Day At The Track

AUSTRALIA! - On The Rail With Sydney Weaver

11:59 AM 17 May 2017 NZST
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Sydney Weaver, harness racing Echuca Race paddock, harness racing Harness racing Sydney Weaver, harness racing Harness racing Sydney Weaver, harness racing
Sydney Weaver (left) and trainer David Aiken with Miracle Mile winner Lennytheshark at Menangle Training Facility.
Lisa Weaver photo
Echuca Race Paddock in Melbourne
Lisa Weaver photo
Sydney got to meet the great stallions Presidental Ball (left) and Safely Kept. Also in the photo are Lisa Weaver, Don Weaver, and Jamie Stewart
Belinda Richardson photo
Sydney Weaver with the mares and foals at Alabar Farms.
Lisa Weaver photo
Sunset at the Sydney Opera House on our first day in Australia
Lisa Weaver photo
Sydney gets to meet the top racehorse, Bling It On.
Lisa Weaver photo
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"Welcome to Australia," the flight attendant says, their voice made raspy by the speaker, as we descend. The butterflies flutter in my stomach. One simple word, "wow" breaks the silence of the plane as I look out the window next to me. It is the only word that can sum up how in awe I am.  I knew from that point on my trip could only get more magical.

To be here, does not seem real. It feels as though I am in a dream and I wait for someone to pinch me or wake me up. I have to keep reminding myself that this is really happening. To be here is a dream come true and I feel truly blessed.

This amazing adventure was possible by Alan Galloway of Alabar Farms, whom I met in Ireland in August of 2016; while attending the Vincent Delaney Memorial. Some friends and industry partners of Alan Galloway also helped to make this trip possible. Brett Coffey, who works for Alabar Farms planned the entire trip from beginning to end and he did an incredible job. To all of them, I am forever grateful.  

 After getting settled into our hotel, my parents and I decide to walk through the city. Sydney is a beautiful city.  We walked to see the Sydney Opera House. It is a truly magnificent work of architecture. Seeing it at sunset is breathtaking. Today has been a busy day, but definitely one to remember.

I wake up full of excitement for a couple reasons. It is my first full day in Australia and tonight is a special night for harness racing in Australia. It is the night of the esteemed Miracle Mile.

It is one night when some of the best gathers to compete. I feel so honored to have the opportunity to be in attendance for this celebrated night of racing. Through Twitter, I had been seeing all of the updates leading up to tonight, but to be in the grandstand is overwhelming for me.

Driving into Tabcorp Park Menangle I am filled with joy. I could not believe I am actually here. I am lost for words. I am filled with captivation. Walking up the front stairs and through the front doors, I look around in amazement.  There is a buzz in the air and there is no need to ask why, it is Miracle Mile night.

The grandstand is absolutely stunning. The weather is perfect for a prized night of racing and for sitting outside to enjoy it. I flip through my form (program). It is a little different than North American programs. In the Australian forms, there are pictures of the colors the drivers are wearing. This is useful as drivers do not have their own colors. They wear the colors of the owner or owners they are driving for. Some of the races span two or three pages because having more than ten horses in a race is not uncommon. But for me, this is incredible to see.

I walk up the hill to where the paddock is. I am just in time to see the horses parade in the walking ring before horses and drivers head to the track. The walking ring is a surprise.  In North American harness racing horses parade on the track. I enjoy watching the horses warm up, before heading back to my spot along the rail.

It is finally time for the much-anticipated Miracle Mile. As the horses and their drivers step onto the track, full of focus and wanting to win. The winning horse, owner(s) trainer, and driver of this prized race will forever have their names in Miracle Mile history.

Everyone gathers as close to the fence as possible. My eyes are fixed on the track as the horses line up behind the mobile (start car). The crowds begin to scream, they are deafening as they reach the half. The horses stride for home in pursuit of victory. As they come into view, my heart is pounding. With one final cheer from the crowd and one final stride, Lennytheshark crosses the wire. He has won the 2017 Miracle Mile, with driver Chris Alford and trainer David Aiken.

