The name’s James, Mathew James, and I like it shaken, not stirred
I’ll never forget the first time I set eyes on him.
It wasn’t because he had a well built frame.
It wasn’t even that he was quite handsome around the head.
And it certainly wasn’t because his driver Andre Poutama had much good to say about him. The horse they call plain James around the stable had just run last in his first workout.
To be honest I can’t remember the words trainer Ray Green used when he started ungearing James but I’m guessing they weren’t too flattering. Maybe James could understand because I swear his head drooped a little lower.
No, what stayed with me that September day was the unusual sight of Green taking off the bandages on his hind feet, revealing two tiny baby nappies.
It was just Green’s novel way of protecting the horse from getting down on his bumpers but it seemed somehow appropriate - he was like a little kid cowering in the corner of a creche.
I’m picking James was simply downtrodden, sick of the other kids in the playground making fun of him - the horse with royal bloodlines, easily the most expensive in the barn, but seemingly so slow he couldn’t run out of sight on a dark night.
With his dad the champion stallion Bettor’s Delight, and his mum, Taylor Kate, an Artsplace half sister to 2008-09 champion filly Lauraella, it’s no surprise he cost $120,000 as a yearling, the fifth highest priced pacer at the 2017 Australasian Classic sale at Karaka. Scores of good horses have come from this Black Watch family.
But at no stage of his two-year-old year did James show enough to warrant Green putting his name in a racebook and letting racegoers see his full name, Mathew James.
So how do you explain that when that finally happened, at Cambridge last Friday night, he burned his rivals off the arm, bowled along in the lead, and then showed real courage to stave off a persistent challenge to win by a nose?
You could advance three theories - but in what order you put them depends on who you talk to.
Ask Green and he’ll say it must be the Bettor’s Delight effect. Time and time again, horses by the Woodlands Stud hero seem to jump out of the ground when taken to the races, no matter how little they’ve shown at home.
Ask Zachary Butcher and he’ll say it’s down to his great drive.
No, to be fair to Zac, after saying he prayed a lot, his first explanation is the Bettor’s Delight “will to win’’ closely followed by the fact he “woke the horse up” in his latest workout when driven hard to the line.
Ask Craig “The Whale” Thompson, or any other form analyst to be honest, and it’s odds-on they’ll say it’s all down to the quality of the opposition - or more accurately the lack of it.
And therein probably lies the answer, and the reason neither Green nor Butcher are expecting James to somehow miraculously transform into a winning machine.
“He doesn’t give you the feel of a superstar,’’ says Butcher diplomatically. “But Rupert Of Lincoln was the same and he’s won four in a row and is unbeaten in Aussie.
“Every time I’ve driven him I’ve had to make him do his work, but he showed at Cambridge he’s tough enough.’’
And Green: “It’ll be tough for him now. When they win their first start it’s always harder to place them. But I probably won’t take him down to Manawatu now. He can race again up here.
“He’s a nice type and a good mover and, who knows, he might continue to surprise us.’’
Whether James’ future is here or in Australia, where his half sister Crystal Sparkles has carved out a good niche for herself in Adelaide, with 13 wins and six placings from 21 starts for Merv and Meg Butterworth, he can at least hold his head a little higher now.
After all, how many horses can boast a record of one start for one win?
Wouldn’t you just love to be able to understand horse speak when he struts into the barn this week.
More news in Harness
Better draw will help Frisco but Ray’s quartet for Friday all in early stages of new prep
Argyle salutes at last and Mark confident he’ll keep the till ticking over in the next grade
Unlucky Argyle deserves to be rewarded at Albion Park tonight - just no bad luck please
Ray looking forward to Lincoln Lou and fully oxygenated Frisco Bay at Cambridge on Friday
Our runners this week
Saturday night at Albion Park
Our runners this week: How our trainer rates them
Friday night at Auckland
Race 2: Frisco Bay
“He obviously needed the run last week. He pulled his way round the field and sat outside the leader but he couldn’t cop a run like that first-up and got tired. The ability is there, whether he’s fit enough or not we’ll find out. But I expect him to go well, the three draw is much better than last week.”
Race 2: Lenny Lincoln
“He’ll probably need a race but he’s capable of running a slot. He’s unlucky not to have won a race, all three of his seconds were good. He’s got a bit better with each of his trials this time in and he got home well last Saturday, after coming widest on the turn.”
Race 3: Obadiah Dragon
“The way the race was run at Cambridge last week, his effort wasn’t bad at all. Moni (Monika Ranger) said he felt strong and, if he’d been a few slots closer, he would have been right in it. He’ll be improved for the run.”
Race 3: Leo Lincoln
“He’s very consistent - he’s only missed a couple of cheques. But he’s another just coming back and should improve with the run.”