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Mercedes Great Northern Carnival launched

Our crew of racing media, sponsor representatives and Auckland Racing Club staff and committee members set off from Ellerslie Racecourse yesterday morning on the serious task of launching the 2002 Mercedes Great Northern Carnival.

It's difficult work, requiring the inducements of a handsome vest and bag courtesy of Mercedes and TV Guide, a free bus trip to a mystery destination, with complimentary Mercedes television ads in several languages, and immediate infusions of Montana wine upon arrival.

Our destination remains a mystery for the best part of an hour, until we turn in to Argonaut Stables set in rolling country near Te Kauwhata. It's the home of two-time Great Northern winner Royal Ways, who will try this year to match Hunterville's record of three victories in the race. His trainer Tony Cole, his wife Lou and their staff have been sweeping, painting and cleaning the place for days, and it looks tremendous. Lou reckons they won't need another big clean-up for the next ten years.

The Auckland Racing Club's new marketing manager Kevin Robertson, assistant manager Angela Williams and catering manager Chris Seddon have organised sponsor flags and banners, pot plants, a marquee and even a red carpet, all set among the boxes and barn which house the racehorses.

Inside the barn MC Keith Haub introduces various special guests, most special of all the three likely stars of the carnival. At 15.3 hands Royal Ways is the smallest of the trio but he's built like a boxer, and his racing weight is about 490 kg. Tony Cole says the horse is very, very well and he's very happy with him after last Saturday's run at Te Rapa. "His old tendon injury is very quiet, I'm very happy with his leg." You'll have picked up by now that Royal Ways is very, very special to Tony. No less so to his other owners Ross Henry, Ian Wright and Roy Johnston who say the horse's nickname is "Speed", because he won the slowest-ever 2200 metre race at Ellerslie.

The famous pair who made history by dead-heating in the 2001 Mercedes Great Northern Steeplechase appear next. Sir Avion is a hand taller than Royal Ways and good-looking with it. Owner-trainer Kevin O'Connor estimates he's had only two weeks off in the past five or six months and has been in work for most of the past two years. "In himself he's equally as well, if not better than last year."

Ann Browne has brought Smart Hunter who in 2001 became the eighth horse to complete the Great Northern Hurdle-Steeple double in the same year. Like Sir Avion he'll go for the double again on 1 and 3 June. This time, however, he'll be without rider Michelle Hopkins who fractured a leg last week and is sidelined for three months - two, if she has anything to do with it. Today she sits with her leg propped up on a feed bin and is unruffled when ARC president Geoff Clatworthy mistakenly calls her "Michael." Smart Hunter knows exactly who she is and comes over for a nuzzle.

Ann is very pleased with him. "The ground hasn't suited him so far. He's done everything the same as last year." She's hoping that husband Ken, disabled but not defeated by a fall last year, will be at Ellerslie to see him run in the Steeplechase.

Ken Browne has owned and trained eight winners of the Mercedes Great Northern Steeplechase, six of them in partnership with Ann. Most memorable of these for me was Ardri's 1990 victory with Ken in the saddle on a very testing, heavy track. Ardri decided it was time to call it quits with 1000 metres or so to go but Ken, knowing how fit the horse was, disagreed. They argued for some time but Ken, refusing to give up, won the fight and the pair of them won the race. The sight of Ann greeting horse and rider as they returned to scale, the steam rising off them, and neither blowing hard enough to extinguish a candle, is one of many bright images from the 118-year history of the Great Race.

This is the sixth running of the 6400-metre Steeplechase to be sponsored by Mercedes which has announced a three year-renewal of its support. The TV Guide has been associated with the 4190-metre Hurdles for ten years.

- Susan Archer