Day At The Track

Silver fern spurs driving ambition

08:48 AM 21 May 2019 NZST
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Matthew Williamson,Harness racing
Matthew Williamson

Matthew Williamson allowed himself the moment most young New Zealand representatives surely take on Sunday night.

He unpacked his flash new driving colours, the black ones with the silver fern, tried them on and checked out how he looked in the mirror.

"It was a bit surreal to be honest, it definitely made me puff the chest out," says Williamson.

On Friday, the Oamaru horseman will wear those colours for real but on the other side of the globe in harness racing's World Driver's Championships in Sweden.

Harness racing drivers' championships are a curious beast because the best driver could draw the worst horses in the ballot and finish last. And vice versa.

But New Zealand drivers have a disproportionately high success rate, with six individual champions in the 29 series that have been contested: Dexter Dunn, Mark Jones, Maurice McKendry, Tony Herlihy, Robert Cameron and the late Kevin Holmes.

The Kiwi success rate can, at least partially, be put down to our drivers being among the most versatile in the world.

After all, they drive horses on left and right-handed tracks, in stand and mobile starts, on grass, grit and clay tracks, over a wide range of distances. And of course, they drive both trotters and pacers.

That would sum up 28-year-old Williamson, having cut his teeth in the sometimes rustic scene of the deep south before becoming a regular near the top of the national premiership.

He leaves tomorrow for the champs which begin on Friday and continue for a week, even driving on the first day of the famous Elitlopp meeting in Stockholm on Saturday.

"It is getting real now, it was after I put the colours on Sunday night," says Williamson.

"I think a lot of kids grow up hoping they get to wear the silver fern so that is pretty amazing."

Williamson made a sacrifice for that privilege, giving up driving at the Jewels at Addington on June 1.

"It probably means missing three Jewels drives but I am thrilled to be going."

And Williamson is the man for the job because Swedish harness racing is all trotting, with no pacers, and Williamson is from trotting royalty.

His father Phil holds the record for the most trotting winners trained in a season in New Zealand and his brothers Nathan and Brad are also top drivers. Remarkably, the quartet drove the first four home in a trotting race at Gore on Saturday.

Of Matthew's 780 career successes in New Zealand, 280 have been in trotting races, an extremely high percentage for a leading driver.

So while Williamson is going to Sweden to try to win, he is also going there to learn.

"It sounds like we will be going to some of the stables over there ... I can't wait to see how they do things with the trotters," he admits.

"So while the driving comes first I will be asking their trainers plenty of questions to learn as much as I can and see what I can bring home."

Even if he can wear the silver fern to WDC glory, Williamson has an even more important moment waiting for him upon his return.

His fiancee, talented reinswoman Charlotte Purvis, is expecting the couple's first child on June 10.

"So I am hoping the baby can hold on till I get back."

 

Michael Guerin

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