Country Championships Story Continues To Unfold

“Isn’t it amazing how the Country Championships has just gone from strength to strength.”

Greg Bennett, 2016 Country Championships-winning trainer, sums up the feeling of most in country racing about the impact the annual series has had across the state.

And for its tenth renewal, in 2024, the Newhaven Park Country Championships Final (1400m), run at Royal Randwick on April 6, is a $1 million race.

The inaugural edition, won by Artlee, was run for $300,000. It jumped to $500,000 a year later and now the series offers a total of $2.35 million through the seven regional Championships, two Wild Cards and the rich finale.

Newhaven Park has been the sponsor, and one of the biggest supporters, since 2017 and hosts its must-attend cocktail party on the eve of the Final at the Doncaster Hotel for connections of all runners.

It’s an event that was raised by many of those on the honour roll and is very much the talk of the series when horses qualify for Randwick, as we asked them to look back on their Country Championships experience.

Artlee and Mitchell Bell winning the inaugural Country Championships Final in 2015. (Pic: Bradley Photos).

Mitchell Bell still regards winning the 2015 Country Championships Final on Artlee as one of his career highlights.

After finishing unplaced in the H&NWRA Championships the gelding, trained by Todd Willan, was a beneficiary of the introduction of the Wild Card which he duly won before a runaway victory at Randwick.

The Wild Card was created to give horses a second chance when King Derota was a late scratching from the Central Districts race at Bathurst.

“It was a great concept back then and it just proves how good it is because it’s lasted this long,’’ Bell said.

“A lot of good horses have come out if it, the hype around it is still the same.”

Bell went to Randwick confident of success and says it was a huge moment for him and Willan to snare such a lucrative race.

“When he turned up at the Wild Card and showed what he could do we all knew he was in with a good chance,’’ he said.

“Todd and I had a great relationship prior to him training and it was just great, when we pulled it off it meant so much more.”

Artlee won the Listed Luskin Star Stakes, now considered something of an Everest pointer, at Scone at his next start and posted placings up to Group 2 level.

Greg Bennett hung up his training hat about six months after Clearly Innocent overcame a horror build up to the race that could easily have seen him miss the Final he would go on to win so easily.

He’d won five of his seven starts heading into the 2016 decider and was a firm early favourite but feet trouble put him on the doubtful list and it was touch and go for a couple of days.

That doubt saw him drift in betting but an inspired Tommy Berry ride saw Clearly Innocent race away to a 2-1/2 length win.

Greg Bennett, trainer of 2016 winner Clearly Innocent. (Pic: Steve Hart)

“He’d been the pinup boy of country racing for the six months leading into it,’’ Bennett said.

“I rang the stewards and said we’re coming, he’s right, and they said he still had to be vetted. We got there and then it came out he had bar plates on and Duff (Ron Dufficy) went into the fetal position.

“He was an amazing horse, he had a checkered start to his life but from day one he was always able to gallop.”

Bennett said he knew that Country Championships was going to be his last as a trainer and described the win as “euphoric”.

Clearly Innocent also won the Luskin Star Stakes at his next start and later that year Bennett sent him to Kris Lees where the gelding would realise his Group 1 potential winning the Kingsford Smith Cup in 2017.

Of course, the horse is now a 12-year-old and has been retired a few years but he’s living life at Cressfield Stud in the Hunter Valley looking after the colts on the farm.

Coffs Harbour trainer Cathleen Rode looks back on Free Standing’s upset win in the 2017 with fondness – after all you don’t win a $500,000 race every day.

There wasn’t any pressure on the horse from a public point of view, he was sent out a $31 chance after running second to Perfect Dare to qualify for Randwick, but Rode said ‘Charlie’ was spot on for the day and received a 10/10 steer from Blake Shinn.

“I was nervous of course. He had a good jockey on and I couldn’t have asked for a better ride,’’ she said.

“I was elated, shocked, when he won.”

Unfortunately, Free Standing only raced four more times after his Country Championships win and Rode, the first female trainer to win the race, says horses like him are hard to find.

Especially when you only have small numbers. So, naturally, she said winning that Final is something she’s proud of.

“The most I’ve ever had was 10 in work a long time ago. Otherwise, they’re just family horses,’’ she said.

“My partner had to break him in, and he was a handful, we educated him and got him there. We’re all proud of ourselves.”

As the 2018 Country Championships approached, Jenny Graham was confident she had a strong team of horses in the shape of Victorem, Awesome Pluck, and Portatorio which would give her a big chance of claiming the title.

When the trio ran one, two, three, at Port Macquarie everything was looking rosy, but it all went “pear shaped” very quickly.

Victorem wins the 2017 Country Championships Final. (Pic: Steve Hart).

Awesome Pluck was ruled out and then just as she’d confirmed Portatorio would replace him in the Final that horse also had a setback and left Graham with just Victorem in the race.

History shows that one horse was enough and, at just his sixth race start, Victorem turned the race into a one act affair. He’s a horse that Graham, currently not training, loves talking about.

“It brings tears to my eyes still because it was something I didn’t think could be possible,’’ she said.

“To be honest I really didn’t want to face anyone on the day, I wanted to stay by myself. I was very, very, nervous because naturally he was one of the favourites in the race.

“When he got clear running, I thought he’s only got to show his turn of foot and he’ll be there and Ben (Looker) got him out at the right time and the rest is history.”