I have the pleasure of meeting three special individuals during the night as well; all of whom I met through social media and have been looking forward to meeting in person during my trip.  Up and coming commentator Luke Humphreys, his dad, Paul, who owns a Pet Rock colt (a half sibling to my yearling filly, Jo), and Marcus Kirkwood, who is a co-owner of Miracle Mile participant Smolda. I am very happy I finally get to meet them in person. 

The next day I am off to APG Sydney Yearling Sale.  The sales complex is beautiful.  Today, I can potentially see a future Miracle Mile winner go through the ring. I pass potential buyers asking to see yearlings. There is excitement in the air. I make my way to sales ring.

It is a beautiful day for a yearling sale. The sun was shining and there is not a cloud in the sky. The sale is set to begin shortly. I find a seat in the front row. I scan through the pages of the sale catalog, studying the bloodlines.

My mom reminds me that I could not put my hand up as it would cost too much to ship a yearling back home, chuckling as she does.

I take in the serenity of the arena before the sale gets underway, knowing that for next few hours, it would be the opposite. Both buyers and sellers begin to file in. The auctioneers are setting up for their big day.

The first yearling of the day enters the ring.  The booming voice of the auctioneer thunders in the afternoon. Quiet nods are given and silent hands are raised; that silence being transformed into hollers from the bid spotters.

I continue to study the pedigrees, then I noticed something, none of the yearlings have names, unlike when yearlings in North America are sold.  

As each yearling passes through the ring the auctioneer, the bid spotters and auctioneer continue to work together to take bids. Before long the sale concludes. I had a great day watching the action, socializing and meeting new people. Another day in Australia is complete. 

The next morning I am ready for another day packed full of memories. Today I have the opportunity to visit with two of the top trainers in the Sydney area and gain insight about training in New South Wales. My first visit is to Menangle Training Facility. 

I arrive and walk into the barn of David Aiken and there he is, the one and only Lennytheshark. He is so handsome. I walk over to him and tell him how amazing he raced in the Miracle Mile. He lowers his head and I reach to stroke his head.  After spending some time with me and taking pictures with me, he is happy to go back enjoying his lunch.

Stablemate to Lennytheshark,  Hectorjayjay already has his head over his gate and is waiting for me to come and see him. I tell Hectorjayjay how handsome he is and how impressive he too raced in the Miracle Mile. I give him a kiss and say goodbye. I look forward to keeping up to date on the success of these two champions.

After spending a delightful morning at Aiken Racing, I am back in the car and on the road again, this time heading to see Luke McCarthy’s farm.  I am greeted by Ashley Hart, who works for Luke McCarthy. She shows me around the property, and what a beautiful farm it is.

We walk into the barn, walking down the shed row until we come to Bling It On. He steps out and rests his head on my knee. I begin to give him kisses. In return, he begins to lick my knee. He is so sweet and gentle.  After we bond some more, we part ways, I leave him to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Sitting in the car going back to our hotel, I could only think how honored I feel that I got to meet three champions in one day.

 I spend the next two days touring Sydney and being a tourist. On my travels, I get to see some iconic Australian animals. I get to pet a kangaroo and get to see a koala up close.

That night my parents pack because as in the morning the next chapter of my journey is beginning. In the morning, we fly from Sydney to Melbourne.

After boarding the plane, I sit in my seat while I wait for the rest of the passengers to board. It is a short flight, only a couple of hours.  I am filled with excitement and melancholy. I am excited for the memories that are to come, but melancholy because this flight marks the halfway point in this incredible journey.

My adventures in Melbourne begin the moment I arrive and, it is a memorable one. I attend a dual code night.  In this case, it means both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds are both racing on one card. This very special night of racing is presented by Cranbourne Turf Club and Cranbourne Harness Racing Club; featuring the TAB Cranbourne Cup for the Thoroughbreds and Decron Cranbourne Pacing Cup for the Standardbreds. 

 I am in awe.  The track and the grandstand are beautiful. The energy that fills the grandstand is incredible. I find the perfect spot along the rail, it is close to the finish line and the Winner’s Circle. With having two codes racing on the same night there is almost always a race to watch. The Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds alternate races.  When a Standardbred race enters the track, the Winner’s Circle presentations for the Thoroughbred race that had just finished are taking place.  It is mesmerizing and powerful to see two breeds come together for one spectacular night of racing. 

