YEAR: 2003

The successful training and driving team

On Tuesday, Robert Mitchell carried the cup he should have held in 1975. Just An Excuse brought the Canterbury Draught Centennial New Zealand Trotting Cup to him with the stamp of the new enforcer.
Had he been a truly confident man, rather than the restrained man that he is, Mitchell could well have began his trip to the presentation area after 600 metres of the race, because Just An Excuse had the lead from that far out, and a position of power.
He didn’t, of course, but the nail was in the coffin for many of them at that point – and Mitchell probably knew it. If he had anything to worry about, it was the start. But Just An Excuse made a flier and was on the journey quicker than most of them.
“He was the last to come up and stepped away third,” said winning driver, Todd Mitchell. “There was plenty of room outside Elsu, and Mark Purdon (driving Jack Cade) didn’t make it too hard for us to get past him,” he said.
Besides Jack Cade, Falcon Rise, Jagged Account and Elsu all slipped into good positions. Elsu moved again near the 1800m when Young Rufus rolled forward, and the next move came from Anthony Butt, near the 1300m, with Cool Hand Luke, and the last of any note came from Mister D G.
None of them were serious enough to force Todd to click the pacemaker up, and he must have had “this is for you, Dad”, well in his thoughts as he cruised past the 600m and then put the foot down. Cool Hand Luke did his best to level, and may have done so for a few strides.
Elsu then emerged, wider out, on a better run, and Jack Cade gradually closed along the marker line. But as gallant as they were, Just An Excuse always had them covered, and appeared to win with more authority than a long neck, which is how close Elsu got.
There was a moment of panic at the end when the siren went, which coincided by a visit to the stewards’ room by Purdon. It concerned some movement by Just An Excuse into the passing lane, but nothing came of it, and the occasion never lost stride.
There could also have been a slight panic at the start, when a streaker took off down Queen’s Drive, in front of the main stand. His timing was awful because starter Jack Mulcay had them almost in line. Racing Secretary Tony Lye was aware of some mischief, but not knowing what it was, suggested that Mulcay should hold them while it was sorted out. As it happened, it was over in a flash, and the field was sent away.
Purdon said Jack Cade had worked a bit to get the lead early, from Falcon Rise, and then he had the task of running past the pacemaker on a 26 final quarter. “Just An Excuse may have come in a little, but he came straight back out,” he said. Todd admitted that he was surprised to find the lead, certainly as soon as he did.
“I didn’t think we’d settle handy, and it was at the back of my mind to let something go,” he said. Just An Excuse, a first-season son of Nevele R stallion Live Or Die, is raced by Ollie and Irene Haines who bred him from their Smooth Fella mare, My Excuse.
Todd recalled that he did the Haines' a favour when the horse was a late 3-year-old. “Andrew Neal came up and said he was interested in buying him. I said he taps a knee a bit, and it didn’t go any further. It’s the best advice I’ve ever given.”
Todd has now driven in the New Zealand Cup five times for three wins – the others were Homin Hosed and Gracious Knight – and a second. The race took 4.05.7 which was predictably slow once the favourites had control. “Once that happened it was all over for us,” said Peter Ferguson, the driver of Falcon Rise.
“He needed the pace on from the start, and it didn’t go like that.” Was anyone unlucky? Not that we could see, but Sly Flyin did get home well from five-deep on the fence at the 600m, and Jagged Account also ran home smartly.

Credit: Mike Grainger writing in the HR Weekly


YEAR: 2004

The cover of the Weekly says it all !

Cup Day was a cocktail of triumph and tragedy for Ollie and Irene Haines at Addington on Tuesday. Minutes after watching Just An Excuse give Elsu a repeat beating in the Canterbury Draught New Zealand Cup, the Haines’s learned their good friend Graham Higgins had died in the stand nearby.
Higgins was a member of the Cambridge Harness Racing Club, President of the club from 1986 to 1989, and was part of the support team behind Just An Excuse. Ollie, visibly shaken by the death of his old friend, took some consolation on hearing that he'd died calling out ‘Go Mitch’.
It was all part of a turbulent ride the Haines’s have had since winning the New Zealand Cup with Just An Excuse last year when he was a warm favourite. Through one reason and another, Just An Excuse had fallen from favour, and Ollie sat on the sidelines as trainer Robert Mitchell used all his professional skills to put the jigsaw back in place.
The time he spent on the horse was unbelievable. “He has virtually lived with the horse for the past six weeks. “Back and forth to vets, tooth men and farriers. “I’m sure if he’d been in a big stable he wouldn’t be here now,” he said. There was a chewing problem that some attention to his teeth fixed. There was a jarring up problem to his club foot that some special cushioning to his sole fixed. And then there was the abortive mission to Ashburton, which nearly unfixed their whole campaign.
“We were gutted after Ashburton,” said Haines. “It didn’t seem fair; we wanted a rewind. “It wasn’t the fact we didn’t win there, but the fact he didn’t take any part in it.” But Haines didn’t lose faith in Mitchell, nor in the horse. He chided the media for doing so. “I don’t know why you fellas wrote him off,” he said.
Ironically, the Haines’s had been associated with the Butcher stable for 13 years, before Mitchell was given the horse after he’d been tried by Cambridge trainer, Brent Donnelly. The Haines’s had dozens of horses at the time, but five years ago Ollie stuck to a principle and culled more than 30. One of those he couldn’t quit was My Excuse, a Smooth Fella mare and her Live Or Die colt foal.
The foal was Just An Excuse and the culling was successful, because only My Excuse and a Camtastic-Another Excuse 3-year-old remains. Ollie still takes time to bless his Addington luck.
“I’ve only raced two horses here, and they’ve won five Group races.
Just An Excuse has won two Cups and the Superstars, and Smooth Performer won the Oaks and the DB Fillies Final,” he said. And while Todd calls Addington his second home, the Haines’s don’t mind the place either. They could, however, do without the emotion and high drama that came with their visit this time.

