(Banner image courtesy National Trotguide - Villagem brilliantly wins 2010 Chariots Of Fire.)
Had Lisa Miles not had an inherent love of the standardbred horse, she may have pursued a career with the RAAF.
For the last seven years of her time at Melton’s Mowbray College, young Lisa Lewis was a member of the Air Training Corps. She was enrolled as an Air Force cadet, and was obliged to attend classes every Friday night, and on one weekend per month.
By the time she got to Year 12, Lisa was giving serious thought to a career in the RAAF, as a photographer or air traffic controller. She had studied aeronautical engineering, organisational and administrative procedures and participation in intensive survival training.
“Everything I did in the Air Force Corps, revolved around discipline. The seven year involvement ingrained in me an attitude that you must move on, no matter how tough things get”, said Lisa. “I have no doubt it has helped me through the inevitable low points of horse training”.
As a youngster Lisa lived on a property owned by her maternal grandfather, the respected horseman Alf Simons. She had contact with harness horses every day, and has memories of being in a two seater, long shafted jogging cart with her grandmother Dorrie, an outstanding horse person in her own right. “Nan would drive the cart horse. We’d have horses tethered to both shafts, with one or two being led behind”, recalled Lisa.
Another source of inspiration was provided by the youngster’s mother Betty, who trained and drove successfully.
Former top pacer Bold David had been in retirement for a lengthy period of time, when Alf Simons was asked to consider preparing him to lead the Inter Dominion Grand Final field onto the track at Moonee Valley. The old gelding needed a few weeks in the jog cart to get him into reasonable shape for his special assignment. “Pa was busy working his team of racehorses, and asked me to jog Bold David every day leading up to the big night”, reflected Lisa “I’m not sure of my exact age, but I would have been around eleven or twelve”.
Alf Simons won his first race under saddle at Maryborough in 1929, and had another 64 riding wins before he switched to the sulky. By the 1960’s he was training thirty horses at his Rockbank base, and was recognised as a trainer of immense talent. His name was catapulted into the limelight when Bold David joined his team.
The gelding didn’t race as a two year old, but won twelve times in his three year old year. He won four races as a four year old, before sustaining a nasty navicular bone fracture in a forefoot. He was sidelined for many months, and few expected him to make a successful comeback.
When the remarkable horse retired five years later, he boasted a record of 189 starts for 41 wins and 71 placings for $97,000- a tidy sum in 1973. Along the way Bold David picked up the 1970 Inter Dominion Grand Final in front of 37,000 people at the Melbourne Showgrounds. A couple of months later he ran the race of his life to go under narrowly to the champion Lucky Creed, in the Miracle Mile at Harold Park.
Alf Simons had moved to a property at Bendigo by the time his granddaughter had decided to pass up a career with the RAAF. “I suddenly realised I wanted to be with the horses. I guess the genetic forces were too powerful”, reflected Lisa.
Her first race drive was behind a trotter trained by her mother Betty Lewis, with no result. Mum also supplied Lisa’s first winner at Geelong in September 1991, another trotter called Our Navy’s Pride. Lisa was first past the post, but suffered the disappointment of being relegated.
The young driver had to wait another six months before her dream was realised. This time it was her brother Dean who supplied the horsepower for his sister to land that elusive first winner. Lisa won on Pajero Lass in the fourth race at Warragul, and repeated the dose two races later on My Friendly Guy, beating the legend Gavin Lang on Kelly Franco.
Lisa and her husband David Miles soon embarked on their journey as training partners, destined to enjoy great success. Lisa’s first Group 1 win as a driver was supplied by Pacific Fella mare Beloka Diamond, who finished her career with eleven wins and twenty seven placings for $145,000.
Lisa had never regarded Beloka Diamond as Group 1 material, but one night at Moonee Valley in 2008 the mare joined the elite, in a Vic Bred 4YO Mares Final. “The favourite galloped at the start disorganising a couple of others, and next thing I’m in behind the leader”, recalled Lisa. “I got along the sprint lane to beat the second favourite by a whisker and Beloka Diamond was suddenly a Gr 1 winner”.
Around the same time Lisa and David’s “dream horse” came along in the shape of Villagem. “He wasn’t easy to get going, and it took ages before he started to pace cleanly”, reflected Lisa. “He could put in a little pig root at any time and that habit persisted for most of his racing career. Sometimes he tried to do it while going quickly and that’s when it can be dangerous”.
