Amateur drivers’ champs kick off at Cambridge
By Garrick Knight
The Canterbury branch of amateur drivers will look to record their sixth-straight national championship when the 2019 edition kicks off at Cambridge on Thursday night.
It’s the first of three meetings encompassed in the series, the other two coming next weekend at Addington and Rangiora.
Peter Cook is one of the six-strong Canterbury squad tasked with continuing their recent run of successes, most recently by last year’s joint winners, Colleen Negus and Neil Munro.
And he’s a little nervous about what will be his first drives in the North Island.
“There’s a little bit of trepidation there; I’m out of my comfort zone a wee bit.
“I’ll be driving other people’s horses on a track I don’t know.
“But I’m also looking forward to it; I’m sure it will be an enjoyable experience.”
Cook has the chance for an early points grab with two decent drives at Cambridge in the form of Bella Roza, a former Canterbury mare now trained by Arna Donnelly, and Brooke’s Image for Kyle Marshall.
Bookies have been generous with Bella Roza, offering up a $13 opening quote when the markets opened on Thursday night.
She broke both days at Hawera but has put in two confidence building runs at Cambridge and Auckland in the past few weeks.
“I know she won on the grass at Oamaru, and won quite well, so I can only put the Hawera gallops down to the fact it was wet.
“I actually know one of her owners, Mike Prendergast, very well, and it would be great to do well for him.”
It’s a very open race, ripe for a bit of an upset, and bookies installed El Capitan (Warren Rich) as a loose $3.80 favourite on Thursday afternoon.
The second heat is where Cook could make a move as he partners with in-form mare Brooke’s Image, who has drawn well at barrier two.
She’s got the gate speed to take advantage, but Cook is a wee bit mindful of the horse inside him.
“I’m concerned because I’ve raced Pegasus Kommander before and he can leave the gate like he’s nailed to it.
“I haven’t spoken to Kyle yet but I’ll just drive her to his instructions.”
Negus, who also won the title solo in 2017 and is shooting for a hat-trick of wins, has drawn A Better Dancer ($31) and Romanite ($5).
Her and Munro are the only two previous winners to take part in this year’s championship, the drivers decided on a points system from tote races throughout the season.
For Cook it’s his first time attempt and he’s not going to die wondering.
“I’ve never been in it before, and I probably won’t again – it’s only because of my consistency with quite a lot of minor placings that I qualified.
Amateur driver tote racing does tend to polarize opinion and Cook says criticism levelled their way at times can be quite hurtful.
“Like anybody, if we get criticism, we take it on board.
“But we can’t be expected to be like the professionals when we drive twice a month and they drive twice in half an hour.
“I think the standards have improved a lot in recent seasons, as has the attitude towards it.
“Obviously being tied up with the horseman’s association, I would be in a lot of their meetings where the amateurs would be slagged off something terrible.
“And to be honest, I probably joined in a bit.
“But now, being on the other side of the fence as well, I don’t think it is quite the plague that some make out.
“With regular racing and plenty of practice the drivers are getting better and better.”
As for the hardest to beat, Cook notes the Wigg sisters, Sheryl and Cheree, have to be respected on their home track.
“And from our group, Blair Wilmott is always hard to beat – he’s a pretty smart driver – and Alan Edge, too.”
Pokeno horseman Ival Brownlee Snr met with great disappointment earlier this week when he was the driver to miss out in the first heat and then his horse was scratched out of the second heat.
So, he will be on the sidelines this week and take a median points score through to next week’s racing.