The last few months of 2008 passed very slowly for a certain Shepparton schoolgirl, who couldn’t wait to follow her dream.

Rebecca Bartley’s mother Chris, had agreed to let her daughter leave the Kyabram Secondary School, on the proviso she would complete Year 10.

Rebecca was anxious to get started on a job organised by her father David, with horse trainer Stephen O’Donoghue at his Morley Park Stud and Training Stables, at nearby Kialla.

Like many successful harness racing drivers around Australia, the teenager’s passion for standardbred horses had been ignited by her involvement with the pony trots.

With the support of devoted parents, Rebecca and her sisters Ellen and Lisa, had competed at many local events, and as far afield as Mildura and Adelaide.

Rebecca with her super pony Princess - still alive at 35

Rebecca with her super pony Princess - still alive at 35

Stephen O’Donoghue clearly recalls young Rebecca’s early days at Morley Park, and says she was hell-bent on a career in harness racing from the outset. “This girl has loved the game from the first day she set foot on the place”, recalled the trainer. “She’s been very patient, has never questioned my decisions, and has applied herself to every task”.

Stephen and his brother David established Morley Park in 1982, on two hundred prime acres in the Goulburn Valley, and the property has been utilised as a commercial stud, and training centre ever since.

Stephen has prepared some very talented horses at Morley Park, including Monique Morley, winner of the SA and Victoria Oaks double in 1987. The filly won seven races in total, driven exclusively by Stephen’s brother David.

Another very nice filly to come off Morley Park was Staccato (Christian Cullen- Ailsa), who won thirteen races, and posted fifteen placings for $393,000. She won two heats of the APG in 2007, before finishing fourth to Kept For Pleasure in the final at Albion Park.

A few months later she scored a brilliant win in the Breeder’s Crown 2YO final at Ballarat by a widening ten metres. The following year, Staccato turned the tables on Kept For Pleasure in the Vicbred 3YO at Moonee Valley.

Another of O’Donoghue’s favourites is Triple Vance, winner of an impressive twenty races, including the 2006 Tatlow Stakes, and an Ouyen Pacing Cup.

Stephen shows the same patience with his staff, as he does with his horses. He and his wife Anne took Rebecca along slowly, and it seemed an eternity before she was allowed to sit in a trotting sulky. “From the moment she jumped in the gig, you could see she was an absolute natural’, reflected Steve.

Time passed slowly, and it was almost two years before Steve decided she was ready to “drive for her ticket”, which required twenty five trial drives, including five from a standing start.

Rebecca’s very first trial drive

Rebecca’s very first trial drive

With each trial outing, Rebecca had to have her papers signed by an officiating steward, and it was one excited girl who lined up for that twenty fifth signature.

Driver R. Bartley had to go all the way to Albury for her first race drive. She didn’t tell anybody, but she would have gone to Ayers Rock if necessary. Her drive was La Moray, one of her perennial favourites, who led to win a heat of the “Border Battlers” series. She went on to win five straight on the gelding, and a total of fifteen over the next two and a half years.

Her first winning drive at Melton, albeit at a transferred St. Arnaud’s meeting, was on Triple Vance in a C4/C5 event. Donson, No Encore, Shakahari, Shakchloe and Theywannacallmesue were other important early winners for the enthusiastic young driver.

Bec is adamant that her participation in two important representative promotions were the making of her as a driver. She competed in a 2014 Victorian Junior Drivers series, winning four of five heats to give her the title.

A year earlier she’d competed in the Australian Young Drivers series in NSW, won by Western Australia’s Chris Voak. Bec won a heat at Bathurst, and found the experience very rewarding.

Rebecca in the Victorian colours before Australasian Junior Championship 2013

Rebecca in the Victorian colours before Australasian Junior Championship 2013

The tall, rangy Mach Three colt, later named San Carlo, has been on Morley Park all his life. The late Jack Eichhorn agisted his mares on the property for many years, and the progeny would be reared and broken in, under the watchful eye of Stephen O’Donoghue.

Right from the start, the Mach Three had “nuisance” written all over him. Stephen broke him in with many a frustration along the way, then turned him out hoping he’d be better next time. He wasn’t. “He’d go past a tree a hundred times, and still “shy” at it, on the last circuit”, recalled Rebecca Bartley. “He was difficult to get a bridle on, and was touchy and spooky every day”.

Several preparations followed, with only marginal improvement. When he started to bowl along in the hopples, he would gallop for no reason, and his trainer’s patience was fast running out. Eventually he “hit the pace”, and after a few trouble free weeks Stephen decided to take him to the trials. “He was an early three year old when we finally got to the trials, and it didn’t take him long to break our hearts again”, said Rebecca.” We trialled several times, and he galloped several times. Steve was sick to death of him by this stage, and took drastic action. He had him gelded, and turned him out on acreage with the broodmares”.

The horse named after Rome’s seventeenth century church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane, returned to work as a four year old. For the first time the gangly gelding gave his trainer a flicker of hope. He was still on the touchy side, but his manners were much improved.

Stephen O’Donoghue fast works San Carlo at Morley Park

Stephen O’Donoghue fast works San Carlo at Morley Park

Stephen gives Ellen Davis a lot of the credit for San Carlo’s improved attitude. Ellen was a staff member at the time, and spent a lot of time with the quirky gelding. She handled him every day, slowly gaining his confidence.

The four year old had two trials before finally going to the races, and did nothing to write home to mother about.

June 14th, 2015 was a significant day for trainer O’Donoghue and driver Bartley. The big fellow lined up in a very mediocre RO/R1 at Bendigo from the outside of the front row. He crossed to the “death”, and parked throughout, before careering away to win by ten metres in a 1.58.6 mile rate, and a closing quarter of 27.8. “I couldn’t believe this was the same horse who’d given us so much heartache”, recalled Rebecca. “He felt like he’d had ten starts. He did everything perfectly, and felt so strong in the straight”.

