Match racing used to be relatively common in the first few decades after the advent of racing behind a mechanical lure. With racing not quite as wall-to-wall and frenetic as it is in the current era, and with major races not quite as thick on the ground as we see with the Group calendar today, match races often proved great crowd pullers.
As far as I know, Sandown has only played host to two previous match races in its history. The first was on November 1 1973 when a bumper crowd turned out to watch Half Your Luck and New Mariner, two of the best sprinters of all time in Victoria, compete against each other, over what was then 513 metres.
The second match race took place on August 11 1994 when Queensland superstar Flying Amy took on Victorian flyers On The Payroll and Golden Currency over 511 metres. In that race Flying Amy, having her first run at Sandown, led all the way but had to hold off a determined finish by On The Payroll, prevailing by just three-quarters of a length with Golden Currency just over two lengths away third.
Two weeks later, Flying Amy clashed with On The Payroll again in a match race, this time over 508 metres at Dapto, with Tap Dance as the third starter. Flying Amy scored by four lengths over Tap Dance, running 29.42. That was a new track record, but it could not be recognized as the race did not have the required minimum of four starters.
For Flying Amy the two match race victories took her winning sequence to 13 in a row and her 20th win in just 21 race starts.
The match race between Half Your Luck and New Mariner, which took place 21 years before the Flying Amy event, came about because Half Your Luck (a black and white dog owned and trained by Ted Redpath) had clashed with the flashy fawn dog New Mariner (trained by Ray Jennings) eight times previously. Half Your Luck had won seven times, with New Mariner finishing second on five occasions.
New Mariner’s only success over Half Your Luck was when he defeated his nemesis by four lengths in the National Sprint Championship final, run over 457 metres at Harold Park.
So, a match race was set up, but in the end it proved a disappointing spectacle (as they often do) with Half Your Luck racing away to lead by five lengths into the back straight before going on to score by a comfortable three lengths in 30.55. A newspaper report later claimed the match race had drawn an extra 2,000 people through the gate.
Redpath earned $1,000 for the win; Jennings picked up $500. Both trainers graciously donated the prize money to the Sporting Globe’s Royal Children’s Hospital Appeal.
The pair would meet only one more time after that match race, in the final of the Melbourne Cup 14 days later. From box one New Mariner exacted his revenge, sliding through to lead at the first turn and racing away to down Half Your Luck by seven lengths.
Half Your Luck finished his career not long afterwards, having raced 68 times for 42 wins (29 city victories) and 18 placings. New Mariner went on to race 33 times for 15 wins, 12 seconds (six of them behind Half Your Luck) and one third.
So, the Speed Star series has quite a bit to live up to, but it’s great to see an innovation like this and we can only hope it helps to draw a decent crowd and some spirited betting on the outcomes.