Jonny Turner: Special Forbury Park memories

By Jonny Turner

There is no place quite like Forbury Park and there will never be another.

Generations of harness racing supporters will leave behind special memories at the Dunedin track when its 111-year run as a harness venue comes to an end tonight.

Few tracks in the modern era have been the subject of as much debate as Forbury Park.

It is easy to understand why given the Forbury Park club has effectively been in a fight for its survival for the past four decades.

The reality for the last five or more years has been that it simply can’t sustain its own future.

Many successful and skilled people have poured their time into the club but the reality is the challenges of maintaining a costly night racing venue and the pressures from within and outside of the industry are too great.

It's easy for those who haven’t been part of the inner fabric to dismiss the significance of Forbury Park.

The huge crowds of yesteryear are gone, the hosting of the 1965 Interdominion seems a lifetime ago and New Zealand’s best pacers have barely set foot on its sandy track in the past two decades.

What once was a premier metropolitan track with its grandstands full now presents a much more humbling and ageing scene.

The Forbury Park we know today is the home of the battler.

But not the battling trainer or driver.

Dexter Dunn, the architect of hundreds of brilliant drives at the track, certainly doesn’t fit into that category.

Neither does the strike rate king Graeme Anderson, who has reeled out as many smart horses as he has put lengths on horses that certainly were battlers before he got them.

Phil Williamson is no battler and neither are the stars like One Over Kenny and Majestic Man who have debuted at Forbury Park.

Neither are Williamson’s sons Nathan, Matthew and Brad, who have gone from fresh-faced youngsters to elite reinsman after cutting their teeth at Forbury Park.

The home of the battler most certainly refers to the horses that have graced the track over the past two to three decades.

These horses might not mean a lot to the wider harness racing industry looking for its next pinup pacer or even the punters that back them from afar.

But they mean a hell of a lot to those that trek them hundreds of kilometres to Dunedin’s bright harness racing lights.

More often than not more blood, sweat, tears, hours, training and dedication have gone into the battlers that win at Forbury Park than wins at venues with bigger names.

The thrill of the forty-start maiden, the rising nine-year-old or the unsound battler crossing the line first at Forbury brings a joy to harness racing people like no other.

Its not Lazarus winning the New Zealand Cup, but so often the wins are richly deserved, hard fought and sometimes a massive surprise.

Everyone would love to race a star, but the reality is there are too few to go around.

Owners love the horses they have and trip up and down state highway one at all hours of the day and night to give their pride and joy its winning chance.

And that is what Forbury Park has offered, the chance to win that simply hasn’t been available elsewhere.

And when those dedicated owners and trainers get their winning thrill it is no less than anywhere else.

In fact, it is even greater because of what went into it.

The smiles on the faces of the hundreds of people I have interviewed at Forbury Park have told me that.

And I know it all too well myself.

Most of my very small number of wins as an owner and breeder have come at Forbury Park.

One of my favourite moments in harness racing came when I was screaming at the top of my lungs late on a Thursday night, in the freezing cold, to cheer my ten-year-old previously retired pacer, certainly no superstar, to win a claiming race, the ultimate battle of the battlers.

Forbury Park has offered that kind of thrill to hundreds upon hundreds of owners over the years.

The generation before mine still has the memories of Robin Dundee, Jay Ar and Poupette and of cars lining the home straight and huge lines just to get a bet on.

But as those recollections fade the ones that will last a little longer will be of the many underdogs that have had their time in the spotlight.

Unfortunately, there can only be as many as 10 more of those stories after tonight’s meeting.

Let’s hope more winning thrills are had and more special memories are made.

Farewell Forbury Park and thank you for my thirty years of highlights.

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