Coaster, a man of the people
By Garrick Knight
Come Tuesday, the big stables will attract the most attention on New Zealand Cup day at Addington, and rightly so.
Rolleston’s Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen will likely train half the card, and will probably win the day’s $750,000 feature with either of the pre-post favourites, Thefixer and Spankem.
Woodend’s Robert and John Dunn have an arsenal of contenders that could see them win a couple of features or least a few on the under card, too.
But one local man with a much smaller team is also in the mix and in fact will line up a horse in both the Cup and the day’s feature trot, the Group 1 Trotting Free For All.
John Howe, universally known as ‘Coaster’, is a man of the people and if either Didjabringthebeers or Nandolo can find their way in to the money on Tuesday, it will take him half an hour to get back to the stable, such will be the number of hands he has to shake.
Loyal as they come, well-liked by his peers and a real social butterfly, that’s Coaster.
He wasn’t even really meant to be a full-time professional trainer. But he made it so fun for those involved with him that eventually he couldn’t hold out on it any longer.
“I suppose I’ve been in the game for 25 years or so.
“I used to break in 80 or 90 a year but was really only training one or two at a time.
“It was really only doing the odd one for the Smiths, who own Nandolo.
“But I kept getting more and more horses from them and eventually decided to have a real crack.”
He’s now trained 175 winners and last season’s 19 was a career-best.
His association with fellow ‘West Meltoners’, Phil and Christine Smith started over a beer at their local watering hole, The Swamp.
“They were locals at the pub and one day they approach me over a beer and asked if I would train a few for them as their current trainer, Kevin Fairbairn, was semi-retiring.
“And it’s just grown from there, really.
“They’ve been bloody great for me and it’s all come from socializing.”
Nandolo is one of the outsiders in the Cup, but clock-watchers have been quietly impressed with his last two runs in open company and there is a real belief that he can snag some prize money with the right trip.
“Ideally, the plan will be to lob three-fence behind two favourites.
“I would have thought that was his perfect trip, but do plans ever really fall in to place?”
Nandolo, a five-year-old by Betterthancheddar, has found himself in the top grade a year quicker than expected, but he has flourished.
“I always thought he would be a cup horse, but probably next year.
“Then when the time came for his first race for the season, they capped the field at rating 80 and he was an 81, so he went in with the big boys.”
Nandolo is a horse that has been prone to switching off at times, especially in front, but the hot speed of the top grade, and being driven in behind, has unleashed him, according to Howe.
“He can reef or pull, or he can be lazy, so we’ve made some gear changes as well for this season and they seem to have worked.”
That Howe still has Nandolo to train is thanks to the patience and loyalty of the Smiths, who have, understandably, been overwhelmed with big offers previously for the horse.
“The offers have been pretty regular. They turned down good money when he was three. I know because I was there when it came through.
“Then I think the same buyers came back later and offered more.
“But they’re in it for the fun and thrill of racing; they’re real passionate people and enjoy going to the races.”
Loyalty is a fine thing in the racing game. Often talked about, not always enacted.
But in the case of trotter Didjabringthebeers, Howe has stuck with a young driver just out of the junior ranks when he could easily have handed the reins to a more experienced driver.
Kim Butt has driven him in all 15 of his runs this year and it’s never been a consideration to take her off, according to Howe.
“She drove him in a junior drivers’ race this time last year and drove him really well to win.
“Terry Chmiel had been driving him to that point and he got back on, but then he broke his ankle in the Show Day smash last year.
“So, I said to the owners, how about we give Kim another go? And we haven’t looked back since.”
Butt, naturally, couldn’t be more appreciative as she gets ready for her first Group 1 drive on Tuesday.
“I can’t thank them enough for letting me stay on the horse; they could have easily have gone back to Terry when he returned to driving.
“But that’s the stable for you. They’re pretty relaxed owners, just like Coaster.
“It actually takes the pressure off heading in to Cup week with the Free For All and the Dominion.
“You don’t worry about messing up for them, because there is no pressure.
“Coaster is one best people I’ve ever driven for, actually. He’s very chill and never gives you any instructions.“
The fact Howe has two horses in Group 1s from a comparatively small team is testament to his training ability, Butt reckons.
“He sort of goes under the radar a bit, and he only does a smallish team, so it’s no mean feat to have two horses in the biggest races of the year.
“And you’ll never find someone to say a bad word about Coaster.
“Everybody knows him and everybody loves him. Anywhere he goes, he’ll find a group of people and fit right in.
“You just couldn’t find a nicer bloke.”