics from heading the NZ Trotting Association he upset the famed Aucklander James Rowe for the chairmanship of the Conference in 1922 and won every election held from then until retiring in 1947.
By 1931 he was an honorary life member of every trotting club in New Zealand, joint president of the NZ Metropolitan club and later Predident of the Australasian Trotting Association. It was his offer to bankroll New Zealand horses going to Perth for the first Inter-Dominion which made the concept feasible. His Ashburton club was offering £3000 for three classic races in the 1920's making it the most successful in Australasia regardless of size.
Nicoll's Durbar Lodge near Ashburton was the leading stable with the renowned Andy Pringle as his private trainer. Nicoll bought from the United States the free-legged pacer, Wrack, by the world's leading sire Peter The Great, and the first genuine Grand Circuit horse to come to this country. He had paced 2.02.4 in Ohio shortly before his arrival - faster than later pacing supersire Hal Dale. Nicoll charged 40 guineas a service, a fee not matched for over 25 years and one Wrack could not sustain. History records he was a great success but for a time he was rejected by breeders until trainers like Bill Tomkinson, Don Warren and Roy Berry realised they did not handle high speed work and the tide was turned.
Nicoll was no sentimentalist. He sold up a lot of his horses during the Depression including Wrackler, and filly freak Arethusa, both retained by his son, Arthur. He sold his boom youngster, Indianapolis, Wrack's greatest son, knowing what he might become. In 1938 after the stallion had served 72 mares Nicoll sold Wrack to Tasmania. He died in Sydney in virtual exile the following year. It was a finale which did not sit well with many sportsmen here.
Nicoll was also controversial when Maurice Holmes, having knocked down half the field in the New Zealand Derby driving Nicoll's Arethusa, was given a suspension which ended the day before he was to drive her in the Northern Derby. "The judicial decision" raged the Truth newspaper, "could not have been more ridiculous had it decreed that in future Holmes was allowed to carry a sawn off shotgun to assist him bringing down what he desired."
Wrackler was all American-bred and his dam Trix Pointer the only Cup winning mare to leave a Cup winner. He was the champion 3-year-old and at four won the New Zealand Trotting Gold Cup in Wellington, a unique achievement for one that age. Wrackler was prepared by Don Warren to win the 1930 NZ Cup easily. It was a vintage pacing era so the Cup was run in divisions and Wrack horses thrived on hard racing. The day produced an amazing double because the Derby was the same day and won by Wrackler's sister, Arethusa, also driven by Maurice Holmes. Both horses wre typical Wracks - plain as pikestaffs, lean as whippets but with great stamina.
Warren was an expert and popular horseman with heart and personal problems. In August 1931 he was demoted by Nicoll as the Durbar Lodge trainer in favour of his assistant Jackie Behrns. A few weeks later Warren made a cup of tea for his wife and Behrns, chatted for a while and then went behind the barn and blew his head off with a shotgun. His health and demotion had devastared him. He was only 43.
At a War Relief meeting at Addington in July 1932 Behrns, having persuaded Arthur Nicoll who now owned him to try Wrackler as a trotter, won a feature at Addington at 8/8 in the betting which qualified him for the Dominion Handicap which he won four months later. At Addington about the same time he finished second in the big trot and in the very next race took on the "cream of the Dominion's pacers" in a high class race. His mixing of gaits could confuse him. In the 1934 Dominion he slid into a pace and lost his chance.
Wrackler was retired in 1935 but later returned to racing under Lester Maidens and won top trotting races at Addington as a 10-year-old. He lived a long and contented retirement carrying children to school on his back daily for many years before dying at the age of 27 in 1951.
It is virtually impossible his feat can be repeated in the modern era. Nor will any of Nicoll's successors be permitted to hold office for a quarter of a century. Wrackler and Harry Nicoll certainly like setting records.
Credit: David McCarthy writing in HRWeekly 8Aug2012