V is for Vodka

A trotter with speed to burn, Vodka was a history-maker.

In 1956 he became the first Standardbred to be taken from New Zealand to race in the USA. He essentially paved the way for Caduceus, Cardigan Bay and countless others. But it wasn’t easy.

The decision to go overseas came after Vodka won at Addington from a 102 yard handicap (93 metres) to win by one and a half lengths. His 58.4 second split was considered to be one of the fastest for a half mile by a trotter at the time.

He also won the Dominion Handicap in 1953.

Foaled in 1947, initially Vodka was a pacer but showed very little talent, and as a three-year-old trotter was very ungainly in his action.

But he improved with age, speed was not his problem, it was more about manners and staying in his gait.

The four week trip across the Pacific was arduous and took its toll. The horse had corn trouble as well as finding it difficult to adapt to new feed, a new climate and surroundings.

Accompanying the horse was owner-trainer-driver Jack Shaw, a colourful character by all accounts who had success with other top trotters like Worthy Queen, and also with a number of thoroughbreds, including champion galloper Beaumaris in the 1950s.

With a background in wrestling he even opened a gym in Auckland in the 1930s.

He was sometimes stubborn, but always stoic, determined to make the ambitious venture to the States succeed.

When they arrived the speedy but erratic Vodka was not in the mood. Down on cash Shaw moved to budget accommodation and lived on hamburgers and coffee, hoping his trotter would come right.

After a first start fifth Vodka won the following week and was on his way, though he never really dominated.

In all Vodka won 11 in the United States for Shaw and then American trainer Earl Nelson. He died in 1958 after badly shattering a pastern at Saratoga Springs, New York.

Appropriately it seems Vodka was very much the “spirited” pioneer.



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