Day At The Track

Ken Barron - Game changer

09:20 AM 25 Oct 2017 NZDT
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Ken Barron,Harness racing
Ken Barron
Bruce Stewart

When Southlander Ken Barron became stable driver for former Tapanui trainer John Lischner in 1994 his approach to race day driving marked a major change in the way races were run in Canterbury. 

"I think Ken would tell you himself that he hated driving and being unlucky. He tried to give each horse all the luck he could get for them. That's the way they drive today and Ken started that. He was a wee bit lucky because Clark (brother Clark Barron) moved up not that long afterwards and the two drive very similarly. It did change the style of driving in Canterbury for sure," said Lischner. 

Barron recently decided not to renew his race day driving licence after 31 years in the sulky, over which he reined 1050 winners.

He started as a junior reinsman in the 1985-86 season. His first winner Morning Rise which was trained by his father Ron, happened at the Wairio meeting in November 1986. In fact his first five winners were trained by his father.

Also in those early days, winners came from trainers like Alan Paisley, Jason Enright and Vin Devery.

It was his association with Devery that lead to his first Group winner Dreamy Atom which won the Group Three 1994 Sweetheart Stakes.

In those early days he also struck up a successful partnership with Southland trainer Murray Brown and drove his first winner for him in January 1992 reining Barbed Wire to win at Ascot Park. From that point Brown began to use him regularly and by the time Barron left to go to Canterbury he'd driven 19 winners for the Findley Road trainer. 

"Henry Skinner and Alan Scobie were driving for me. Ken was at me all the time to get a drive. When those older guys started to wind down Ken got his opportunity," said Brown.

Brown says Barron was a real student of the standardbred and could assess a horse and it's ability fairly quickly. 

"He studied his horses. He was right into it and knew every horse after just one drive. Henry (Henry Skinner) and Scobes (Alan Scobie) were like that."

And Lischner agrees.

"Ken's a bit of a thinker. He drove once for Peter Bagrie and Peter told me after, that when he came back in  he knew exactly everything about the horse. He'd never had a driver that could sum up a horse after one drive. He was pretty good that way." 

Older brother Clark, who has also driven over 1000 winners and observed his brother's early drives, agrees.

"You could probably take that a step further. He knew a horse in the first four to five hundred metres. Probably in the preliminary. I was already driving and he came along and no one tried harder than him to succeed," he said.

The success that Brown and Barron were having was also proving beneficial to Brown.

"Everyone was wanting to put their horse here because Ken was driving for me. It went like wildfire," he said.

He also says the success Barron was having didn't surprise him. 

"He was a good squash player and good at golf. All those good ones (drivers) are good at other sports." 

The early success Barron was having was also noted by John Lischner who was starting to build momentum with a large team in Ashburton.  

"I had a yarn to Ron because I didn't want to interfere with any family plans they might have had for Ken in extending their business. Ron said 'you just fire ahead and do what ever you want to do'." 

Lischner says he was in desperate need to have a permanent stable driver.  

"We were sick of not getting any continuity with feedback from drivers because we'd have one driver one week and a different driver the next. We were getting mixed messages and that was disruptive. I saw Ken driving in the south and thought 'that boy doesn't drive bad'. I took a couple of horses down south and got him to drive them."

So Ken Barron moved north to Mid Canterbury at the beginning of the 1994 season and soon began to make his mark.

"He'd only been up here for about a fortnight and we had horses in at Blenheim so I dispatched him away in Dick Prendergast's float. We had some success on that trip and it grew from there. He was quite an adventurous driver and not afraid to attack the lead. Fortunately we had the horses that he had success with driving like that. Our horses did stay a bit better that quite a lot of others. We didn't specifically train our horses to fit Ken's style." 

Clark can also remember the impact his brother was having.

"I always remember when he went up there. He'd get a way out (leading in the race). All the drivers would say 'Oh, he'll come back'. He never did and after the first few months he'd won a heap of races."

