Tyla Hackett rides Majestic Ali (black, red and white) in a non-tote trial. Photo / Trish DunellTyla
Don’t bother asking Michelle Wallis why New Zealand’s leading trotting stable would bother with Monte races, which have their historic first tote event of the modern era at Alexandra Park tomorrow night.
Because for Wallis and husband Bernie Hackett, the question should be, why wouldn’t they bother with them?
Monte racing is a harness race, almost always for trotters, with the riders on top like jockeys and they are popular in Europe and Scandinavia as well as a point of difference in Victoria, Australia.
While race eight at tomorrow night’s meeting may only be a $6000 start to tote Monte racing in New Zealand for trainers like Wallis and Hackett, Jay Abernethy and Derek Balle, it is the culmination of a two-year battle to get to this stage.
Wallis and Hackett have two in the race and while that means racing for far lesser stake money than usual at Alexandra Park, the benefits are three-fold.
“For a start these races will have their own handicapping system so if a horse wins if doesn’t affect their rating back in normal races,” explains Wallis.
“And we have found it really beneficial for some horses, it freshens them up and changes their attitude.
“Some horses we try it with don’t like it and we don’t persist but a horse like Makarewa Jake, we gave him his first Monte trial last year when he was battling as a normal trotter and it turned him right around.
“He came out and won his next sulky race.”
The other benefit is giving some horsepeople who for whatever reason don’t drive in races the chance to ride in them, either rekindling or igniting an interest in harness racing.
“When you have stablehands who work really hard and they want to experience racing but don’t want to drive in races, then this is another way to keep them involved and give them that thrill, which is why a lot of people are involved with horses,” says Wallis. “And we have seen that with the galloping people already involved in the Montes.”
For Wallis that person is her 17-year-old daughter Tyla, who will have her first tote ride tomorrow night. “She can’t wait and that enthusiasm is infectious. I think they are a great thing for trotting, they are an international part of the industry and also something different.”
Alexandra Park is committed to a series of Monte races over the summer and Harness Racing New Zealand has established rules around who is eligible to ride, handicapping systems and even riding weights.
Wallis says the latter is nowhere as important as in the enormously more competitive thoroughbred industry when a 5kg weight difference in jockeys is considered huge.
“We have found the weight doesn’t seem to matter too much as long as it is not a huge difference.
“And with a horse like Majestic Ali we found she was more likely to trot throughout in a Monte even though she was galloping in normal races because of the extra weight over her shoulders keeping her down.”
Montes can have a reputation for being messy affairs until the horses gain experience but they are also a popular export product to countries like France, where New Zealand harness racing needs to start tapping into its next overseas revenue stream.
So who wins the first tote Monte in New Zealand?
“To be honest, both ours have a chance but the one to beat might be Show Of Faith. From the trials I have seen she has grown a leg since they put the saddle on her,” says Wallis.
• Monte racing is harness horses, usually trotters, competing under saddles with riders like jockeys.
• It is popular in France and Scandinavia and has been running in Victoria, Australia, for several years.
• Tomorrow night’s tote race at Alexandra Park will be the first of its kind in New Zealand in the modern era.