Tiger Tara didn’t deserve to lose last week’s New Zealand Cup.
The Aussie trained eight year old did enough work for three horses, before going under by a lousy head to The Fixer in the second fastest New Zealand Cup in history.
Tiger was surrounded by the intimidating blue livery of the Purdon/Rasmussen juggernaut, which provided four of the first five across the line.
Retired Sydney trainer Norm Lang didn’t have to worry about an outfit like All Stars, when he took Steel Jaw to Christchurch for the 1983 edition of the fabled New Zealand Cup.
Norm has all but disappeared from Sydney harness tracks, but I managed to track him down last week, and it was great to hear the 83 year old, recall his day of days thirty five years ago.
Norm and Steel Jaw didn’t just win the Cup. They annihilated the opposition, to win by twenty metres from Camelot with Bonnie’s Chance third in 4.05.3 for the 3200 metres- a race and track record at the time.
Norm Lang had never heard of Steel Jaw until April 1983, when a friend Peter Stanmore, told him the horse was on the market in Victoria for just $5,000. “On checking his form, my first reaction was to give him a miss”, recalled Norm. “He’d had eleven runs for two placings, and had actually fallen in his most recent start. He was one of five horses to hit the deck in a race at Wangaratta. Further research revealed that he did have some ability, and was worth a try at the price. Two of my owners Stan Everett and Ossie Marr decided to take the punt”.
Norm’s confidence took a further dive when he discovered the rising five year old, had been cross firing on the near fore fetlock joint. Not so common nowadays, cross firing was a gaiting problem dreaded by old time trainers. It occurs when a hind foot swings inwards too far, and strikes the diagonally opposite front leg, usually on the fetlock joint or lower. The trainer discovered deep seated soreness in the sesamoid region, and immediately put Steel Jaw in the paddock.
When the gelding was ready to hopple next time in, Norm enlisted the aid of master farrier Tom Dillon. Nowadays trotting shoes are made in all shapes and sizes, but old timers like Tom made shoes to fit the horse.
He quickly designed a set of hinds for Steel Jaw, which were heavier than normal on the outside, and featured extending “trailers” at the heel. Tom soon had the four year old pacing cleanly, and Norm was able to get on with the job of conditioning him.
The Gaviland gelding won first up at a Harold Park midweek meeting on August 2nd 1983. Nobody associated with him, would have imagined what this horse would achieve over the next three and a half months.
He won fifteen straight races, by which time he’d rampaged through his classes and had inherited the nickname of “the Mittagong Mauler”. The unthinkable happened at his next run, when he was beaten for the first time in sixteen starts. “He ran third at Harold Park to Gammalite and Willadios, and after all these years I think I can tell you the reason for that defeat”, said Norm Lang. “He got out of his yard during the previous night, and gorged himself on green grass. He would have been pretty uncomfortable on the night”.
He tasted defeat again at his next run, but this was one of his best ever performances. It was the Craven Filter Sprint at Albion Park, and he ran into the exciting Popular Alm. “I all but crossed him at the start, and it may have been the difference between winning and losing”, said Norm. “He lost a hind shoe on the first turn, and wasn’t balanced for the rest of the race. He got beaten only eight metres into second place, and finished in front of horses like Gammalite, Bundanoon and Double Agent”.
Norm decided on one more run at Harold Park before departing for New Zealand, and for a few seconds early in the race it looked like a bad decision. Old Double Agent crossed too sharply after the start of the Golden Mile, and brought down the west Aussie pacer Smooth Dave. Steel Jaw came through off the second row, and contacted Smooth Dave’s sulky. Norm was “tipped out” without injury, but was horrified to see his Cup hopeful loose. Steel Jaw’s perfect temperament was never more evident, as he slowed down and waited for the clerk of the course to pick him up.
Before he knew it, Norm was in Christchurch where Steel Jaw worked stylishly and was given plenty of standing start practice. “When the tapes were released in the New Zealand Cup he stepped safely but was just a bit tentative for a few strides”, recalled Norm. “Once he felt balanced, I let him stride to the front, and apart from Hands Down having a dip for the lead mid race I had no real worries. He was as strong as a lion down the straight, but I couldn’t believe he’d won by such a huge margin”.
Like many New Zealand Cup winners, Steel Jaw backed up three days later in the Free For All, but missed a place after a torrid run. He did so well that Norm decided to back him up eight days later in a Group 2 feature. This time he led comfortably, and ran out an easy winner to round off a memorable NZ campaign.
Back in Mittagong, Norm was able to give his Cup winner a brief let up, before getting him ready for the Western Australian Pacing Cup. He led throughout to win his heat at Gloucester Park, before tackling a classy field in the final. Steel Jaw missed a place, and pulled up very sore in that troublesome near fore joint.
Sadly his legion of fans were never to see him again. The trainer tried desperately to get him back to the races, but it was obvious the gallant gelding’s racing days were over.
Steel Jaw was certainly the best horse Norm Lang trained in his long career, but he developed the talents of many other notable performers. Sparkling Princess was the mare to launch his career, and to give him his first Harold Park success in 1965.
The master trainer was always acknowledged for his ability to keep horses up for long periods. An early example was Dymontee, who won a massive thirty races for the Lang stable, as did Elegant Jamie. Dynamite King won twenty five, and in later years Alfa Beat scored seventeen times.
Bondi Bill didn’t win as often as the aforementioned, but he did manage to win the 1981 NSW Pacers Final.
Norm trained some talented mares during his career, including Magic Symbol, Alice Petersen, and the genuine Trudee. A daughter of Albert Albert, Trudee won twenty one races, and got to a very tight mark at Harold Park.
Norm drove his horses right through to the 1991/92 season, when major back surgery forced him out of the sulky. He continued to train for another seventeen years, with Greg Bennett and Glenn McElhinney doing the bulk of the race driving.
In the ten years following his retirement, he’s endured two more major back operations and the loss of a kidney. He now lives in Goulburn, and all things considered is pretty happy with his lot in life. “I’m playing lawn bowls three or four times a week, and my game is improving”, said the former top trainer.
If it continues to improve, he might be tempted to return to NZ and have another crack at those Kiwis on the bowling green.