Credit: Mike Grainger writing in the HR Weekly


YEAR: 2004

Just An Excuse on the way to victory

They said he couldn't do it. No way, not on his chequered preparation. And not with a rampant Elsu and race-hardened Mister D G staring him down as he stood sanwiched between them at the start. Nope. Almost unbelievably, Just An Excuse somehow slipped from favour from last week's Canterbury Draught NZ Trotting Cup...dropped by some of the very same people that basked in his glory just 12 short months ago.

They were wrong. Three days later it happened all over again. In spite of his emphatic Cup victory, Just An Excuse still had his doubters when he stepped onto Addington for the $100,000 Lindauer NZ Free-For-All. There were those that thought he couldn't possibly sit outside a pacemaker like Mister D G and beat him - which was how most pre-race calculations saw the event unfolding. But they were wrong again. Whatever excuses these particular people came up with for the two "biggies" over Cup week, in the end they were just that - excuses; Just An Excuse proved that you can never underestimate the ability of a good horse to lift when it matters most. Especially a great one.

Unlike most, Just An Excuse's driver Todd Mitchell didn't have a pre-race script for how he was going to attack the Free-For-All. "A 'Plan A'? No. If you head out onto the track with one of those, usually you end up looking for a 'Plan B'," Mitchell said. "Once Mister D G went to the lead I didn't want him to get too far in front; when I saw Mark and Young Rufus coming, it was time to go." Just An Excuse lobbed up alondside Mister D G as the field started the last lap, and when the positions were unchanged turning for home the pair set down to a titanic home straight struggle. "I was quite happy to sit out there, he's won most of his races sitting parked," Mitchell continued. "In fact, he's probably better sitting parked than anything. He is good coming from behind though, because at the trials he's run quarters in twenty-six and just cruised them. We still haven't seen him have to do that yet."

Just An Excuse is now back at home in Raglan and enjoying a couple of days off after losing a bit of weight and tucking up a bit more than normal from his trip. For trainer Robert Mitchell, this has given him the chance to reflect on what has been a truly magnificent Cup carnival. "Never in a hundred years did I think that we'd get to live that feeling all over again," he says, in reference to Just An Excuse's back-to-back Cup victories. "Last year it was pretty much plain sailing leading into the Cup, but this time we've had to work really hard. We just had so many little problems, what with him jarring up and then not eating, and you couldn't call Ashburton a run. It was just a case of working our way through it. So I suppose this year's Cup is more special to me. And then to top it off by winning the Free-For-All, well, that is just something else again. If you count the Cup Trial 'Lordie's' had three good runs in the space of nine days, which really says a lot for the horse because he showed his true grit after such a chequered preparation."

Mitchell says he and the horse's owners still have to decide where they'll head next with the star Live Or Die pacer, with the choices coming down to either the Victoria Cup in Melbourne on December 18, or the Auckland Cup at Alexandra Park on New Year's Eve.

Just An Excuse is the first horse for six years to capture the highly sought after NZ Cup/ NZ Free-For-All double, and the 27th horse to achieve the feat since it was first done in 1918 by Author Dillon. The others were Peter Bingen (1928), Harold Logan (31), Red Shadow (33), Indianapolis (35), Josedale Grattan (41), Highland Fling (48), Johnny Globe (54), Lookaway (57), False Step (60), Lordship (62), Cardigan Bay (63), Robalan (74), Lunar Chance (75), Trusty Scott (78), Lord Module (79), Hands Down (80), Armalight (81), Bonnie's Chance (82), Master Mood (86), Christopher Vance (91), Blossom Lady (92), Chokin (93), Bee Bee Cee (94), Il Vicolo (95) and Christian Cullen (98).

Credit: John Robinson writing in NZHR Weekly


YEAR: 2002


Just An Excuse kept his unbeaten winning record when he set up a race record to win the Wyatt and Wilson Print Superstars 4yo Championship. He thumped 12 others, giving all but Muscle Machine a start, and recorded 3:15.1 for the 2600 stand. The previous best for the race was Defoe's 3:15.8, followed by Christopher Vance and Hoppy's Jet who both went 3:16.6.

Just An Excuse is raced by his breeders Ollie and Irene Haines; Ollie, a former HRNZ Executive member whose last trip to race a horse at Addington was 11 years earlier with the classy filly, Smooth Performer. He has culled his stock considerably since then, and Just An Excuse made his arrival when only a few were left.

A 4-year-old by Live Or Die, Just An Excuse is trained by Robert Mitchell who said the horse "has been a bit of a revelation. He has never ceased to amaze us, and he's come along when I was looking to cut back a bit. I haven't had a horse who has done what this guy has done," he said. Mitchell has been behind enough good ones to know where Just An Excuse stands, including the open class Court Martial pacer Hoover, Rain Girl and Royal Consent.

The only concern Mitchell had was the gap of three weeks between races, and what effect the trip away from home would have on him. "He was quiet for a couple of days, then started kicking his bucket in the yard, so he handled it okay," he said.

Just An Excuse is the sixth foal from My Excuse, a Smooth Fella mare, who has since left a Make A Deal filly, now two, and a yearling filly, also by Live Or Die.

Credit: Mike Grainger writing HRWeekly 09Oct02

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