The hereditary factor in the families of harness horsemen and horsewomen, has been prevalent since the sport began in Australia.
You could fill a page, with the names of current trainers and drivers who are second, third or fourth generation harness people. Names like Gath, Lang, Turnbull, McCarthy, and Hewitt are a few of many participants who descend from pioneer forebears.
Twenty one year old Menangle trainer Brooke Wilkins, is a third generation trotting devotee. Her dad David enjoyed considerable success as a trainer and a driver, before opting to concentrate solely on his horse transport business.
Brooke’s paternal grandfather F.W. “Bill” Wilkins died in 1992, five years before Brooke was born. He was a major player during Harold Park’s “boom” years, and left a legacy of excellence in an era of brilliant horsemen.
His horses always looked immaculate, and he drove them with skill and judgement. If a Wilkins horse was in the right race, it invariably got the job done. He won a string of races at Harold Park with horses like Smart Fancy, Scotch Goose (also won Victorian Oaks), Real Lawn, Toliver Gigi, Bangaroo Flex and the very smart trotter Kingflex.
I have one indelible memory of Bill after a spectacular fall in a heat of the NSW Oaks in the late seventies. He was one of three or four to crash on the home turn, sustaining a nasty gash to an earlobe.
I rushed down from the broadcasting box to check on the condition of all drivers, to find Bill outside the driver’s room trying to stem the flow of blood with a handkerchief. He bled profusely for a long time, and may have been sent to hospital, but he was back at Harold Park the following week.
Despite the success Bill Wilkins achieved with his own team over the years, he’s probably best remembered for his association with the legendary pacer Cardigan Bay.
He was caretaker trainer and driver, when the Kiwi “iron horse” won his first two heats of the 1962 Perth Inter Dominion, before a freak training accident saw him ruled out of the series.
Days after his second heat win, Cardigan Bay got away when his driver was ‘tipped out” during a jogging session, and fell heavily onto a concrete verge.The gelding displaced a hip, and suffered severe abrasions.
His recovery and subsequent return to the track, is still viewed as harness racing’s most amazing comeback story. One year later he was in Adelaide to win two heats and the final of the Inter Dominion, from a 24 yard handicap, around the Wayville “saucer”. His Kiwi trainer Peter Wolfenden drove him through the series.
One can only assume there were no suitable races available in NZ at that time, because owners Merv and Audrey Dean decided to leave Cardigan Bay in Sydney with Bill Wilkins.
In just over five weeks, “Wilko” won four races with the gelding at Harold Park, in the days when crowds were huge, and the fans loved a good horse.
David Wilkins never got to train and drive a Cardigan Bay during his time in the sport, but enjoyed some good times. A very capable horseman, he was a regular in the winner’s circle on Sydney tracks, and tasted Group 1 success on two occasions.
He had a very successful association with the talented mare Lucky Elsie, winner of 21 races and $224,000. David drove her on a freelance basis for trainer Paul Lasnick, winning 15 races including the 2006 Gr 1 Ladyship Mile.
He prepared Bonnie Mahoney to win the 2010 Breeder’s Challenge Final (3YO Fillies), but opted for a young Robert Morris to do the driving.
Is it any wonder, David’s daughter Brooke succumbed to the forces of genetics.
Before falling under the spell of the standardbred, Brooke had a love affair with show ponies. She enjoyed tremendous success with a stylish little grey mare called Marina Twilight, who was a regular in the Australian Saddle Pony category at the Sydney Royal. She was in fact Reserve Champion at the Royal, for three consecutive years.
This is where Brooke’s grandmother Mary Wilkins comes in. “We travelled far and wide to Pony Club and Show events all over the state”, recalled Mary. “Brooke was totally dedicated to her ponies, and didn’t leave a stone unturned in their preparation. She is exactly the same with her harness horses”.
When it became obvious that David Wilkins was committing more and more to his horse transport business, Brooke decided to look for opportunities with other prominent stables. She had a rewarding two year stint with John McCarthy, and shorter terms with Kerry Ann Turner, Amanda Turnbull and with David Aiken’s Menangle operation.
