YEAR: 2000


Almost everyone expected a son of Sundon to win the $20,000 NRM Sires' Stakes Trotters Championship...and one did. But instead of it being the $1.20 hot favourite Dependable, home bowled the $61.85 shot Castleton's Mission.

Castleton's Mission is raced by the 30-member Trotting NZ Syndicate, and the half of them that were there on the night were still in shock some hours later at what their trotter had achieved. "We are just so amazed at the turnaround of this horse in the last couple of weeks," said syndicate manager Mike Gourdie. "This really is a dream come true."

Like his name suggests, Castleton's Mission belongs to the same family as Sir Castleton - his dam Castleton's Dream is a three-quarter sister-in-blood to the former trotting superstar. The gelding was purchased at the sales from Impact Bloodstock's Ron Burrell, and within half an hour Gourdie and trainer Michael House were getting reassurance that they had made a wise choice. "Ron came up to us and said that Castleton's Mission was a very nice horse, and that he really didn't want to sell him," Gourdie recalled. "And once he found out that he was going to be raced by a syndicate, he wanted a share right there and then. Ron was so sure that Castleton's Mission would win races, and pledged that if he didn't I could go around to his place and have any horse out of the paddock I wanted. In the birdcage after Friday's race he said it was a hell of a way to get off a bet."

For Castleton's Mission to even line up last Friday was a mission in itself. Broken in by 'Coaster' Howe, the gelding showed ability virtually from day one. Set for the four main baby trotting races, Castleton's Mission broke in both his lead-up non-tote races during April and was still well down the preference list for last week's event. "It came down to getting him qualified before the acceptances closed, to give him a chance of getting a start," Gourdie said. "So the only opportunity was to trek him down to Oamaru last Sunday. And after a three and a half float trip either way, Michael rang with the good news saying he had won his trial and qualified."

In getting a start in the NRM Trotter's Championship, Castleton's Mission gave the Trotting NZ Syndicate a handy-second stringer. They also race the Sundon-Pleasant Evening gelding Evening Dash, bought at the same sales on their behalf for $12,000 by Weedons trainer/driver Kevin Townley. "Evening Dash had won a mile trial at Ashburton, and ran second to Sun Del in a non-tote here at Addington. With him drawn two and Castleton's Mission put on the unruly after Michael asked him to be, we obviously thought that Dash was going to be our best chance. And we knew they were both up against it with the reputation Dependable had," Gourdie said.

Up against it, but not without a show was the attitude that the syndicate members took into the race. Their hopes for Evening Dash were shattered soon after the start when he broke, but then so did the favourite, losing even more ground. It was left to Castleton's Mission. Five lengths behind the mobile as the field was released, Castleton's Mission was sent around the field passing the 1000m mark and drew up alongside leader Glowing Gold with 700m to run. Second favourite Sun Del was always going sweetly in the trail, but Gourdie's eyes were glued on Castleton's Mission as the leading trio swung for home. "I started to shake," he said. "It was just how the whole race had unfolded. Not only was he suddenly in with a realistic chance, I knew he was good enough. With what we had gone through to get him here tonight, it really was a farytale ending."

Making the result even sweeter for the syndicate was Castleton's Mission's time - his 2:30.2 shaved 0.2 seconds off Dependable's NZ Record set on April 27 when Castleton's Mission finished 58 lengths behind him.

The Trotting NZ Syndicate is the sixth syndicate set up by Gourdie's company Regency Standardbred Syndication since he kicked off two years ago. Their members hail from Christchurch, Wellington, Cambridge, Hamilton, Taranaki and Auckland, one in Australia and four in Japan.

Credit: John Robinson writing in HRWeekly 10May00


YEAR: 2001


On paper, Sunease had cost the least and won the least leading into the PGG Yearling Sales Series Trot. But in less than two and a half minutes, he made a mockery of those two statistics and carried away the biggest slice of the $40,000 prize.

