Warren Stapleton once told his family if he ever won the Dominion Handicap, he'd retire. By his own admission, Stapleton's "a trotting man" and winning the Dominion is his New Zealand Cup; winning it has always been his dream. "I've watched many, many Dominions, and it was always frustrating not to have a horse there," he said.
There had been times when he did though...Highwood twice, October Pride and Cedar Fella last year. "Highwood was plagued by asthma and arthritis and was never right at Cup time; October Pride just couldn't function at the top level, and Cedar Fella was sick when he lined up in it last season and broke out of sheer frustration. In him I always knew I had the horse to do it if I could ever get him right."
This year, the Rakaia trainer took a gamble, opting to bypass Show Day's Free-For-All to have Cedar Fella "fresh" for the Dominion. The plan almost came unstuck 10 days before the event. "I noticed a change in his disposition and attitude, and he was starting to show the same symptoms as he did last year. It's got something to do with getting extra protein from the seed heads in the grass. I had his blood tested, and it was slipping - I was sick in the stomach. But I caught it early, treated him myself, and kept him off the grass. Thankfully, he got over it very quickly."
Stapleton was uncharacteristically on edge before the $100,000 Coupland's Bakeries Dominion Trotting Handicap. "I knew this was my best chance of winning the race," he said. "I can normally take a fair bit of pressure but I was nervous in anticipation. I was trying something new having him fresh for an event like this, and when I saw Knight Pistol and Mark Purdon's trio parade before the race that is when the worry started - there were some great horses out there. "Ricky (May) knew how much this event meant to me, but I said 'just get him out there and get him round, don't worry about the race.'"
Making his normal swift beginning in the 3200 test, Cedar Fella was heading for the lead before the first turn. McGrady came round at a serious speed soon after, so May let him go then quickly pulled the big horse out of the trail to head round to the front again. It was one of those instinctive decisions, made in a split second, and it was a beauty! Cedar Fella called all the shots from then on. The Son Of Afella gelding trotted the first half of his last mile in 60.6, came home in 61 and 29.7, and was giving everything he could when his massive head hit the finish line first.
"I am absolutely thrilled - this is the pinnacle of my career," Stapleton said. "Ricky drove him superbly, he's so cool under pressure. To win at that level with a sound horse is hard enough. Cedar Fella has always been terribly unsound, he really deserved to win a Group 1 event. People don't realise just how good this horse is. I don't rate myself in the top echelon of trainers; a win like this is good for the 'wee man.' it just proves that if you have a dream and hang in there long enough, it can come true."
Stapleton once told his family that if he ever won the Dominion Handicap, he would retire. His wife Wendy, daughters Kylie and Simone and son Dean were on-course to see him do that last Friday. But there's been no further mention of retirement; when Saturday dawned Stapleton was where he is every morning - out amongst his horses.
Credit: John Robinson writing in NZHR Weekly
Three weeks ago, Warren Stapleton gave himself no chance of having a horse in next week's Dominion. Cedar Fella had just broken down again, and this time he was definitely being retired for good, and McGrady, the latest open class trotter recruited as a crock to the Mid-Canterbury stable, was not looking much of a prospect either.
That all changed in a very short space of time this week when McGrady, "half trained" to finish second to One Kenny at Forbury Park in his first outing for Stapleton last month, had an outing at the Methven trials last Saturday and finished a hard held fourth off 40m. "The winner went a track record 3:31 for the 2600m and we were just jogging," said Stapleton.
While that may have appeared a mere form of encouragement for most, it was enough for Stapleton to be one of a handful of significant supporters of McGrady on the tote when the injury-plagued 9-year-old gelding - the veteran of just 49 starts now - took out the feature trot on Cup Day with plenty of authority at odds of 60 to one.
With Ricky May commited to Pure Adrenalin, Mark Jones was at the helm when McGrady began best from wide out, handed up to One Kenny with a lap to go, and spurted clear up the passing lane. Sunny Action, the outsider bar one, tracked McGrady throughout and got within three-quarters of a length, while odds-on Sundon's Way was in a gap of almost three lengths, like stablemate Buster Hanover finding a handicap in a fast-run race too much to overcome.
"He looked and felt super in his prelim and it wasn't really a surprise to me at all when he won," said Jones. "They got up to his wheel in the straight and then he put his head down and took off," he added. McGrady is "chronically unsound" and has been with Stapleton for about six months - "he even broke down again on me in another place. I have had him almost ready three times - he wasn't right for Forbury Park - but I had to give him a run somewhere," said Stapleton. "He will go straight into the Dominion now, but I am not about to go beating my drum for that or make any promises he won't break down again. But he has finished second in a Rowe, beaten a neck by Merinai, and fourth in the Dominion to Cedar Fella beaten less than a length. He has been an absolute heartbreak horse but he is very brave," he added.
McGrady, a son of Merinai's sire Tuff Choice who has now won nine races and $113,000, is raced by Auckland's Ken and Mrs Diana Hosgood and the estate of breeder Joan File. He is one of just two foals from Highland Lass, a daughter of Lordship, the maternal sire also of Yulestar. McGrady belongs to a family noted for many fine pacers, but his third dam Bonny Venture was a U Scott half-sister to 1948 Dominion winner Great Venture.
He was previously trained by Bruce File, for whom he last won at Cambridge in July, 1999. "I am really pleased for the owners - everytime Ken would ring I would have somthing wrong to tell him. I have no doubt they will be down here next week now."
Credit: Frank Marrion writing in HRWeekly 16Nov00