When she felt confident enough in her own ability, Brooke decided to become the third generation Wilkins to join the ranks of Sydney harness trainers. “It was pretty intimidating at the time, but I soon settled into it, and hoped that I could attract some owners”, said Brooke.
The first outside owner to patronise the Brooke Wilkins stable, was Robert Marshall, currently Deputy Chairman of the NSW Harness Racing Club. Robert not only gave Brooke a horse called Machin’ Out to train, but introduced her to a famous set of colours.
The young trainer wasn’t able to win with the veteran gelding, but registered six minor placings. When Brooke first donned the red with dark blue band, Robert Marshall explained that they were the colours carried by Ribands, one of Australia’s most famous pacers in the 1950’s.
Ribands was notoriously unreliable from the standing starts of the era, and often gave huge starts to top grade opposition. Despite this, he won an A.G.Hunter Cup from a 48 yard handicap, and went close to claiming an Inter Dominion clean sweep. He won his three qualifying heats in Perth in 1953, and was beaten narrowly by Captain Sandy in the final.
Many years later Robert became friendly with the champion’s owners Frank and Amy Kelloway, who continued to race horses long after Ribands was retired. When they finally terminated their involvement in the game, Robert was delighted to register the famous colours in his own name.
He continues to support young Brooke, and it was good to see them combine for a Penrith win with Hawkowl recently.
It took young Wilko forty six drives before that magical first winner came along.
The horse in question was Hezbuyindiamonds, arguably her favourite horse to date, and her drive was one of great composure.
She got Hezbuyindiamonds from the claiming ranks and returned him to the claimers about a year later. In the meantime she won five races with the veteran, four at Penrith and one at Newcastle.
Horse people are constantly aware that accidents can happen without warning. Brooke was at the centre of a freak mishap exactly a year ago, when she was quietly jogging a horse in the cart, with another on the lead beside her.
She wasn’t too concerned when the lead horse, dropped back behind her, but before she could take corrective action the horse at her back suddenly dived forward and ejected her from the sulky.
She was hurled head first onto the sulky crossbar, and seconds later toppled from the gig unconscious. An eyewitness reported that the lead horse then lunged forward, and trampled Brooke in the process.
Following x/rays and scans,the young trainer was horrified to learn that the left patella (kneecap) had been badly damaged, as were two adjacent ligaments.
She could do little more than supervise for the next six months, as her partner Jason Grimson took over training and driving duties. Brooke has recovered remarkably well, but is continuing to let Jason handle all race driving. “I’m happy to just train them for now, and I couldn’t possibly be driving them any better than Jason”, said young Wilko.
Her problems were compounded recently by a piece of news that left her in shock and disbelief. She was informed by the HRNSW Integrity Dept that two of her horses, Future Stride and Backinthegame, had returned positive swabs to a substance called synephrine. “I knew synephrine was a substance found in plant life, and immediately requested testing of samples from my stable”, said Brooke. “They tested teff grass hay from my feed room, and samples of mat-rush grass from our day paddock. Both tests proved positive to synephrine.”
Stewards recorded a conviction, but didn’t impose a penalty on Brooke because they were satisfied the detection of the substance was the result of environmental contamination. “I was so angry with myself for letting it happen”, she said this week. “A trainer has to be aware at all times, of any feed component or miscellaneous products that could trigger a positive swab. You can’t be too careful”.
As the new year approaches, young Brooke is hoping all her bad luck has been used up. She just wants to get on with the job of winning races.
With just seven driving wins and twenty four as a trainer, she has taken the first tentative steps in a career that is dependent on total dedication.
Grandmother Mary made a point during the week. “The main requirement for success as a horse trainer, is plain old hard work”, said Mary. “I know most people work hard in the trotting game, but this kid is something else”.
I often stabled close to Brooke in the Menangle race day barn, and found her to be an unfailingly pleasant young person. She has an unmistakable touch of shyness, but would never let you pass without a smile, and a wave.
The Wilkins girl has all the attributes to succeed in a very tough business, especially that blue blood pedigree.