From Russia to the winner's circle

By Michael Guerin

A journey half way around the world ended in the Cambridge winner’s circle for Kristina Denifostova on Thursday night.

In one of the more unlikely feature race winning stories in recent New Zealand harness racing history the 25-year-old Russian won her first ever race drive in New Zealand when she piloted Fernleigh Cash to victory in the $25,000 Dunstan Horsefeeds Bay Of Plenty Cup.

And she beat two of out all-time driving greats in Maurice McKendry and David Butcher into the minor placegetters role for good measure.

It wasn’t Denifostova’s first winner, she drove five in her native Russia, where she started working in a stable in Moscow at the age of 15.

“Russian harness racing is for trotters only but we have a national record of 1:54 so they are pretty good,” she says proudly.

“But my boyfriend and I moved here for better work opportunities for him as a builder so I looked up New Zealand harness racing on social media even before I came out here.”

That lead to a long-distance phone call to Pukekohe trainer Derek Balle, who unsurprisingly was “lovely and told us to come see him when we came out.”

Denifostova did that and Balle mentioned it might be worth going to see the north’s biggest stable so the now 25-year-old went to meet Telfer and the Stonewall Stud team.

“Steve was so nice but I didn’t have a work visa so I worked as a volunteer for a few months and everybody was very patient because my English wasn’t that great.”

With hard work came progress and Telfer admits his new stablehand’s passion for the industry was hard to ignore.

“To come this far and to want to work with the horses even when she couldn’t actually be employed was very impressive,” says Telfer.

“So we were happy to give her an opportunity and everybody is stoked for her tonight.”

Denifostova says that support on raceday was one reason she wasn’t too nervous even though her first NZ race drive was in a $25,000 race against some of the legends of the sport.

“In had so many message and the people here are Stonewall and so supportive it made it a lot easier for me,” she says.

The actual race wasn’t going so well in the middle stages when Fernleigh Cash was parked and starting to pull but then stablemate and leader D J Rock galloped and Fernleigh Cash was left in front.

Miki Shan looked set to ruin the fairytale at the top of the straight but he peaked on his run and Fernleigh Cash, and more importantly the young lady from the other side of the world who was willing to work for free, got the win.

“It feels like I am dreaming now, I can’t believe it,” Denifostova told HRNZ.

“I really like the harness racing here and the culture of it and am so happy to be part of it.”

In the very next race the Telfer stable’s smart young trotter Joca’s Hill made it three wins from five starts when bolting away with the $20,000 main trot.

“We think he is a pretty good trotter and only getting better,” says Telfer.

But Joca’s Hill had to settle for a supporting role on Thursday night.

Because a story like Kristina’s is an early contender for one of the best of the harness racing season to come.

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