THE TRAVELLING WEIDEMANNS
The Tamworth Harness Racing Club hosts thirty meetings a year, the majority of them day fixtures.
Queensland’s Weidemann family have been attending Tamworth harness meetings for more than thirty years, which remains a source of bewilderment to most people in the sport.
Sisters Lola and Julie Weidemann and their twenty seven year old niece Stacey live at Clifton, 49 kms south of Toowoomba on the Darling Downs and a massive 460 kms from Tamworth.
“How can they keep doing this?” is one of the most commonly asked questions in harness racing. Lola puts it into perspective. “We have no local meetings and if we choose to race in Queensland, Albion Park and Redcliffe are the only options”, she explained this week. “It takes three hours to get to Redcliffe and two and a half hours to Albion Park, with some pretty awful traffic. Admittedly there’s no change out of six hours to get to Tamworth, but it’s a much easier run”.
The Weidemanns also support the few meetings held at Armidale, Inverell and Narrabri.
The Royal Queensland Show, or the “Ekka” as it’s famously known, is held in August and is the only thing to keep the girls away from Tamworth trots. “We’ve been going to the Ekka for close to fifty years”, recalls Lola. “We were little more than toddlers when we started competing with our ponies, graduating to the standardbreds when we were old enough”.
The Weidemanns from the Darling Downs have become household names with the “Ekka” regulars, often making a clean sweep of the trotting finals.
The late Ross Weidemann, father of Julie, Lola and Glen was dabbling with a few harness horses when his children were in their teens. It was Julie who first became involved when Ross was diagnosed with a heart ailment. Julie took over most of the hands on work with the horses, and quickly displayed a natural talent in the sulky.
Marion Weidemann of course, was always there to lend a hand. Today at 84, her work ethic is just as solid and she’s constantly attending to her chores. “One of those chores is the ploughing“, explained Lola. “She drives an eight wheel tractor very capably and ploughs up hundreds of acres. You can’t get her off that tractor”.
The remoteness of their property often meant a delay in getting the services of a vet or farrier. “Out of necessity Julie taught herself to dress a horse’s foot and to tack a shoe back on”, said Lola this week. “As time went by she developed the capacity to recognize a gaiting problem and to apply corrective shoeing. She’s as good as any farrier in the district, and very few shoeing problems are beyond her. Imagine the time and expense Julie has saved us over the years”.
The heart ailment Ross battled for years, eventually took his life in March of 2015. “I was on my way to Albion Park trots when I got the phone call I hoped would never come”, recalled Lola. “He suffered a cardiac arrest while driving his tractor, but somehow had the presence of mind to throw the gear lever into neutral. His foot was still on the accelerator and the engine was roaring it’s head off. The one thing that has helped all of us to bear the pain, is the fact that he died doing what he loved best”.
The Weidemann girls train a team of thirty horses on their Clifton property. The farm embraces 2000 acres of prime Darling Downs country, currently in the throes of an endless drought. “Here they are battling floods in coastal regions of Queensland and we can’t get a drop of rain out here”, agonises Lola.
The property also carries five hundred head of Santa Gertrudis cattle, whose feeding has had to be supplemented for quite some time now. “They’re in good nick at the moment, but if we don’t get good rain before winter everyone on the Downs will be battling”, said Lola.
When Lola caught the standardbred bug it didn’t take her long to display an innate talent. The winners have flowed at a steady rate for well over thirty years, earning her the respect of all sections of the Queensland harness industry. She has competed at the highest level at Albion Park, holding her own with the very best of race drivers.
Lola Weidemann is not a “keeper of records”, but believes she’s heading in the direction of 3000 career winners. “I honestly haven’t got a clue”, said Lola with trademark modesty. “Somebody who had studied the records told me recently that I’m in the 2900’s”.
The girls have pushed a lot of ordinary horses around over the years, often “squeezing” a win out of them when luck went their way. Whenever a nice horse comes along they don’t leave a stone unturned in giving that horse every chance to realise it’s full potential.
The most notable “recruit” into the Clifton ranks was the evergreen gelding Mister Skye Rocket. The son of Pacific Rocket was a rising five year old when the Weidemann family purchased him from Wagga horseman Paul Kahlefeldt for $25,000. He was already on a pretty tight mark, having won sixteen races and posted eighteen placings.
Life on the Darling Downs must have suited the durable gelding, who went on to win another twenty eight races for his new trainer Julie Weidemann with an astonishing eighty one placings thrown in. Fifteen of those wins were at Albion Park.
Nobody can explain how a horse can remain sound enough and genuine enough to finish his racing life with a record of 410 starts for 44 wins and 99 placings. “He still has the run of the farm and is looked after as though he’s racing at Albion Park this week”, said Lola affectionately.
