Peter Baken - one of harness racing's more colourful characters
By Rob Courtney
Every sport has its personalities and one of the most identifiable figures in Canterbury harness racing is (and has been for sometime) Peter Baken, known to many across the country as 'rabbit'.
From administrators, trainers and drivers to fellow owners, there wouldn't be many harness enthusiasts who didn't recognise Baken with his dapper wardrobe and immaculate accessories including 'the hat'.
One only has to spend time in the company of the man to sense his passion and commitment to harness racing and his energy levels and knowledge on our sport are infectious to say the least.
"I remember being taken to the races by my parents when I was five back in the fifties and collecting empty fizz bottles and redeeming them on course.
"The buzz and excitment surrounding those days, when attending a race meeting in Canterbury was a major social event, have been with me all my adult life," Peter proudly retold.
His 'work' background for most of his adult life has been immersed in the local fruit and vege scene, initially with his own Christchurch outlets before moving into wholesale and working for himself before he turned 30, to the point where he had 15 staff on the payroll before selling up in 2017 to NZ company Service Foods.
Now into his 70's, Peter's day still begins no later than 5.30am and his many years of expertise in the trade still has him employed by the company but the work has evolved, to ordering on the phone rather than attending the historical early morning auctions back in the day.
Peter Baken has shares in a lot horses !!
"I have only ever owned one horse outright. I really enjoy having fun in racing my horses with other people because it is the people you meet that makes harness racing so great", he says.
The first winner Baken had was a horse Bob McArdle imported from Australia called Tudela Bromac by Golden Kenny who won four for Peter, his Dad, his uncle, and a mate.
There are no scrapbooks but he does keep a log/database and the winning numbers are well into three figures.
"I buy the photo of each horse's first win and if lucky enough to win a Group race then I get those photos as well.
"Last year alone I had 33 wins and 59 placings and the team is currently spread over nine stables".
'Rabbit' doesn't get involved in the breeding side of the sport at all but post yearling sales, the phone line historically heats up as the 'offers' come in, trying to convince him to extend his racing portfolio.
To date, he rates Chase Auckland's Sires Stakes win on cup day as a mighty thrill although it was a very big ownership group and A G's White Socks has been a very good horse to his ownership group who still retain ownership shares despite the Rock n Roll Heaven - Atomic Gold gelding now racing across the Tasman.
"He has won four of his last five in Victoria and is close to winning $100k this season alone".
The former Hope trained Group 1 performer is approaching $700k in lifetime earnings.
Of the 'current team', Baken rates Vessem as a very promising horse who has won three from three from the Purdon stable and looks a real prospect for later in the year.
Others worthy of a mention at this stage of their careers are the Purdon trained young trotters and full relations High Energy and High Step, both bought into courtesy of a great friendship with Breckon Farms.
And after last Sunday at Addington, Peter's latest impressive winner Bet N Win, trained by the Whites, looks like a young horse with a real future.
And what advice would the 'Rabbit' give to industry leaders of his beloved harness racing at this time?
"The clubs and trainers need to work together as one. There is definitely a need to get around the same table and work together for the benefit of our great sport."