COURTNEY’S YEAR OF HIGHS AND LOWS
Courtney Slater was stunned when she received that phone call from HRV Stewards last December, conveying the blood-chilling news that one of her horses had returned a positive swab.
The irregularity had been detected, in a post-race urine sample taken from Luvyacookie following a win at Stawell on Dec 3rd last year. The sample had thrown up a level of arsenic, above the allowable threshold.
In those first few bewildering moments after the shock phone call, Courtney’s mind raced through the possibilities. She and husband Mark Driscoll, who pride themselves on their horse husbandry procedures, discussed every last detail about the filly in question.
Luvyacookie had always occupied the same yard, at Courtney’s training property, and had been an insatiable “chewer” of the treated pine fence posts. “Most trainers will have had a horse at some time, that is an uncontrollable destroyer of timber posts”, said Courtney. “This filly would all but demolish a treated post in a matter of days, and we decided the arsenic content must have infiltrated her system”.
Although the damage was probably already done, Courtney and Mark moved the filly to another yard complete with electric fencing, and awaited further action from HRV.
Eventually Integrity officers arrived at the property and collected samples of several fence posts and the soil in which they stood. Luvyacookie was scheduled to run at Melton the following night, but stewards insisted she be withdrawn rather than risk a second positive swab.
The presence of arsenic was confirmed in the fence post and soil samples, but Courtney still had to face the charge of presenting a horse to race, not free of prohibited substances.
To add to her frustration, she also faced a minor charge of neglecting to record information in her stable treatment book, a responsibility shared by all Australian trainers. Integrity officers agreed Courtney’s diary was very comprehensive, but the rules require the information to be logged.
It was now a matter of waiting for her day in front of the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board. With no idea of when that was likely to be, Courtney resolved to get on with the job of training horses. She had many loyal owners to look after, and a three year old filly showing tremendous promise.
Her husband Mark Driscoll also needed a little spoiling, and the kids were constantly seeking Mum’s attention. Indi (now 6), Zarah (now 10) and Tarj (now 16), had far more important things to worry about than positive swabs and incomplete logbooks.
The excitingly talented Goodtime Heaven had already won five races, and was getting better with every run. She won another one at Charlton; just days after Courtney was charged, and then it was off to Menangle to easily win a Breeder’s Challenge heat in 1.53.4.
Eleven days later, a semifinal went her way in 1.52.8, and then came the most brilliant of wins in the Gr 1 Final, by this massively talented daughter of Rock N Roll Heaven. She scoffed at barrier 10, made her way steadily to the chair, and simply outstayed Molly Kelly in 1.52.1.
It was Goodtime Heaven’s ninth win, driven in all of them by brilliant young Victorian horseman Glen Craven. “Glen ticks every box as a professional driver, and is a great asset to my stable”, said the trainer.
The filly did so well after the Challenge Final that Courtney decided on a quick trip to Brisbane for the Queensland Oaks. Goodtime Heaven travelled perfectly, and did everything right in the week leading up to the big race.
The trainer was devastated on the morning of the Oaks, when she found the filly chronically lame in the near hind leg. “She was pointing the toe to the ground, and gave every indication she had a foot abscess developing”, recalled Courtney. “We tried to find the affected spot on the sole of the foot, with no success. We immediately scratched from the Oaks, treated her with antibiotics, and “high tailed” it for Sydney. She was no worse during a twenty four hour stopover there, but by the time we arrived back home she was dreadfully lame”.
A scan of the affected leg revealed a suspect area on the near hind suspensory ligament, half way between the hock and fetlock joint. Local vets were undecided whether it was a rupture of the suspensory ligament, or an area of infection on the ligament. The filly was given a concentrated course of antibiotics, and the waiting game began.
A couple of days later, Courtney was alarmed to see a leakage running down over the fetlock joint. By the time the vets arrived, the discharge was very active, and the decision was made to lance the leg at the point of exit. “You wouldn’t believe how much muck came out of that leg”, said Courtney. “Our vet said he had seen a similar case only once or twice in his life. Within a couple of days “Heaven” was completely sound, and got over the ordeal very quickly. The vets said the infection could have been the result of a spider bite”.
Goodtime Heaven is still in the paddock, and will have at least another month. By the time she’s back at the track, the daughter of Rock N Roll Heaven will be a strong, mature four year old mare, and has all the attributes to go to another level.
Courtney Slater’s love of the standardbred emanated from her maternal grandfather Allan Anderton, who had his granddaughter in the sulky from a very early age. Allan trained a very handy horse called Als Court, who won twenty five races, driven in several of those wins by his son in law Ian Slater. Courtney “pinched” the drive one night at Geelong, and still dines out on a memorable win.
Courtney was also influenced by the devotion of her parents to the standardbred breed. Ian and Judi Slater founded the Goodtime Lodge Stud in 2010, with Browning Blue Chip as their foundation stallion. They’ve bred many useful horses these past eight years, and are still totally committed to maintaining a commercial stud operation in the Colac district.
This year they’ll be standing two former Emma Stewart topliners in Guaranteed and Restrepo, along with Goodtime Sammy, who was unbeaten in a short racing career.
The Slaters actually own Shadyshark Hanover, a former brilliant racehorse and successful sire. He’s now back in the USA, but frozen semen is readily available through Goodtime Lodge.
Courtney and Mark are still developing their own training centre on 82 acres at Beeac, near Colac. Ian Slater has recently supervised the construction of a very impressive 820 metre training track, and new fencing is going up in all directions. A work shed has been completed, while stables are under construction.
There was a time when Courtney and Mark didn’t have time to give their horses a race preparation. They broke them in and got them going, before moving them on to Emma Stewart and Clayton Tonkin.
Mark has now quit his involvement in the building trade, and is able to concentrate on the team, while Courtney juggles the demands of motherhood with her role as harness trainer. She’s within a couple of wins of the elusive 100 mark, and while not certain, believes she’s driven around sixty of those winners.
Her favourite horses include Deejay Dilinger, Mister McKinnon, Luvthisone, Luvyoubabe, Goodtime Alltime, Goodtime Rusty and Gomez.
Ian Slater knew what he was doing in the autumn of 2015, when he left Elliminyt towing an empty horse float, bound for the APG sale in Sydney. He was interested in one filly only, and had no intention of coming home without her. He secured the Rock N Roll Hanover - Intrude filly, but had to shell out $65,000 for the privilege.
Goodtime Heaven has already banked $155,000 and only bad luck will stop her adding to that tally. Ian obviously had her breeding future in mind, because she’s from a renowned winner producing family.
The circumstances of the Courtney Slater case, and her unblemished career record weighed heavily in her favour when HRV’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board handed down its verdict as recently as Sept 6th 2018. The Board also commended her guilty pleas, and the measures already taken at home to prevent a similar disaster in the future. She was fined $3000 of which $2000 was suspended for twelve months.
2018 is a year Courtney Slater will remember for the rest of her life. From the dizzy heights of Group 1 success to the despair of a dangerous leg infection, which could have ended Goodtime Heaven’s racing future.
But the ultimate low, was the shock and indignity of the positive swab. “I’m frustrated that I didn’t consider the dangers of horses chewing treated posts, and as the trainer I accept full responsibility,” lamented Courtney. “But I’m also hurt that I have to carry the black mark for the rest of my life. From the day I started in this business all I’ve ever wanted do is the right thing. The right thing by my owners, and the right thing by the industry I represent”.
The whole unfortunate affair will niggle at Courtney for a long time, but she does have the two best diversions a horse trainer can have- unwavering family support and one of the best mares in Australia.