Day At The Track

Trottings grand old man still going strong

08:45 PM 21 Dec 2014 NZDT
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Mick Prendergast
Mick Prendergast still going strong at 81 years of age
Holdon Toyaspurs

Anyone knows harness racing trainer driver Mick Prendergast wouldn't doubt the old timer when he says he's training himself up to see if can ride in a novelty saddle trot in the new year.

It's not as if Prendergast, 81, has never done it before - he started riding trotters when they raced around pegs in a paddock in Naseby in 1950.

He might be a bit hard of hearing these days but New Zealand's oldest successful harness horseman showed he was still up for a challenge when he trained and drove Holdon Toyaspurs to his first win in nearly nine years at Forbury Park in Dunedin on Wednesday night.

Prendergast's colours of black with red braces and green sleeves have been seen all over the South Island for six decades since his mum made his first set of silks in 1956 when he was first licensed to compete in Central Otago and south of the Clutha river.

But it's fair to say they haven't been seen in the winner's circle too often. Prendergast potters round with no more than a couple of horses at a time and is known for persevering longer than most with his trotters.

He gave 89-start maiden Manchester Tom five years before sacking him and Maple Twist 58 winless starts in four years before the novelty of her smart black coat and stylish trot wore thin.

"I've had more seconds than wins," says Prendergast who claims just 18 wins since 1977 alongside his 30 seconds and 56 thirds.

But when Prendergast eclipsed the feat of his long time drinking buddie John "Budgie" Burgess, who drove a winner at the age of 80 in 2008, he lived up to his promise that he'd keep doing it until "he was put into a box he couldn't get out of"'.

Prendergast has managed to avoid the box so far but admits he's got into a few scrapes in recent years, even after he made the decision "not to drive anyone else's mongrels any more" because it was too little reward for too much risk.

In a 2011 race crash, when Manchester Tom was badly checked, his dentures were forced into the roof of his mouth and he broke his nose.

A couple of years ago a Continentalman trotter he was training broke Prendergast's leg and put him out for five months. When he gave her a second chance she broke his ribs before "being exported to Greece in small pieces".

Twelve months ago he was struck by a mystery muscular complaint which prevented him from getting into the cart and forced him to train his horses behind a truck for a while.

"I got all seized up and couldn't walk, couldn't even comb my hair until I saw an old doc in Ranfurly and threw all my medication away. Within half an hour I was up and away."

It was about that time that Prendergast, who has lived alone for the last 20 years, agreed to text his daughter Stacey in Otautau every morning after working the horses to confirm he was OK.

"If she didn't hear from me by lunch time she was to ring the local transport company and they'd dispatch someone to come and check on me. But I'm not so worried now that I've got two quiet horses."

It's not as if there are many people who could come to Prendergast's aid either.

He's back in the 150-year-old homestead he was brought up in at Hyde, between Ranfurly and Middlemarch, literally a two-horse "blink-and-you'll- miss-it" town.

With only a dozen residents at the pub and transport company - there's no diary or garage - you just take the first right into Prendergast Rd, yes it's named after the family, and head down towards the Clutha River, avoiding the Cemetery Rd turnoff, to find Ranger Stables.

Prendergast named the place after his best horse, Road Ranger, who won three races between 1992 and 1997, including one at Addington when he paid a whopping $69.60.

"No, I didn't back him. I've never been a bettor. When I trained my first winner, Blue Signal in a saddle trot at Cromwell, he paid seventy one pounds, nineteen and sixpence and I didn't back him either."

Prendergast had his first bet for 20 years on one of his horses when Holdon Toyaspurs ran third at Forbury in his previous start, his first for the stable.

"He'd been working so good I put $5 for a place on him and he ran third and paid $10.40. But I didn't back him when he won, I thought the 2700 metres might find him out. Phil Williamson said he didn't back him either because he reckoned I couldn't drive two good races in a row."

But Prendergast has an enviable record in the cart and, probably for that reason, says he doesn't get any lip from the young bucks on the track.

He'd been chuffed to be congratulated by champion reinsman Dexter Dunn on Wednesday night.

"I've been suspended only twice in more than 50 years and both times I think I was hard done by. I'm a very careful driver. I can get them away better than most and, when I start to get into trouble with the stewards, I'll give it away straight away."

Prendergast says the standard of driving is far better than in the 50s and 60s when "you'd get guys half pissed out there who didn't care what they did".

In those dim dark days, with very little stewards' control, it wasn't uncommon for horses to be pulled up to avoid harsh rehandicapping.

But there's none of that dodgy stuff now, Prendergast says, - especially at the Lake Hawea picnic meeting at which he has been competing and handicapping since 1956.

He's targeted the popular December 28 holiday attraction for Holdon Toyaspurs this year - "but I'll have to put him 20 metres further back now than I'd banked on".'

Then there's also that saddle trot at Omakau on January 2.

"I'm not sure if it's going to get off the ground but the club president asked me if I'd have a horse for the race.

"I'm not sure if my body would handle it but if I'm happy with myself and the horse, who's a bit rough to ride, I'll give it a go."

Prendergast rode for the first time in five years earlier this week, before Holdon Toyaspurs won, taking him for the 12km trek he usually takes in the cart along the popular "rail trail" a 150km cycle track along the old railway route from Middlemarch to Clyde.

"It's not boring for the horses, like going round and round on a track and it's not boring for me."

Prendergast is actually something of a tourist attraction himself, often stopped by cyclists who want to pose for pictures with this horse.

But, so far, he hasn't been game enough to venture any further than 6km in either direction, the prospect of going into a tunnel one way and over a bridge the other way, a little daunting on his own.

"But I'm off to Cromwell for a fortnight on Monday and will see how he goes," said Prendergast, who still drives his own float to the races, second nature he says for someone who worked for 13 years as a truck driver.

As Prendergast says, he has the same motto as his late mate Budgie, "have horse, will travel".'

In 2002, his three-race winner Sockett's Rocket earned the title of the season's iron horse - with 41 starts.

Perhaps, they should have given the iron award to Prendergast himself.

He'll be driving down Prendergast Rd, not Cemetery Rd, for a while yet.

Courtesy Of Barry Lichter - Sunday Star Times - Check site here


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