YEAR: 1989


The much-respected and distinguished Chertsey horseman Jack Behrns died recently. Aged 84, Behrns had spent the last five years living at Rolleston with his son, Tom.

He had an interest in harness racing until he died, racing the trotter Evander Morn. "I told him, while he was in hospital that I would take Evander Morn to Blenheim, and I took him a wee radio so he could listen in. He died before then, but I carried on and raced the mare just as we had planned," Tom said.

Jack Behrns was in the elite of horsemen. He trained some of the great horses of the century, notably Indianapolis, Wrackler and Cardinal King, and some very good ones, such as Peggotty, Why Bill, Doctor Kyle, Space Cadet, Byebye Bill and Waitaki Elect.

Behrns was born in Rakaia, starting his working life in the Post Office before coming under the wing of 'Scotty' Bryce. From there he went to Durbar Lodge, and on the death of Don Warren became private trainer for H F Nicoll. He trained Indianapolis - later to win three successive New Zealand Cups - for his first win, and converted the 1930 NZ Cup winner Wrackler to win the 1932 Dominion Handicap from Huon Voyage and Olive Nelson. In April 1931, he won the NZ Derby with Ciro, and then on Nicoll's death, he started training for Reg Butterick, one horse being Peggotty, by Wrack from a Nelson Bingen mare Butterick had bought for just four guineas. Behrns trained her for seven successive races, and at 9 she won the 1941 Dominion Handicap.

He was private trainer for Percy Watson after that; Alladin and Inglewood were two good horses he trained in the 1950s, and Cardinal King was the stable star in the 60s. The trotter Doctor Kyle won 12, Space Cadet included the New Brighton Cup among his 9 wins; Why Bill won 12; Waitaki Elect won seven as a 3-year-old, including the two mile Hororata Cup from Dutch Courage, and Bye Bye Bill won five after standing at stud in Australia and joining Behrns when he was eight.

Jack is survived by two daughters and three sons, all trainers, Tom, Irvin and Robbie.

Credit: Mike Grainger writing in HRWeekly 14Feb89


YEAR: 1941


In 1935 a five-year-old racing mare was bought at a Christchurch sale ring for 4 as a plough horse for then Mid-Canterbury farmer, Reg Butterick.

In 1938, as Peggotty, she was the Cinderella of harness racing, whose every appearance attracted an army of fans and supporters, especially among women. Peggoty's story, now largely forgotten, was a classic example of the racing adage "never say never".

Bred by a leading Christchurch sportsman Charles Olliver, Peggotty had a curious "back to front" body - a strong shoulder but weak behind. After a few months in the plough she had to be retired to hack duties. One day when Butterick let her loose she showed unexpected speed.

He asked trainer, Jackie Behrns to try her as a racehorse. In a few starts as a pacer she did nothing. As a last resort because the mare picked her feet up high when pacing, he put away the hopples and tried her as a trotter. The result was miraculous. Late in 1937, as a seven-year-old mother, Peggotty lined up at Addington and won by the length of the straight.

She won her next seven races including two at the inaugural Interdominion Championships at Addington in 1938. A trotter winning eight on end then was unheard of. The pacing record was nine in a row and stood for another 40 years. In her first defeat, Peggotty, normally a safe beginner, lost 100m at the start and still ran fourth. She won 11 of her first 13 trotting starts and her fame went outside racing circles. Some rated her as our best trotter ever.

Many wins meant she was soon racing off impossible handicaps and Butterick, a man who had a stunning record of buying racing bargains, retired her in 1939. Peggotty had a foal but it died.

So Butterick himself trained her for an amazing comeback. On Cup Day at Addington in November 1941, in her first start for more than two years, against seasoned stars, 12-year-old Peggotty won the Dominion Handicap, New Zealand's premier trotting race. The huge crowd gave her a tremendous reception. Women fans were said to be in tears.

That was her last hurrah and she left only one minor winner at stud. Ugly to look at Peggotty may have been to the purist but poetry in motion when on the trot. Living proof that looks are not everything.

Credit: David McCarthy writing in 9Jul 2011


YEAR: 1932


In winning the Dominion Handicap, Wrackler has established a record that is likely to stand for years to come, as he can claim to be the only horse New Zealand has ever seen that has won the premier handicap for both trotting and pacing gaits.

The New Zealand Cup fell to his lot in 1930, and just two years later he takes the Dominion Handicap, the principal unhoppled trotters race of the season. Together with this record he has another, that of being the only horse in New Zealand that has paced and trotted two miles in better than 4min 30sec.

In yesterday's success he gave the exhibition of a champion. He was fourth with a round to go, but about two lengths behind the leaders. Going down the back the last time he had as his nearest attendants Huon Voyage and Olive Nelson, those ahead being Cannonball, Writer and Admiral Bingen. Cannonball held on the longest of the leaders, but before the back straight was left the issue was confined to Wrackler, Huon Voyage, and Olive Nelson, who were racing in that order. Great Way was the only other who looked as if he might participate in the finish, but he broke when trotting fast round the home turn. He was good enough, however, to hold fourth place at the post.

Wrackler had to withstand a challenge from Huon Voyage in the straight but he did not have to be driven out to best the Australian trotter by a length. Olive Nelson had not much dash after her brilliance earlier in the race, and finished four lengths away in third place. Cannonball tired badly, finishing fifth and Writer was next.

The favourite Biddy Parrish refused to settle down at the start, and Arctotis, after galloping a quarter was pulled up. Stanley T trotted solidly all the way after a good beginning, and appeared to have a chance with half a mile to go, but he stopped badly. Fifa was not dangerous at any stage. Winner trained by J Behrns, Ashburton.

Credit: THE PRESS 9 Nov 1932


YEAR: 2012


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

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