THE annual Woodlands Stud-sponsored harness racing drivers challenge has undergone many changes throughout the years.
Initially it featured a provincial championship, then a trans-Tasman component, more recently a border rivalry between the North and South of the Waitaki, and this year it takes on a new form with the Downbytheseaside Battle of the Sexes Challenge at Ascot Park Raceway in Invercargill on Wednesday.
With so many top women drivers emerging in the sport, the time was right for a Battle Of The Sexes Challenge and two quality teams have been assembled to fight it out for both individual honours and team bragging rights on the day.
The women’s team features Sam Ottley, fourth in last year’s New Zealand Drivers Premiership and well placed again early in the 2020/2021 season.
Ottley reined 68 winners last season and has more than 25 this season.
Joining her in the ladies team would be Sheree Tomlinson, a winner of the Dominion Handicap with Amaretto Sun at the age of 19, and winner of both the 2018 Garrard’s Australasian Young Drivers Championship and the individual trophy at this event last year.
Sheree’s sister Kerryn, winner of the New Zealand Junior Drivers Championship, would join her, along with Sarah O’Reilly, the 2019 Hanley Formula Australasian Young Drivers Championship.
Top local women Kirstin Barclay and Ellie Barron, who boast more than 300 wins between them, complete the team.
The men’s team would be spearheaded by Blair Orange, who topped the premiership last season with 219 wins, and was one of a select group to have driven more than 2000 winners.
Alongside Orange would be local drivers Nathan Williamson, winner of more than $7 million in stakes during his career and a 12-time winner of the Southland Drivers’ Premiership, and Brent Barclay, winner of more than 770 races and a three-time winner of the Southland Drivers’ Premiership.
John Morrison of the New Zealand Junior Driving Premiership plus Mark Hurrell, who had amassed 90 winning drives in just five seasons, would also be on board.
The men’s team would be completed by Ricky May who was closing in on 3000 winners and when he did, would become just the third driver to achieve it.
May had reined seven New Zealand Cup winners and had only missed one of these driver challenge events since they were instigated in the early 1980s.
May collapsed in the sulky at Omakau on January 2 this year, and has made a miraculous comeback. It was appropriate that one of those credited with saving him, Ellie Barron, was in the rival team.
Racing would continue until the last race at 6.06pm, so there would be a great opportunity to stop in and catch some action, even after work.
Points would be allocated as follows for each heat second 7, third 5, fourth 3, fifth 1 and points scored will go to both the individual tally in the challenge and the team total.
Racing was set to begin at 2pm and included in the eight races programmed would be four scoring heats for the Downbytheseaside Battle Of The Sexes Drivers Challenge. Admission to the course would be free.
- Lindsay Beer is the Southern Harness Racing promotions officer