Flashback Friday : John Wheeler
JOHNATHAN CAMERON/FAIRFAX NZ
It would not be difficult to make a case that Taranaki trainer John Wheeler has had a higher profile in Australia than at home.
That is largely due to Wheeler winning a string of feature races in Australia – and occasionally further afield – over a period of 25 years.
Both the trainer and his horses appear to thrive when on the road.
Wheeler first made a mark by winning a host of Australia’s iconic flat races and in more recent times has regularly plundered the two biggest jumping carnivals in Australia.
There was a reminder of Wheeler’s feats in Australia this week, when leading trainer Ciaron Maher equalled Wheeler’s record of five wins in the Grand Annual Steeplechase at Warrnambool. Wheeler recorded his most recent Grand Annual win in May 2013.
In fact, Wheeler, a member of the NZ Racing Hall of Fame, has won more big races across the Tasman than in New Zealand.
In the space of six years, between October 1988 and October 1994, Wheeler won 21 Group I races on the flat, 18 of them in Australia. It was a tally that only a handful of Australian trainers would have matched over the same period.
Wheeler’s golden run was spearheaded by a wonderful trio of champion gallopers, comprising Rough Habit, Poetic Prince and Veandercross. Rough Habit and Poetic Prince were constants in the stable while Wheeler prepared Veandercross whenever the horse raced in Australia.
That trio delivered all of the Australian Group I wins during that era, along with 11 Group I seconds. The seconds included the Cox Plate (twice), Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup, AJC Derby, Caulfield Guineas, Tancred (BMW), Mackinnon Stakes, Doomben 10,000 and Rosehill Guineas.
However, there were almost twice as many Group I wins as seconds, among them a Cox Plate, Australian Cup, Stradbroke (twice) Doomben Cup (three times), Mackinnon, Tancred Stakes, Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick (twice), All Aged Stakes (twice), Caulfield Stakes, Canterbury Guineas and Queensland Derby.
Wheeler has not a flat horse of that quality since but continued to make a mark at the Australian carnivals. There was a second Queensland Derby win, with Court Ruler, several Group I placings, four Group II wins and at least three Melbourne Cup runners.
The New Zealand Cup winner Pentathon won the Group II O’Shea Stakes in Brisbane, ran second in a Sydney Cup and third in a Doomben Cup.
The Phantom Chance also won the O’Shea for Wheeler and tackled a Melbourne Cup, as did The Bandette and Pentathlon.
Wheeler almost pulled off a remarkable Sydney Cup victory with The Bandette, who was the runner-up in 1996, just three starts after winning a one-win race at Otaki. The Bandette subsequently won the Group II Herbert Power Stakes in Melbourne and was Group-I placed in the Ranvet in Sydney.
However, Wheeler’s record with jumpers in Australia may be even more extraordinary than his record with elite flat performers.
The five steeplechase “majors” in Australia are the Grand Annual, Grand National, Great Eastern, Australian Steeplechase and Hiskens Steeplechase and Wheeler has won them all.
He has been spectacularly successful at the Oakbank and Warrnambool carnivals, with a record nine wins in the Great Eastern Steeplechase at Oakbank – including five on end - to go with his five wins in the Grand Annual at Warrnambool. He has also won the Hiskens three times.
Remarkably, Wheeler’s nine Great Eastern wins have come with eight horses – Light Hand has been his only dual winner – and Foxboy and Real Tonic have been his only horses to win both the Great Eastern and Grand Annual. Wheeler won his first Great Eastern in 1993 and his ninth in 2012.