It is time for the prestigious TAB Cranbourne Cup. There is a hum rippling through the grandstand. All eyes are fixed on the track. The horses and their jockeys come around each turn, the cheering in the grandstand gets louder and louder, almost drowning out the announcer.

As the winning connections gather in Winner's Circle and celebrate their victory, the horses and their drivers enter the track. The energy that was exhibited during the Thoroughbred race spills into the Decon Pacing Gold Cup that follows.

The pacers and their drivers line up behind the mobile, taking off they fight for positions. With each turn, the grandstand roars with excitement and drivers see the finish line coming closer with each stride, victory is one step closer. With screams and the slapping of programs, the winning pacer and driver cross the wire.

After the races, I see my friend and President of Cranbourne Harness Club, Bill Hutchinson, it is lovely to see him again. I had another unforgettable night and made many memories and friends.

After a busy night, I return to my hotel to get a good night of sleep in preparation for tomorrow. I drift off to sleep with the echoes of cheers and the sound of hooves hitting the track.     

So far on my trip, I have been able to witness top quality racing, I have witnessed champions be crowned. Today, I am off to see the champions of tomorrow. I will be visiting two breeding farms, Aldebaran Park and Alabar Farms, as I am keen to learn about the breeding industry in Australia.

Aldebaran Park is very pretty. I walk along path between the paddock with the mares and foals before stopping to see the yearlings. The foals were very playful in the morning sun as their mares watch carefully.

I go and see the yearlings who are enjoying the morning sunshine, they are happy to receive the extra attention.

Then I am off to Alabar Farms.

When I arrive at Alabar, I am overwhelmed, to be here feels so surreal. My tour begins with having the opportunity to meet the legendary Presidential Ball and his best mate, the renowned Safely Kept. Both past champions are so sweet. I feel so blessed and honored I get to spend time with them in their paddock.  Alabar is looking after them extremely well. They are happy and living the life of leisure. 

I spend some time in a paddock with some of the mares and soon to be weanlings, who are being separated the next day. As I approach the gate to go in, two foals and their mares look at me intrigued. When I am in the paddock, they come straight over to me without hesitation.  Smelling me, playing with my hat, snuggling me and giving me kisses. They were so adorable. both mares and foals refuse to leave my side. I am happy to give them kisses and snuggles.  Soon It is time to continue on my way; the foals want me to stay as much I want to. With one final kiss for each of them, I say my goodbyes before walking through the gate.

It warms my heart to know that in a couple of years those weanlings will be champions; possibly winning the Miracle Mile, I can say I knew them when they were just babies before they were they winning trophies and setting records.

Seeing as I am at the top breeding farm in Australia. I had to see Australia’s stallions. I have the pleasure of meeting Courage Under Fire. He is a regal looking stallion. I also meet the handsome Alta Christiano, he has the best view a stallion could ask for; his paddock overlooks all of the mares.

After a lovely day spent to learn more about breeding in Australia. I go to the trots  (races) at Echuca Harness Racing Club for the evening. It is a charming track.

A memorable night gets even more special when I have the opportunity to go for a ride in the mobile (start car), and sit in the front passenger seat, that was awesome. I see the whole track and the entire grandstand.

 I meet the president of the club, Michael McMahon, who invites me for a tour of the paddock. I have the honor of meeting harness racing esteemed trainer and driver, Brian Gath.

The following day I take a trip to Ballarat to meet Emma Stewart and Clayton Tonkin, followed by a visit to Anton Golino. Talking with them, I add to the knowledge I have gained so far and get to hear what it is like to be a trainer in the state of Victoria.

The next day I have the pleasure of learning more about the wonderful work that the Harness Education and Rehoming Opportunites (H.E.R.O.) program does from Tanya McDermott.

The H.E.R.O. program provides Standardbreds with new careers, and new people to have new experiences with, such as riding and showing. I meet two new horses currently in the program, Jadahson, and He’s Kinky. They are lovely boys and I know they will go on to do great things. I look forward to seeing what new their new careers have in store for them. It warms my heart to know that the H.E.R.O exists for Standardbreds after they have finished racing. 