Driven by co-trainer Derek Balle, Sunease sat patiently in the trail as All Action Son and hot-favourite Castleton's Mission undid themselves in front. When the time came for Balle and his gelding to get serious rounding the home bend, they picked up their rivals with big strides and won convincingly. Sunease's time of 2:28.1 equalled Godsun's 3-year-old colts and geldings mark set in April last year.

Raced by Balle's parents Ken and Dawn along with Paul Tenwolde and Euan Lawrie, Sunease cost the quartet only $6000 when purchased at the Sales. None of the four were on-course to witness the victory, but they all showed up at the Balle and Ian Small stable in Pukekohe
the next morning, understandably bubbling about the performance. Small accepted that Castleton's Mission was the standout in the race, but he didn't think it was going to be a benefit for him. "All Sunease had to do was trot all the way and I thought he would win, especially the way he had worked the previous Sunday," Small said.

Small and Balle are in their first full season as training partners, and their combination is working well as there have been 15 victories from the stable so far this term. "Sunease was pretty smart right from the start," Small continued. "He was a really big yearling when he was broken in, and was head-strong with it. We took him to Christchurch as a two-year-old but he was experiencing growing pains and didn't trot that good. Turned out and gelded, he is really starting to fill into his big frame now."

Commenting on Sunease's turn of foot, Small believes the gelding has got a lot more high speed than Martina H, who is also 3-year-old trotter that has been in sparkling form for the royal blue and white silks this season. "Martina H is a nice sort that goes out there and does the job properly, but I still think Sunease would be quicker than her. He has always had a good gear - it is just been a case of getting his head around this racing game."

Both trotters will fly the Balle/Small flag in the NZ Trotting Stakes this Saturday night, and then they are off to Melbourne to chase more of the riches on offer in their age group. "From what I hear, Sunease was jumping out of his skin the next morning, so he should go well again this week," Small said.

Credit: John Robinson writing in HRWeekly 11Apr01


YEAR: 2001


Tony H scooted home along the passing lane to down hotpot Jo Anne and win the $20,000 NRM Sires' Stakes 2yo Trotters Championship. Not only did Tony H give Jo Anne her second taste of defeat, he also wiped a second and a half off her older brother Dependable's national record by trotting the 1950m mobile journey in a quick 2:27.1

The whole race had an eerie deja vu feel to it, because just four weeks earlier the blue and white silks of Balle and his training partner Ian Small were seen coming from exactly the same position when Sunease flew home to grab Castleton's Mission in the shadows of the post. He too was considered by most to be 'a certainty' that night.

"You had to respect Jo Anne, but I never considered her to be a past-the-post," driver Mark Jones said afterwards. "Tony H broke early the week before, but he did trot home nicely after that and I always thought we would be a show if we led early and trailed. This horse has got a lovely attitude," he said.

Credit: John Robinson writing in HRWeekly 09May01


YEAR: 2002

Just Incredible beats Solar Active & Lord Clive

Winning a race at Addington isn't easy. It is even harder when you are an erratic baby trotter who is starting from the unruly mark against a form-packed field. Throw in the fact that you cause a false start when your bit breaks and you are lucky to be brought to a halt at all, then in the re-run you are never any closer to the fence than three-wide for the first 1000 metres. And the icing on the cake hour-long enquiry to determine that you didn't interfere with one of your rivals. This is hardly a recipe for success, especially when you are trying to win a race like the NZ Trotting Stakes. To beat such odds, you have to be just incredible. And that is exactly what this trotter is.

Just Incredible overcame hurdles that seemed insurmountable when he won the Roydon Lodge-sponsored Group 2 event at Addington. Turning for home he was three lengths off the leaders and battling, and he would have been forgiven for feeling the pinch after such a tough trip. But Just Incredible would not be denied, and he picked himself up off the canvas and shot through a gap that was hardly big enough to score by half a length.