The son of Village Jasper retired with a record of 109 starts for 25 wins and 27 placings for $626,000. As a three year old he won a Vic Bred Final, and at four he was sensational in winning the Chariots Of Fire in 1.52.1. Then came the 4YO Breeders Crown Final followed by the Gr 2 Legends Mile. In one spectacular sequence between March and May 2010, he won six out of seven.
Villagem finished third in the 2010 Miracle Mile behind Smoken Up and Blacks A Fake, but according to his driver, it was almost as good as a win. “What a privilege to be out there with horses of that calibre”, recalled Lisa. “I was following Monkey King in the race and at one stage he was getting in my way. To be beaten only 3.2 metres at that level, was probably my supreme thrill.”
The lowest point in Lisa’s career came like bolt out the blue in February 2012, when connections decided to send Villagem to the McCarthy stable in Sydney. The Menangle phenomenon was in full swing and owners Des and Terry Lingard were obviously mindful of the fact that their horse had absolutely flown around the big circuit in the Chariots and Miracle Mile.
“I was waiting for the transport to arrive and I just needed to say goodbye in my own way”, said Lisa. “He came to me straight away and I just sat down in the grass at his feet. It was the toughest moment of my training career. My heart was breaking”.
Lisa still gets to see her old mate at Melton meetings. The thirteen year old is a notable member of the “Hero” team in Melbourne and is one of several ex racehorses regularly taken to the trots to help generate public awareness of the concept. The “Harness Education & Re-homing Opportunities” organisation is managed by the very dedicated Tanya McDermott, who wants the public to know that ex racehorses really do have a life after racing.
Lisa is currently preparing a couple of horses for the Lingard family and looks forward to donning the Villagem colours again.
Pacific Charm was a consistent mare for the Miles stable, winning sixteen races for $221,000. She reached a metro class of M5 and among her wins was a 4 & 5YO Championship at Moonee Valley.
Another career highlight for the gifted horsewoman, came at Melton on “Super Sunday” in 2009. She won the Breeders Crown 2YO Fillies Final on Led Suitcase - one of nine Group 1 races on the day. Although she could mix her form a little, Led Suitcase did a good job to win eleven races and $261,000.
Trotter Tiavons Dream, one of Lisa’s all-time favourites, was the horse to give her a milestone win at Melton on July 16th last year. On a night when horses were winning from the back, Tiavons Dream swept home from last to give her five hundred career training wins.
Lisa was absolutely devastated on New Year’s Day, when the gallant gelding had to be put down following a freak paddock accident. “I was lucky to get him when ill health forced Chris Lang out of the game about four years ago”, recalled the trainer. “He won eleven races for me and became a real mate”.
Lisa is hoping another trotter can help to lift her spirits in the weeks ahead. Needabacardi, a five year old chestnut gelding, won his fourth race at Kilmore last week for ten excited owners and looks a definite improver.
With twenty three seasons of racing behind her, the thoroughly experienced Lisa Miles is currently working a manageable team of fifteen horses. She has nothing but praise for her valued assistant Charlene Gusman. “Charlene works one or two of her own early morning and then comes to my place”, said Lisa. “She’s very talented and very reliable”.
Lisa’s fifteen year old son Alfie is obviously named after his great grandfather, but the trotting genes may have bypassed the teenager. He attends the Assumption College at Kilmore, and doesn’t share his mother’s passion for harness racing. “Cricket is his chief interest and at the moment his goal is to play for Australia”, said Lisa with a chuckle.
Home to the fourth generation trotting devotee is a little place called Darraweit Guim, about thirteen kilometres from Kilmore. She’s not short of fellow harness participants. Chris and Alison Alford are close by, as are Vince Vallelonga, Brent Lilley and Kari and Paul Males.
Almost four decades have passed, since the little Lewis girl sat beside her grandmother Dorrie in the two seater cart at Rockbank. She faithfully observed grandfather’s instructions to carry twelve little stones, and throw one away at the end of each lap.
That simple method taught Lisa how to get it right. Grandfather Alf wanted his horses to jog exactly the right distance. Maybe the great old horseman was a little over the top, but it’s a principle his granddaughter has observed for her entire training career.
Five hundred career wins suggest those twelve little stones are still doing the job.