After a lovely morning, I travel to meet Andy and Kate Gath and their staff. It is an afternoon spent laughing and sharing stories.

For my final night in Australia, it is the Lyn McPherson Memorial at Tabcorp Park Melton and the final night for "Team Teal" in support of Ovarian Cancer.

The color teal was chosen as that is the color which represents Ovarian Cancer.  The fundraiser began February 1st. I am honored I can be part of the special night support of a great cause. Because of social media, I was aware of this heart-warming initiative. So, when I packed to come I made sure to pack my teal colored dress.

Walking in the grandstand and up into the reception area, there is a wave of vibrant teal in memoriam of Lyn MacPherson. The family of Lyn MacPherson and the harness racing community has come together to celebrate her legacy and started this annual event to help others.

I spend my last night at the trots in Australia in great company of friends. I feel special I get to spend my last night supporting an important cause in an unforgettable way. 

I make my way to the fence to take in my last few races in Australia. As the field steps onto the track, I wish I could stop time, just for a moment, so I can enjoy the time I have left at the trots a little longer. But I cannot stop time and in the blink of an eye, I am walking through the doors and towards my car.  

Sitting in my hotel room, and thinking about my trip as a whole and the thought of having to leave is not without a few tears. Maybe my tears have to do with me feeling so at home here, and now I feel I have to leave.

The next morning I was up before the sun. It had already begun to rain. The weather outside reflects how I feel in my heart, dreary and sad. With a heavy heart, I step out of my taxi with my luggage in tow. I take in one last breath of the crisp Melbourne air as I step through the doors of the Melbourne International Airport, with a heavy heart and longing to stay.

Being in Australia for the time that I have, it has begun to feel like home.  I will never forget all the heartwarming memories that I have made. I will never forget all of the truly amazing people who I got to meet. A part of my heart will forever be in Australia. One day, I do not know when, or how long it will take me, but I will return to this amazing place.

Having to say goodbye brings tears to my eyes and makes me extremely sad. So, it is not goodbye, it is simply, see you again Australia. Many photos were taken, laughs and stories shared. I also learned a lot about how different Australian harness racing is, and how it is the same. I also gained a lot of knowledge on horsemanship and I will carry and apply that knowledge in the future when I work with my own horses.

I board my first flight, taking me from Melbourne to Los Angeles, similar to the flight path I had taken to come to this magical place, flying from Los Angeles. As the plane ascends into the sky, I look out my window taking in one final glimpse of Australia.

After what feels like forever the plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport. I cannot help but think how it felt so much longer doing the return trip than, going to Australia.

I replay the memories, the conversations, the laughs, the smiles, the thundering of hooves, the screams of excitement in the stretch, the joyous cheers as horses make the final strides across the finish line.

These memories become a blend of colors, as I see the brightly colored sets of silks rush past. All of this happens as clear as it did when the events happened for the first time.

The memories flood my mind for the duration of my second flight from Los Angeles to Toronto. I still continue to replay moments, this helps to distract me from the reality.

Now that I am back to the routine of going to school and doing homework, at just the right time in my day, even if only for a brief moment, as if it is like magic, I flash back to Australia. 

I also want to especially thank all the sponsors who helped make this trip possible for myself and my family.... Alan Galloway of Alabar Farms... sponsored in part also by Adam Bowden’s Diamond Creek Farm, A Rocknroll Dance Syndicate, Nevele R Stud, Blue Chip Farm, Pepper Tree Farm (Art Major’s owners), the owners of Auckland Reactor and Joe Bellino and the owners of Rock N Roll Heaven (Pepper Tree Farm and Alabar). THANK YOU ALL!

Sydney Weaver is 16 years old and resides in Acton, Ontario, Canada. She has been involved with harness racing for years, groom's horses, jogs them on the track, owns both a Standardbred and a Thoroughbred racehorse and has already won major youth writing awards. Sydney also has Cerebral Palsy and spends most of her time in a wheelchair, but has never let her disability hold her back from achieving her goals.

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