Hannah McCabe completes bold journey

09:56 PM 30 Apr 2014 NZST
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Hannah McCabe
Thought to be the first Marlborough-based driver to gain a junior licence for over 40 years
Scott Hammond Photo

When 20-year-old harness racing driver Hannah McCabe piloted Fancy Delight to fifth place in the first race at Thursday's Marlborough Racing Club meeting, she completed a long and bold journey.

Five years after first picking up a pacer's reins as a horse-mad Wairau Valley schoolgirl, last week she emerged as a licensed harness racing driver, competing on her home track.

Thought to be the first Marlborough-based driver to gain a junior licence for over 40 years, McCabe has been riding horses since she was three. When she turned five she began showing her ponies before moving on to showjumping with her big American paint horse, TNT Addictive. She credits her mother Andrea for her addiction to horses.

"She was always into horses and got us our first ponies when we were little. She kinda started it."

Her interest in harness racing began when Blenheim owner Anthony "Tubby" Smith, who grazed his charges on the McCabe family farm in the Wairau Valley, asked the then 15-year-old Hannah to help him with the horses. After initial reservations, she decided to become involved. "I just fell in love with it," she explained. "It was awesome."

Within two weeks McCabe was given a chance to drive on the training track. "It was exciting . . . but really, really nerve-wracking. The adrenaline is amazing. Completely different, because I had always ridden horses, but to be behind them like that was so different."

That first drive sowed the seed. "Pretty much the first time I was behind the horse I wanted to [drive racehorses]. I thought . . . this is awesome."

But the path to a raceday drive for a budding harness driver is long and very regulated. After getting her stablehand's licence at 15, she had to wait a year before applying for her trials driving licence, which involves an oral exam and a practical time trial with the horse.

She passed the test at Waterlea on her first attempt, a relatively rare feat, and then headed to Christchurch for almost a year to continue her driving education. She was fortunate to get a position at the stable of Robert Dunn, one of the country's premier trainers.

"I was really lucky," said McCabe. "I met Dexter Dunn [the country's top driver] and his older brother Johnny, and they taught me a lot with my driving. They really know what they are talking about. I've got them to thank for a lot."

As part of the process McCabe had to enrol in a cadet scheme, which involved driving at Addington and she was grateful for the help of such harness luminaries as Ricky May, Craig Thornley and Anthony Butt.

"When you are out on the track with them they tell you . . . you need to do this, do that . . . they gave me lots of tips, it's really a big help."

To become a licensed junior, driver applicants need to complete 25 trials drives to a "satisfactory" standard. When McCabe returned to Blenheim she had a couple more drives to go, which she completed at Waterlea, whereupon "they handed me my junior license" in late 2013.

Her first race day drive came at March's Manawatu meeting on Smith's horse Stormy Breeze. She also drove her parent's horse, Fancy Delight, having four drives at the two-day meeting, her best placing a fifth.

"The people up north were so supportive. They were coming up to me and talking to me, but I was so nervous I couldn't even talk back. I was just nodding to them."

Now McCabe has had eight race day starts, with two fifths her best placings so far. "I'm looking for a placing, first, second or third. I know it will come eventually."

Her next drive is in Palmerston North in mid-May and she will be bringing back a horse on free lease from Papakura trainer Jay Abernethy which she hopes can provide her with her first dividend-payer.

Despite her limited time in the driver's seat, McCabe has firm views on what makes a good driver. "It takes a lot of guts, determination, knowledge and a lot of skill. You have got to have an understanding of horses.

"When I started driving I had a lot of trouble being behind a horse, getting a feel for them. I had always been on top, I had the leverage, but being behind them to find the contact in their mouth and how they react to things is really quite challenging. Horses are so unpredictable. They are not machines.

"With horses there is always a danger factor. I have only come out of the cart once so far . . . but having been around horses for so long I just kinda push the danger aside because they are just part of my life."

McCabe knows the road to the top in an industry traditionally dominated by men and harness racing dynasties is tough, but she has her own motivation.

"I guess it's the fact that not everyone can make it in the industry and you just really want to do it. To prove everyone wrong.

"When I was at Robert's [Dunn] he said it will be hard for you. You are one of the only people in the industry that doesn't have a family background in it. So I have to get my name out there myself. I have to do good or people aren't going to want me to drive their horses."

Reprinted with permission of The Marlborough Express

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