Victorem trained on to win three times at stakes level, including a Group 2, and contested the first two runnings of The Kosciuszko, finishing second in 2019.

He’s currently with Graham’s daughter Melinda Turner being retrained for a post-racing future.

Noble Boy made it to Randwick the hard way in 2019 despite long being one of the favourites for the Country Championships.

He suffered his first career defeat when he was unplaced at Goulburn as an odds-on shot and his trainer Todd Blowes had to make the trip from Queanbeyan to Muswellbrook for a last chance in the Wild Card.

Hugh Bowman travelled north to take the ride, he gained a spot in the Final then turned the big race into a one-act affair.

Part-owner Gray Cocking, a farrier who used to work on champion Takeover Target, said he knew from the moment he saw Noble Boy he wanted to go along for the ride.

“I knew Todd before he came to Queanbeyan,’’ Cocking said.

“He had this raw four-year-old Bon Hoffa horse he didn’t have owners for, and I shod him. I took 20 per cent and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.

“When you have a share in a good horse everyone wants to have a chat to you about it, it was an exciting run.

“It’s something we dreamed of after he won his first couple of Highways. The whole way along we were thinking we had a Country Championships horse and it all came together on race day.”

The Country Championships experience was a surreal one for Matthew Dunn – the 2020 edition was run at the start of the Covid pandemic, and he was forced to watch Gracie Belle win the race from home in Murwillumbah.

Gracie Belle (grey) wins the Newhaven Park Country Championships Final of 202. (Pic: Bradley Photos).

It was something of a breakthrough for Dunn, who had made a habit of dominating the Northern Rivers Championships but coming up short when they made it to Randwick.

Gracie Belle started her career in North Queensland and came to Dunn with a handy record, though not one that necessarily screamed Country Championships winner but she gained her chance when she finished second behind Plonka at Grafton.

“She came down to me with some patchy form and had some bad racing habits, but we ironed them out and away she went,’’ Dunn said.

“She just got up on the line, up the inside. We’d won plenty of the heats going into that but never managed to get the right tracks or right barriers on Final day so it was very satisfying to get it done.”

Dunn, who is back in the Country Championships fold in 2024 after a couple of years with a city stable, said while nobody could be there to celebrate the win he’s proud of how his team handled a difficult time.

“Everything was upside down and inside out, we had a team of horses in Sydney at the time to try and place horses in races,’’ he said.

“There was a lot of work going into things to keep things rolling, nobody knew if racing was going to continue at the time. It was a great day for the stable and a great day for the owners.”

Trainer Terry Robinson recently made the decision to retire his 2021 Country Championships hero Art Cadeau, a horse that rose quickly through the ranks in what turned out to be an amazing year for his connections.

He won both of country racing’s biggest prizes – just six months after his Country Championships win he became the first to complete The Kosciuszko double.

Robinson said the race itself worked out a lot better than the build up to it and when Tommy Berry was allowed to control he knew the gelding’s class would shine through.

“We had a mixed week leading into the Final, a couple of things didn’t go right and I was extremely concerned he wasn’t quite 100 per cent,’’ he said.

“Fortunately enough, the race panned out really well. We found ourselves in front, which was perfect, and once he led I was confident he’d get the job done.

“We were always confident he had plenty of ability, even though he wasn’t always impressive in his work when you got to the races he knew how to perform.”

Art Cadeau’s pursuer in the 2021 edition was Another One, and Gary Colvin’s stable star would be back a year later to go one better. He did just that.

Another One and Nick Heywood after winning the 2022 Newhaven Park Country Championships Final. (Pic: Bradley Photos)

The gelding became the first horse to win two SDRA Championships when he defended his crown on his home track at Wagga in 2022 and trainer Gary Colvin had the sense it would be his time.

“When you’ve done it you just feel so relieved,’’ Colvin said.

“We were stoked when he ran second but to come back the next year and win it was better. He has a great mob of owners, they’re from everyone, and they’re having a great time.”

Now a six-year-old, Another One continues to bring in the cheques for his connections while Colvin looks for his next Country Championships contender.

“The prizemoney is unbelievable now and you get a good horse and win races like that you get a chance to win $1 million and he’s still going,’’ he said.

“The country horses are bringing the punters back. You look at the Highways, the Country Championships, the punters love them and that’s why they can afford to put the race up to $1 million.”

Dubbo trainer Brett Robb says he’s used to being the underdog but he hopes Sizzle Minizzle’s surprise win in last year’s Country Championships has earned the Western District some respect.

Sizzle Minizzle was a three-year-old who went into the WRA Championships at Coonamble on the back foot but the fact he was able to qualify by running second gave Robb encouragement he could improve further.

But when rain arrived in Sydney in the lead up it dampened any hopes he thought he had.

“The preparation was really mixed around,’’ Robb said.

“We’re always the underdogs out here. He was a $71 chance and I didn’t think he could handle the wet. I thought we had no chance.

“When he saluted I didn’t know what to do. I honestly couldn’t believe it.

“It’s just a big thing for us being there and to bring the trophy home for the Western District was a big thing too.”

* Thanks to Graeme White, Gary Kliese, Ben Walker & Gavin Carmody.

– *This article originally appeared in the March 2024 edition of the Racing NSW magazine

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