The harness racing amateur driving movement in New Zealand might still be in its infancy by international standards but all the signs are positive, says one of the country's most successful participants.
Canterbury's Gavin Cook, who won the world amateur drivers' crown in the United States in 2008, says the very fact New Zealand has been able to stage the 2012 series after only 10 years of competition here, augurs well for the future.
Cook, who has been instrumental in organising the World Cup, which will be decided at the Banks Peninsula meeting today, says he was overwhelmed by the level of support from trainers.
"We thought we'd be lucky to get eight races off the ground but trainers put so many horses in we were able to programme 10 races.
"Based on that I'd say the original stigma that surrounded amateur driving here is gone. It's very heartening when you've got leading trainers like Steven Reid supporting the series."
With four races at Alexandra Park last Thursday, three at Addington on Friday and another three today, Cook said it provided a good platform for some of the world's best amateur drivers to show their skills.
And it would help showcase the code here and, hopefully, further boost the already burgeoning ranks of amateurs, which now number more than 100 and are being boosted by former professionals lured back into harness racing by the chance to enjoy competition on the track.
If it wasn't for amateur drivers in Germany, harness racing would be dead there, revealed Marian Tux, 62, who on 57 points is well positioned to issue a stern challenge for the title today.
Tux, who as Germany's representative won last year's European championship in Spain, said prizemoney was so low a month's training fees could be three times the purse for winning a race.
"Professionals can't survive in Germany. The sport would be finished without amateurs. Three or four races on a 10-race card are for amateurs."
But Tux can hardly be categorised as an amateur as the winner of 580 races - many against the pros - by far the most of the 12 drivers who hail from the US to the Ukraine.
First licensed in 1972, Tux relies on his income recycling aluminium, but his hobby is his passion.
It's been that way right from the days when he'd stop in at the local racetrack on his way home from school when at 12 he'd muck out boxes, at 14 he'd brush and wash down horses and at 15 he'd get a rush when allowed to pilot them on the jogging track.
Belgium representative Piet Van Pollaert, at 29 is the equal youngest competitor in the world series, but given he was licensed at the age of 14, he is not the least experienced.
"Even as a toddler I was always on the track," Van Pollaert said. "They had to keep an eye on me because I was always between the horses' legs."
Van Pollaert, whose father Gerald was world amateur driving champion in 2000, spent all his early time on his uncle's breeding farm, the biggest in Belgium.
He was jumping ponies at eight, competing in saddle trots at 14, and in the sulky as soon as he turned the required age of 16.
Playing soccer at national level sidetracked him for a few years but he was back into it by the age of 20 when he was the champion junior in Belgium.
Van Pollaert, who topped the amateur ladder last year after his father was forced out of competing with a broken leg, earns a living recycling used cooking oil into biofuel, but he spends all his spare time in the sulky.
And he says the grasp that amateur driving has in Belgium is reflected by the rule allowing amateurs to drive in professional races providing it is behind their own horse.
"A lot of amateur drivers own horses and if they can race only once every couple of weeks they have only one horse.
"Now that we can run in every race we want, we have 15 horses."
That's a scenario which even Cook dares not dream of in New Zealand.
Courtesy of Barry LICHTER and the Sunday Star Times