The leggy Sundon gelding is trained by Michael House, who also had the co-favourite Lord Clive in the event, which he drove himself. Colin De Filippi was called in to handle Just Incredible on this occasion, and House was regretting even asking him after what transpired on the night. "Just Incredible wears a straight rubber bit. It is the same one that Mighty Khan wore, and it has just been hanging up on the wall ever since," House said. "In his lead-up races he had been bleeding from the mouth, so we changed from a steel bit to the rubber one and got Bill Beck to do a lot of surgery on him a few days out from the Trotting Stakes. Bill pulled a dozen caps, some baby teeth and one bad wolf tooth, so it was quite an extensive operation. For some reason Just Incredible's bit broke in the run-up, and I saw him come through the middle of us. You have just got no control over the horse when this happens, and I really felt for Colin; it's a terrible feeling - you are left with a split second decision whether to hang on, or bail out. Somehow Colin managed to get him behind the mobile barrier, and that brought him to a halt."

Fitted with a replacement bit and bridle, Just Incredible and his rivals wheeled up behind the mobile for a second time. Despite the scare, House was still confident that his other runner could win. "I have always thought that Just Incredible is the best horse in this bunch of 2-year-olds," House continued. "All he needed to do was trot and he would prove it. I told Colin earlier in the week not to drive him pretty, and don't feel sorry for him. Even if he felt silly, I said to him that he could sit in the middle of the track and still win. He is such a great stayer. He has got speed - not just greased lightning speed - but there is not a horse in his grade that I would be scared to sit outside," House said.

Just Incredible is raced by the Mike Gourdie managed Trotting New Zealand Syndicate. Six of the members chipped in to buy the son of Sundon and Last Lord mare Princess Della (two wins) at the Yearling Sales, securing her for $10,000, and leased him back to the syndicate. Following on from their success with Castleton's Mission, Just Incredible is a part of the same plan that House and the syndicate members have... targeting good stakemoney for minimal out-lay. "We just can't compete with the likes of Mark Purdon, who takes home ten great pacing colts from the sales at an average of $40,000 apiece," House said. "But with trotters it is different. For less than half as much you can get yourself a good one, and you can make a big ripple in a little pool. And with trotters, the more you try, the more you get out of them. Trotting in this country is still in it's infancy, but there is so much action for a good horse. I mean, Just Incredible's owners turned down a $50,000 offer for him after his very first trial, and there has been other offers since."

Last Friday's was a bitter-sweet moment for House, despite the fact that he also ran third with Lord Clive in the event. From the promising first crop of the Valley Victory stallion Holdonmyheart, one of three stallions which House stands on behalf of principal owners Clive and Rona McKay, to win the Trotting Stakes with Lord Clive would have been the fairy-tale result. "Lord Clive probably should have won with the trip he had, and fifty metres out I thought he was going to," House said. "But I blame myself for that, because he has been up for too long. The aches and pains in his hocks just took its toll near the finish. I probably wrecked his chances by trying to prove a point at the trials earlier on, and all I can do now is look back and reflect on what might have been."

Credit: John Robinson writing in HRWeekly 22May02


YEAR: 2003


Just Incredible jogged to "his race" in national record time in the $60,000 PGG NZ Yearling Sales 3yo Trot at Addington, but not without his moments. "I said to (Syndicate Manager) Mike Gourdie that this was 'his race' right at the start of the season," said trainer Michael House.

But six weeks ago, Just Incredible went awful in the Hambletonian and House was thinking "this can't be happening now" after everything had been going so perfectly. Just Incredible had been troubled by a cough and House had been at a loss to find someone with a cough mixture, before one day, out of the blue, vet Cliff McGrouther "made up a syrup which turned him around in a week."

Things fell into place nicely then, despite Just Incredible drawing awkwardly behind a number of inexperienced, uninformed and erratic competitors, who did conspire to provide a false start. Last early apart from more breakers was the place to be when Sundon filly Kristalvagen tore through the opening quarter, at which point Colin De Filippi merely had to plot a safe passage. This was as simple as circumnavigating the field as Just Incredible, despite sitting parked over the last lap, was under no sufference at all at the finish, shaving two tenths of a second off Aramid's week old record.