Misty Plains was potentially the best horse to go through the Clifton establishment, but his racing career was cut short by injury. He was trained by Julie and driven in all twenty nine race starts by Lola. He won fifteen races including a Seymour Nursery Final (Gr 1) and a Breeders Classic Final on the Gold Coast.
When those Weidemann girls get a durable horse, they know how to keep it up for long periods. Bali Boy raced until he was nine, winning forty seven races, and Shipp’s Fire won a staggering seventy nine races up to ten years of age. Lola and Julie got The Bagman to train after the gelding had won nine races and they got him to win another forty two. The marvellous old horse was still racing at thirteen years of age.
Bistro Lady retired at seven, but crammed a lot of racing into a four year period. She retained her zest for racing to record fifty five wins and a freakish seventy three placings.
Let’s not forget Julie’s pride and joy Sheza Fake, winner of thirteen races including the Bathurst Gold Tiara Final and a Q’Bred Triad Final.
Julie can look back on a very successful training career. She’s credited with 2200 winners, and was champion Queensland trainer in the 2004/05 season.
But back to the subject that continues to mystify many people in the sport. What are the logistics of travelling six hours to Tamworth thirty times a year, and returning within a twenty four hour time frame.
The Weidemann training operation has to sustain two trucks, each capable of carrying ten horses. One is a Mercedes Benz, the other a Mitsubishi and both were purchased new some years ago. Both have over 600,000 kms on the clock, but continue to perform reliably. “We are very conscious of maintenance and both are checked regularly”, said Lola. “My brother Glen isn’t a qualified mechanic, but knows motors backwards and there’s very little he can’t do with our trucks. We really keep a close watch on everything”.
The night before a Tamworth meeting, all the gear is cleaned and packed onto the truck. Two lots of feeds are prepared for each horse and then Lola and Stacey try to grab a few hours sleep. If it’s a daytime meeting at Tamworth they leave Clifton at 2am, which gives the horses a cool trip all the way down the New England Highway. Feed bins are fitted onto each partition and the horses are eating for quite some distance.
They arrive at the Tamworth Paceway around 8am, four to five hours before first race time. The horses are given a walk and a hose down if they’re feeling the heat. They are then put away in the on track barn, while the weary travellers grab a quick nap in the truck.
More often than not these days, Lola keeps the stable numbers under ten runners per meeting, but that wasn’t always the case. “We’ve often had fifteen or sixteen runners on the same programme and both trucks have had to make the trip”, said Lola.
Julie hasn’t been making the trip as frequently, leaving “operation Tamworth” to her sister and niece. Extra help is provided when required, by Stacey’s fiancee Clay Smith and family friend Gary Scott.
Any harness trainer who has ever had nine or ten runners on one programme will testify to the fact that the schedule is frantic. Harnessing each horse can take 15-20 minute, and every item of gear has to be checked and double checked. When it’s time to go into the parade yard, trainers pray their gig tyres are not flat or partly deflated. The Weidemanns often have two or three horses in one race, adding to the tension.
As if the pre-race ritual isn’t stressful enough, these Weidemann girls then go out and drive the horses themselves. Stacey has clearly inherited the family race driving talent and at twenty seven is already a veteran of the craft.
Lola won’t mind my revealing that she’s twice Stacey’s age, but continues to live up to her reputation as one of Australia’s best female drivers. The remarkable Kerryn Manning is the only female driver in Australian harness racing history to have driven more winners than Lola Weidemann.
Not many Tamworth meetings go by without at least one Weidemann victory. Doubles and trebles have been prolific over the years, and there was one spectacular six win haul just over a year ago. Six of their sixteen runners were successful, all trained by Lola. Stacey drove two of the winners, Julie handled one and Lola the other three.
Team Weidemann have devised a regular post race routine. The horses are put back into the barn and given their second feeds, while Lola, Stacey and sometimes Clay and Gary grab some sleep. “We sometimes actually put up the swag wherever we can find a spot around the barn”, said Lola.
The Clifton clan usually don’t get on the road until three hours after the final race. In the case of a Tamworth day meeting, they would arrive home at 2am- twenty four hours after having left.
In the event of a night meeting at Tamworth, they would drive onto their Clifton property at sunrise. Any sleep stolen in that twenty four hour period would be fitful.
The Weidemanns own the majority of the horses in their care. “A lot of owners wouldn’t want their horses travelling to Tamworth”, explained Lola. “Travelling to Redcliffe and Albion Park doesn’t suit us. We’d rather have the easier trip, and most of our horses are more competitive at Tamworth than they would be in Queensland”.
When I asked Lola if the Clifton property had a name her reply was typically laconic. “Yes, it does have a name - we call it “Home”.
Given their devotion to the harness racing sport, you’d wonder if the Weidemanns have ever contemplated moving closer to a racing precinct - even a place like Tamworth. Lola put that one to rest very quickly.
“When we arrive back at our place at any time of day or night, it’s like closing the door on the rest of the world”.