Brian Lawlor reflects on blistering track gallops in light of the recent lightning work by star Queensland 3yo Rothfire
by Brian Lawlor
Rothfire’s sizzling times recorded during an Eagle Farm exhibition gallop caused social media chaos and took me back decades to a similar occurrence.
The Rothfire gallop made headlines after he clocked 32 seconds for the final 600 metres and fuelled scepticism about how a horse could run this fast when seemingly under no pressure.
Back in 1977 I was a young racing journalist working for The Evening Post in Wellington New Zealand.
That was a time when newspapers ruled the media and we had a team of four in the racing department. I got a late call advising that I would have to head to Trentham early the next morning and cover for an ill colleague when final gallops would take place in readiness for the final day of the prestigious Wellington Cup carnival.
Good Lord won the Wellington Cup that year and he won the Sydney Cup a year later, but it was a star three-year-old who was the centre of attention at track work that morning.
The filly named La Mer was the champion three-year-old of her time and was at prohibitive odds to add the New Zealand Oaks (2400 metres) to an already imposing record and there was huge interest in her final piece of work before the Group One.
La Mer galloped that Thursday morning with regular rider Des Harris in the saddle and worked with a mate over a round of the Trentham track (2400 metres) before being asked to stretch out over the last 600 metres.
As expected, La Mer ran right away from her companion and there didn’t appear anything unusual about the gallop until I checked the times.
Journalists used two stop watches to get sectional times and both my watches showed La Mer had broken 32 seconds for her last 600 metres.
Panic set in as I looked at the time and wondered how I could have stuffed up so badly.
Things settled down a little when I compared the times with Tony Hilton from The Dominion, who was the only other journalist at the track, and found we had recorded almost identical times for her gallop.
Malcolm Smith, the trainer of La Mer, was a particularly forthright character and when he asked me what time his filly had run it sparked a tirade that left us in doubts that he didn’t believe we had clocked the gallop correctly.
Given his filly was three days from her grand final, running such a time in a track gallop left him open to criticism that she had a gutbuster and true to his nature he didn’t hold back.
“You’re a f…… idiot,” was the most sympathetic part of his response which was delivered in front of some of the nation’s leading trainers and jockeys watching the champion filly’s work.
Tony Hilton and I were starting to think he might be right but rechecked our clocks and the course markers and we were in no doubt that she did indeed run that startling time.
The problem now was whether to report that time - and allow the rest of the country to share Malcolm Smith’s assessment of us - or to fudge the time in our reports.
In the end we took the coward’s way out and added a couple of seconds to the time we reported in newspapers around the country that day.
But the episode took another twist later that morning when over breakfast a wily old trainer named Walter McEwan sidled up to me and informed me La Mer had broken 32 for her final 600 metres.
You see Wally McEwan, an old school trainer who honed his skills in the depression of the 30s, had quietly clocked the gallop out of sight of prying eyes and agreed we were right about the sensational time we recorded.
He simply said: “You were right.”
La Mer came out on Saturday and won the New Zealand Oaks by a huge margin.
She later raced in Melbourne winning the Coongy Handicap over 2000 metres. She won 24 of 34 lifetime starts but sadly, like so many great race mares, she was a flop at stud after being purchased by Irish breeder Captain Tim Rogers who established Airlie Stud in County Kildare and at one time owned farms in the U.S. and New Zealand as well as Ireland.
Tim Rogers started Grangewilliam Stud near Wanganui in New Zealand and the property is best known through the deeds of Melbourne Cup winner Doriemus and being the birthplace of Vegas Showgirl, the dam of Winx. It’s also home to stallion Zed, sire of multiple Group One winning mare Verry Elegant.
While La Mer was a failure at stud, she features in the background of the pedigree of many good horses including Group One winners Nahrain and Benbatl.