A few years later Clark joined his brother, working for Michael House and he took a similar approach. 

"We are definitely similar but I'm probably a bit more conservative than he was," said Clark.

So Ken Barron made his mark on Canterbury harness racing and it was a game changer. He drove many winners for John Lischner and when asked to pick one particular drive that summaries his style it wasn't hard for the trainer to find one. 

"One that stands out was Eastburn Grant because he was a tough horse. I remember vividly when we won the Rowe Cup with him. Ken set him alight and they just never caught him." 

Eastburn Grant was not the only good trotter Barron drove. Others include Jo Anne, Dependable, Majestic Time and Gee's Pride. 

One of the other stable stars he drove at that time was Stars and Stripes. 

"Ken drove him a treat. He wasn't much good in front but devastating from behind. We won four Derbies with him." 

In 2002 Lischner took Barron onboard as a training partner. 

"When he joined me he told me that he had some views (on training) and he said he'd like to tell me about them. I heard them and we came to an arrangement. I said 'If I don't like what you're doing I'll tell you'. That's the way we worked. It would be fair to say we never had a cross word. We had different opinions about some horses but we had a mutual respect for one another. Nothing really changed when he came in as a partner. It just carried on the same," Lischner said. 

Clark believes a lot of credit for his brother's success goes to John Lischner. 

"A lot of credit had to go to John. They had very fit horses and the combination (of them both) worked unreal." 

Clark says it didn't surprise him when Ken decided not to renew his driving licence at the beginning of this season. 

"We both spoke about it and thought we'd slow down in our early fifties. But we both got to our mid fifties. I'm still ticking over and he's pulled the pin altogether." 

The impact that Ken Barron has had on harness racing driving has largely gone unheralded but that's probably how he would like it. However the style he took to Canterbury in 1994 proved to be a blue print to how most races pan out these days.

Ken is now happy to carry on just training with his other brother Tony and observe his team being driven primarily by Blair Orange, who I'm sure has benefitted from his employer's style. 

Bruce Stewart 
Southland Harness Racing


Barron Bits:

8,772 drives for 1050 winners, 969 seconds, 887 thirds for $8,948,514 UDR .2148

Group One winners: New Zealand Standardbred Breeders Stakes (Lady Toddy), Great Northern Derby (Stars And Stripes), New Zealand Sires Stakes Three Year Old Final (Stars and Stripes), New Zealand Derby (Stars And Stripes),Rowe Cup (Eastburn Grant) and Easter Cup (Bradshaw). He also drove Stars And Stripes to win the $100,000 2000 Victoria Derby and the $100,000 2000 NSW Derby.   

First win: Morning Rise – Ron Barron – November 1985 at Wairio.

First win for John Lischner: Irish Lullaby –Invercargill 3rd September 1994

Winning drives for John Lischner: 369

Winning drives for John Lischner and Ken Barron: 88

Total winners trained by Lischner: 705 - Ken Barron drove 457 of them.

Winning drive for self: 219

Drove multiple winners for: Murray Brown, Ron and Tony Barron, Vin Devery and Allan Georgeson.

Note: John Lischner was the leading trainer in 1997 and 1999. Barron drove 90 winners in 1999 and was second to Tony Herlihy in the national premiership. He drove 103 winners in 1997 and was again second in the premiership - this time to Maurice McKendry (120). McKendry had 791 drives that season - Barron drove 493 times. On both occasions he was the leading South Island driver.

Top Twelve winning drives in New Zealand:

  • Lady Toddy (12)
  • Georgetown (10)
  • Eastburn Grant (10)
  • Dependable (10)
  • Bradshaw (10)
  • Stars and Stripes (9)
  • Major Decision (9)
  • Luchador (8)
  • Arctic Chief (8)
  • Comply Or Die (8)
  • Supreme Mach (8)
  • Gees Pride (8)
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