The transformation in San Carlo was spectacular. He won his first five straight, before a huge jump in class to a $50,000 Gr 2 at Melton. He had little luck from a second row draw, before hitting the line strongly for fifth, fifteen metres behind Hector Jay Jay. “This was the race that told me we had a pretty good horse on our hands”, recalled Rebecca.

“He was just warming up on the line, and felt very strong”.

Stephen turned him out again, and the big fellow wasn’t seen for some seven months. Another six straight wins followed, and horsemen everywhere were talking about the “good horse from Shepparton”.

He was beaten into third place but not disgraced, in a “hot” FFA at Melton behind Amaretto and Tee Cee Bee Macray. He was three wide from the bell, and made the race for Amaretto who never left his back. Two more quick wins followed, before an unplaced effort in a strong Victoria Cup - his starting odds of $34.60 emphasise just how strong. He finished sixth, eleven metres behind Lenny The Shark, with some top horses in front of him.

He then accounted for subsequent Miracle Mile winner My Field Marshal in the Maryborough Cup, which clinched his berth on a special charter flight to Perth for the Inter Dominion.

It was a very excited Rebecca Bartley who had the job of accompanying San Carlo to Perth, and a crack at one of harness racing’s most coveted prizes.

On opening night, and with a few predictable butterflies, Rebecca quickly had San Carlo into the one out two back slot. With Chicago Bull getting it easy in front this heat was as good as over, and San Carlo wasn’t happy three wide coming around the home turn. It wasn’t until they straightened up, that he really got going, and he was very good on the line in fifth place.

Second night was held at Bunbury, and the Shepparton pacer did well to get third behind Lazarus and Tiger Tara, in a 1.52.3 MR for 2100 metres.

San Carlo wins Gloucester Park Inter Dom heat 2017

San Carlo wins Gloucester Park Inter Dom heat 2017

Night three and San Carlo quickly found the lead. He over raced after being pressured early, but held out a couple of handy ones in Soho Tribeca and Lenny The Shark to win the heat in 1.56.3 for 2536 metres.

And so the great grand final beckoned. The horse from “Shep”, who two years earlier galloped more than he paced, went into the big race as the least experienced runner.

Rebecca was to follow in the footsteps of Kellie Kersley, the only other female driver to compete in a Perth grand final. And for Stephen O’Donoghue it was the thrill of a lifetime.

From a cruel second row draw, San Carlo was never in the race. The last half was run, on a half mile track in 54.6, at the end of 2960 metres. Lazarus beat Chicago Bull and the ever consistent Tiger Tara.

Back in Victoria, and Stephen decided to keep San Carlo going with the Hunter Cup looming. He opted for the Casey Classic as a lead up, and the gelding was valiant in sitting parked throughout, before finishing a good third to Lenny The Shark and Bling It On in 1.52.4 for 2240 metres. Then came the Hunter Cup in which he wasn’t disgraced in finishing 7th (13 metres) behind the unstoppable Lazarus.

To Sydney, where he was out of a place, but only 7 metres behind Tiger Tara in the Canadian Club Sprint. One week later San Carlo beat all but Franco Nelson in the Bohemia Crystal FFA, going under by only half a neck in a sizzling 1.53.2 for 2400 metres.

Back in Melbourne, Stephen opted for one more run, but later wished he hadn’t. The gelding finished fourth to Shadow Sax in the Cranbourne Cup, but according to Rebecca felt as “flat as a pancake”.

San Carlo had done a remarkable job to compete against top level opposition for many months, and Stephen opted for a very lengthy spell. The gelding went into the paddock at Morley Park in early January this year, and didn’t resume until October 12th, just gone. Steve opted for the Italian Cup at Mildura as the stable star’s comeback run. He cruised along outside the leader, before strolling home in 1.55.9 for the 1790m.

Next essay the Cranbourne Gold Cup (2555 metres) and Bec allowed her favourite boy to stride straight to the lead. Tiger Tara circled to the chair mid race, but it was evident he had a race on his hands this time. San Carlo arrogantly refused to let the Sydney horse past him, and was strong on the line in 1.57.8.

Image courtesy Stuart McCormick - San Carlo defeats Tiger Tara in Cranbourne Cup.

Image courtesy Stuart McCormick - San Carlo defeats Tiger Tara in Cranbourne Cup.

And so the O’Donoghue/Bartley combination prepares for its second Inter Dominion campaign in twelve months. San Carlo has probably long forgotten his delinquent days, but Steve and Rebecca haven’t. They still pinch themselves at the realisation that the horse who caused them so much grief, has come so far.

It’s sad that Jack Eichhorn didn’t live to see his home bred line up in an Inter Dominion in his home state. Jack died earlier this year, and ownership of San Carlo passed to his son John.

Stephen, Maureen, and her husband Iggy after the Cranbourne Cup

Stephen, Maureen, and her husband Iggy after the Cranbourne Cup

The talking point of the series this year will be the proven partnership of San Carlo and his determined driver Rebecca Bartley. The gelding has won twenty three races, and nobody but Bec has been at the reins. The experience gained in last year’s Inter Dom will stand them both in good stead.

The dynamic duo only need a few decent barrier draws, and a few favours in running to be very competitive in the upcoming series. There’s a good story behind every Inter Dominion winner, but there couldn’t possibly be a better story than the one behind San Carlo.

Image courtesy Ashlea Brennan - Rebecca (right) with sisters Ellen(left) and Lisa - all three have made their marks in Harness Racing

Image courtesy Ashlea Brennan - Rebecca (right) with sisters Ellen(left) and Lisa - all three have made their marks in Harness Racing