The Night The Boxes Failed

The National Sprint Championship series has undergone a number of changes to its format and structure since the first event was conducted in 1965. With greyhound racing extant in only New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, the early championships were basically match ups between the best sprinters from Victoria and New South Wales, with any challengers from Queensland or Tasmania generally well and truly outclassed. This state of affairs continued until the mid-1970s.

Both Victoria and New South Wales would conduct a series of eliminators and the highest point scorers would then meet in semi-finals in the state where the final was to be held. Again, the top point scorers would progress to the final. Greyhounds from Queensland and Tasmania also qualified to represent their state but rarely made it through the semis and into the final.

The 1971 final, held at Wentworth Park over 580 yards (530 metres) turned out to be one of the most exciting races conducted on the track, but the event was marred by a false start and the breakdown of Australia’s best sprinter.

In New South Wales, the 1971 series kicked off on 19 August with four so-called quarter-finals run at Wentworth Park. Champion sprinter Shapely Escort stormed home to defeat Tivoli Bush by a head in the first run-off with Futurity winner Top Saba third. The brindle bitch ran a fast 31.2 (in those days it was tenth timing; timing to the nearest hundredth was still two years away).

Kiwi Capers downed the ultra-consistent Milo’s Charm and King Miller in 31.4 in the second stanza while 1970 NSW Greyhound of the Year Tara Flash defeated Gemini Todd, also recording 31.4, in her run-off.

Scotch Earl downed Top Em All and Teresa Alvina in a fair 31.5 in the fourth quarterfinal.

The second series of NSW quarter-finals were held just four days later, over 500 yards (457 metres) at Harold Park. Shapely Escort blitzed Kiwi Capers and Gemini Todd by six lengths in a fast 26.4 while Tara Flash scored in 26.8.

Milo’s Charm won his stanza in a slow 27.0 and King Miller beat Top Saba by half a length in 26.7.

Both Shapely Escort and Tara Flash went into the semi-finals of the championship on 28 August at Wentworth Park as the equal top point scorers for New South Wales. The other NSW contenders were King Miller, Top Saba, Milo’s Charm and Kiwi Capers.

From Victoria came Silver Chief placegetters Royarco and Kumiss, the fast-finishing Cabernet, wide-running top-grader Which Opal and Miss Stuart and Princess Jilka. Hot Dice and Michelle’s Rocket represented Queensland while the Tasmanian representatives were Midnight Cowboy and Apt Act.

The first semi-final saw Shapely Escort give King Miller a start and a beating, defeating him by one length in a sizzling 31.0. Royarco was six lengths away third, three lengths in advance of Tara Flash and Princess Jilka.

The second semi-final fell to Milo’s Charm who defeated the Victorian Kumiss by three lengths in 31.4. Top Saba ran third, narrowly in advance of Which Opal.

The third and fourth semi-finals were held at Harold Park on 4 September and New South Wales made a clean sweep of the series when Shapely Escort flew home to down Kumiss by a half head with Milo’s Charm a head away third in 26.6 and King Miller scored by a head from Kiwi Capers with Tara Flash third in 26.9.

The final of the National Sprint Championship brought together a terrific field of five locals and three Victorians, with King Miller well served by the box draw, coming up with the coveted cherry. Super sprinter Shapely Escort, unbeaten throughout the series, fared poorly, drawn in box six. Wide running Which Opal was well boxed out in eight while Milo’s Charm was also well served, exiting box two.

Despite her poor alley, Shapely Escort was a strong 7/4 ($2.75) favourite ahead of Milo’s Charm at 7/2 ($4.50) and King Miller and Which Opal at 11/2 ($6.50). Princess Jilka was the rank outsider at 100/1 ($101.00).

A crowd estimated at around 13,000-plus flocked to Wentworth Park with the National Sprint Championship scheduled as race four.

The field were locked away and the bunny sped to the boxes. Then, the unthinkable happened. The lure sped past the boxes, the greyhounds lunged, but the lids failed to lift. Of all the times and in all the races, the lids had to fail in one of the biggest races on the Australian racing calendar. The crowd was shocked into a momentary silence.

The greyhounds were removed from the boxes and taken 30 to 40 metres down the track. The starter then tested the boxes and the equipment worked perfectly. Stewards asked the starter to repeat the process a few more times, just to make certain. The boxes continued to function as they should.

After a delay of just six minutes, the greyhounds were back in the boxes and the lure was once more on its way.

This time the start was perfect. King Miller, making full use of box one, jumped straight to the lead. At the first turn King Miller was a clear leader but most eyes were searching for Shapely Escort. She was well positioned in fourth place but within a few strides it was clear she wasn’t herself. Coming out of the turn Shapely Escort was losing ground rather than gaining and was a spent force.

At the half-way point King Miller led Which Opal by three lengths with Top Saba a length further back. Behind her were Milo’s Charm, Kumiss and Tara Flash.

Straightening for the run to the judge, King Miller in the centre led Milo’s Charm, over on the rails, by a length with Top Saba, Which Opal and Kumiss all within striking distance.

In the run home King Miller kept giving just that little bit extra and held on to defeat Milo’s Charm by a neck with Top Saba a head away third. A length away in fourth place was Which Opal, a head clear of Kumiss with Tara Flash just two lengths away from the winner in sixth position. Shapely Escort was a well-beaten seventh with Princess Jilka a long last.

After the race, Shapely Escort was found to have been injured in her rear legs, almost certainly as a result of lunging at the false start. She was off the racing scene for two months.

King Miller ran the trip in a fast 31.1 and for the Ray Balk owned and trained white dog it was his 10th win in 36 race starts. His first prize of $6,500 took his overall earnings to $12,382. Of the finalists, Shapely Escort had earned $27,250 before the race from her 37 starts. Next best was Tara Flash with $17,000 in 61 starts and Top Saba with $10,627 from 50 races.

King Miller continued to race consistently if not spectacularly after the Championship. He failed to make the 1971 Melbourne Cup final after being beaten a half head in his heat by the-then little known Lizrene, later to become one of the greatest stayers ever seen in Australia.

To the best of my knowledge, no other major Australian racing final has ever suffered from the same box malfunction.