Four Clarence dogs in race of their lives
By TONY WHITE
NEVER in his wildest dreams did Maclean-based John Ford imagine purchasing a greyhound pup a couple of years back would lead to what he describes as 'an unbelievable, incredible journey.'
On Saturday night at Wentworth Park in Sydney Ford and the 'Clarence Connection' hit town as major players in greyhound racing's Night of Night's, the running of the Group 1, NCA National Derby and Schweppes National Futurity.
The winner of each race picks up a cool 50,000 bucks.
Ford and his 23-year-old son are owners of Derby equal favourite Watch The Web, trained by Iluka veteran Reg Gardoll and bred by a mate of Ford's, painting contractor, Terry Smith, of Woombah.
Apart from breeding Watch The Web, winner of the prestigious Vic Peters Classic Final last October, Smith owns and bred litter sister, Roley Dipstick, also trained by Gardoll, who surprised all and sundry winning her semi-final and claiming a spot in the Futurity.
Incredibly the 'Clarence Connection' will supply four dogs out of 16 qualifiers in two of the biggest greyhound races conducted in Australia.
It's testimony to the great strength of greyhound racing in the Northern Rivers area.
Derby finalist's, Go Wild Bean, bred, owned and trained by Mitchell Northfield and formerly trained by Grafton's John Corrigan and the Margaret Bird-owned Lord Aragorn was bred and formerly trained by Charlie Northfield. The Northfield's are based in the Casino area and regular visitors to Grafton.
Go Wild Bean and Lord Aragorn are now prepared by Sydney's leading trainer Don McMillan.
The story behind Watch The Web and Roley Dipstick had humble beginnings.
It's a tale of good fortune, mateship, battlers and every owners dream rags to riches yarn.
Both greyhounds are from a litter of nine by champion sire Awesome Assassin out of Missy Web.
"I got out of greyhound racing for some time then a ran into a friend of mine who had Missy Web," breeder Terry Smith recalled.
"He didn't want to breed from her and said if I wanted, I was welcome to use her."
Smith took up the option to breed from the moderately performed bitch.
"All bar two from the litter have won," Smith said proudly. "I sold Watch the Web to John (Ford) and kept Alfred the Great (won nine races), Missy Made Me (five races), Roley Dipstick (three races) and Keira's Lucky (five races) who is named after my daughter.
"Things have certainly taken a turn for the better."
Roley Dipstick and Keira's Lucky, trained by Gardoll, were taken to Sydney as company for kennel star Watch the Web but thrown in the deep end trying to qualify for the Futurity final.
Unfortunately Keira's Luck missed out but Roley Dipstick got through against all odds and Watch The Web qualified for the Derby final.
"Mate, to have one in each race, two of the biggest in greyhound racing, is just the biggest buzz you'll ever get," Smith said.
"It's excellent. Win, lose or draw, just having them there is unreal. Roley's got an outside chance from the inside draw but Watch The Web is a serious chance of winning. It would be tremendous for Reg (Gardoll).
"And it's terrific for the local area. The Northern Rivers doesn't get a lot of recognition or publicity. This is a big thing."
Smith is hoping to join the Ford's trackside at Wentworth Park on Saturday night. There will be a throng of supporters to cheer the locals on.
Ford is still numb at the series of events to have taken place since owning Watch The Web.
"I went and brought a pup just hoping have a bit of fun and maybe win a couple of races," he said. "I never dreamed it would become something very special.
"Having a runner in the Derby is fantastic, an unbelievable feeling."
Watch the Web is Ford's second foray into greyhound ownership and there is a touch of deja vu involved.
"I owned a dog called Sir Sable with my brother in 1976 who won a few races in Sydney with Alan Chauncy," he said.
"It's kind of ironic, he was a a black dog like Watch The Web and it was raced by T (Trevor) & J Smith. Watch the Web is also raced by T (son, Toby) and J Smith. It's come around in a circle."
Last Saturday Smith and his son witnessed Watch The Web finish second in his semi to qualify for the final and are scheduled to fly to Sydney today to again take in the fanfare of the big event.
"I'm just hoping he goes as good as always, he always gives you 110 per cent," Ford said.
"Whenever we've asked him to step up, he's done it.
"He's already won 14 races including the Vic Peters and this has taken us on such a wonderful journey. It's hard to comprehend. The dog has such a huge following, especially in the Norther Rivers.
"I've got a lot of friends and family in Sydney who will all be coming out to cheer him on. There will probably be more than 50 of us. It should be very special.
"I've got my fingers crossed."
Respected veteran trainer Gardoll, who turned 58 last Sunday, has remained in Sydney preparing the dogs for Saturday's big assignment.
His wife Elva and son Craig stayed at the family's Iluka property caring for the other greyhounds in Gardoll's care.
"I got an early birthday present when they qualified the night before," Gardoll said, joking.
"He's been through this sort of thing before. It's a waiting game now," he said of the lead-up to the Derby and Futurity final.
Gardoll has trained greyhounds for 35 years. "I don't want to remember the first 34," he said.
"This (Saturday night) is pretty special."
His biggest win was Secret Secret in the Chairman's Cup and Pretty Hilo won 25 races including a Grafton Cup. Then there's local idol, Iluka Lilly, who currently has a litter of eight pups at foot.
"This is the first time I've had a dog in the Derby and first time in the Futurity. I've never chased these sort of races," Gardoll said.
"There are no nerves, no point worrying about it, it's up to the dogs. It's just work as usual. If something turns up, beautiful but it's certainly good money for greyhound racing."
The greyhounds have been kenneled with close friend Mick Causley at Seven Hills.
"Mick's been a fantastic mate and the dogs have settled in really well," Gardoll said.
It's a terrific time for John (Ford) and Terry (Smith).
"Watch The Web showed ability right from day one. I knew he would be handy, but's he's just kept improving and improving. He is usually a foolproof beginner, but after jumping in the semi, went sideways and collided with another dog. The winner (Brother Knows) had too much start on him.
"Box seven on Saturday is not to his advantage but hopefully if he begins well I think he's got the class to overcome it.
"Roley's was a bit of a surprise. She came down for the drive as company for the other dog. She excelled herself. The trip away has made her grow up.
"It's good money here (Sydney). She won $4000 last week. I'd have to win 15 races back home to even break square.
"This is a big thing for the Clarence Valley and Northern Rivers having three runners in the Derby and one in the Futurity.
"I just can't understand why Grafton is not made a TAB track, it's such a strong racing area.
"We've got four dogs from 16 in two of the biggest races in Australia.
"Hopefully greyhound officials will take note and do something about it."
Gardoll praised the efforts of his wife Elva and son Craig.
"I couldn't be here without their help and support," he said. "They look after things while I'm away.
"The boys (Ford and Smith) are probably coming down with their families and a few mates from Maclean are coming down and I've got a good bunch of friends in Sydney.
"There will be a lot of people cheering for us, particularly in the Northern Rivers.
"As long as the dog's do their best. If we have a bit of luck and win something I might even buy the boys back home a beer or two."