To underline the improving quality of young trotters these days, each of Just Incredible's four races this season have been won in record time. These have been Glenbogle's 2:28.7 (1950m), Thedonsson's unratified 1:58.7 (1609m) and Aramid's 2:27.6 (1950m) prior to Just Incredible. All of which bodes well for an exciting and keenly-fought Trotting Derby this week.

The result of the Sales race though was an outstanding success for the large Trotting NZ Syndicate, which also races Castleton's Mission, and the game in general. The syndicate and another one since with a slightly different mix were the brainchild of Gourdie and House, and given the success to date the enthusiasm from all concerned is hardly surprising. Castleton's Mission and 2-year-old winner Evening Dash were bought in the first year at the sales for $9000 and $12,000 respectively.

The first attempt at a sales race didn't quite go according to plan when Castleton's Mission went from being nine lengths in front and bolting in the run home, to having a go at pacing, but inspired by the success of these Sundon colts, they were back for another one two years later. Their first choice was Sundotcom, but Sir Roy McKenzie went to $18,000 to secure him. But House did like another one later in the day, a colt from Princess Della. "Mike said to me,'but he is such a big colt he won't go early, and he doesn't fit our criteria'," recalls House. "I said yes he does, he is out of a Group-placed mare, and just look at the head on him."

Gourdie was concerned about the fact that Princess Della was by pacing sire Last Lord, and the only known mare by him in production, and wasn't fussed about the name - Incredible Hulk - either. The criteria was that the colts have to be from Group-performed mares or producers. And so Incredible Hulk was acquired for $10,000, and then there was just the simple matter of a name change.

Credit: Frank Marrion writing in HRWeekly 26Mar03


YEAR: 2004


It's all been said before, but it needs to be said again - how much of a equine wonder is Lyell Creek? A champion, a freak, a marvel, great, phenomenal, amazing. They've all been trotted out to desperately describe the feats no other horse has done. Like this report, however, they don't adequately cover his stature as a world class icon.

The horse is 11 - though he could be going on seven. He has been to places most of us only see on the map. He has footed it with the best, and his reputation is legendary. After winning millions, he returned home, and if he wanted it, honourable retirement.

'Lyell' obviously had other ideas. He settled happily into stable life again at Premier Stables, and with the exception of one or two minor hic-cups, he has dominated the ranks of open class trotters in New Zealand. He ran a corker first-up for the season, when his ill-fated stablemate Sonofthedon won, then showed his intolerance of being bustled early with a mulish display on the grass at Motukarara. With others sharing the load in front on Cup Day, Lyell Creek was in his element and showed it with a stylish win over Sumthingaboutmaori.

Would he do the same 10 days later in the $100,000 Southern Trust Dominion Handicap, off 10 metres?

'Lyell' made his intensions known quickly, with such a speedy beginning that had him sixth or seventh, on the outer, after 300 metres. From there, driver Anthony Butt had the race at his mercy. He had Castleton's Mission two places behind him, he'd probably seen Allegro Agitato in a gallop, and he had the classy Australian Sumthingaboutmaori inside him, four deep. He only had to press the button at some time near the corner to turn 'Lyell' loose and set the crowd alight. It all came together swimmingly well, and while Castleton's Mission looked more like his old self with a solid charge from the back, Lyell Creek was on his way to another Dominion win.

"He is just so superior to the others," said Butt, who said his failure back at Motukarara was due to being 'off colour'. "He had a little break, and he's been so healthy since then," he said.

To match his own talent as a horseman, Butt has never been short of a great horse to keep him at the top of the top level. "Blossom Lady - she was the first, Happy Asset and Take A Moment, and now more of 'Lyell'. I mean, to win 16 Group 1 races like he has is unreal. Take A Moment is a great horse, but 'Lyell' is amazing. He's one of those horses you'll never see again."

For the record, it was Butt's sixth successive win in the Dominion Handicap, and it was brother Tim's sixth successive training win. Some record!

Credit: Mike Grainger writing in NZHR Weekly

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