Few things in greyhound racing rival the thrill of a winner. A group race or a non-tab 5th grade, they still generate the same feeling of excitement for those of us lucky enough to have greyhound racing in our blood.
And for those who know the love, and the mutual partnership of souls, that accompanies a successful training relationship with your greyhound; the day that partnership finally delivers will be forever etched into the salt and earth of who we are.
Australian Racing Greyhound was fortunate enough to be trackside at Winnellie park last Monday and witness just such a moment in time.
Race 2 on the card was an otherwise unremarkable 5th grade event over 383m with a full field – a support race on the Darwin Cup heats race program.
But local trainer Dan Rutherford and his partner Nicki Sexton would change all that in a little over 22 seconds when their 25kg fawn bitch, Millipop would spring the lids and lead all the way to give the trio the win, but more importantly Dan’s first as a greyhound trainer.
The excitement from Nicki, satisfied relief from Dan and pride of a job well done from Millipop herself; were only matched by the enthusiastic joy from the staunchly local Winnellie Park crowd as the winners came back to scale to the applause of a track whipped in to action by Secretary/Manager Craig Sant who doubles as the race caller and was willing Millipop over the line for Dan and Nicki in the call.
In a place that already had Australian Racing Greyhound nostalgic for the “old days” of the family atmosphere of greyhound racing, an atmosphere of the mateship, comraderie and competition of the betting ring; of the sheer raw joy, passion and enthusiasm borne of hard work and long hours that a night at the dogs used to bring, Winnellie Park stamped itself as a must stop for those of us who were lucky enough to have lived through the “halcyon days” of greyhound racing – a window to a moment in time long gone, save for the lone bookmaker where once twenty or a hundred would have stood.
It was the perfect place, at the perfect moment for this writer and no more perfect a story could have unfolded than that of Dan, Nicki and Millipop’s win – a win from a greyhound who was more family pet that fierce competitor.
Long after the race, Australian Racing Greyhound caught up with Dan who was more than happy to share his story. We attempted to catch Nicki, but after receiving congratulations from all at the track, man, woman and child; she was fielding phone calls from left, right and centre like Gai Waterhouse in the aftermath of yet another Epsom win.
“I’ve only had my licence since February” started Dan; “She’s the first greyhound we’ve ever had”.
Dan went on to explain that he had been introduced to the greyhounds through fellow Darwin trainer Brian Kelleher and had been attending most race meetings with partner Nicki, and the two had formed many friendships at the track over a period of time. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that Dan was offered Millipop to train.
“Millipop had been with Tom Tzouvelis in Queensland and he thought she would be better suited to Darwin and Brian (Kelleher) was offered her to train. When Brian couldn’t take her, he suggested I have a go and it started from there” said Dan.
Having obtained his licence he built a single kennel for Millipop. Dan started the pretty fawn bitch in mid April but it would take 8 racetrack appearances for the team before she would salute the judge first across the line despite running consistently well in every event.
Dan paid tribute to Tom Tzouvelis and the invaluable help of Brian Kelleher in brining both he and Millipop up to the form required to be competitive, “To start with Brian was helping and advising with everything, but as time has gone on Nicki and I have been doing most of it ourselves now and its been going well”.
Dan explained how Millipop had enjoyed an unusual pre-race night, having spent the night inside on the bed instead of out in the kennel and you get the impression Millipop’s newly made kennel gets far less use than the lounge or bed for this new valued member of the family.
From an outsiders perspective it was clear to see that Dan had presented Millipop very fit, and in glowing health; but also a very happy greyhound; and that combination is obviously the result of the passion both Nicki and Dan have for their “racing pet” but also the bond Millipop has obviously forged with them.
Nicki, who had been up since 4am as a shift worker, explained in passing that “She was so tired and should be long in bed but was far too excited”; was still on the phone and still unable to stay in the one spot trying contain her jubilation.
It’s a feeling only winners know, and the same emotion that fuels everyone one of us that pick up a lead and venture to the track with our dogs.
Millipop, Dan and Nicki continue their journey at Winnellie Park tonight in Race 4, the 4/5th grade 383m from box 7.