TRNT boss pleased with early signs from off-season sprint series

TRNT chief Andrew O'Toole
Thoroughbred Racing Northern Territory chief executive officer Andrew O’Toole is right behind the Wet Season Series in Darwin and the Winter Series in Alice Springs.

In the past year, Thoroughbred Racing Northern Territory (TRNT) has introduced an initiative in Darwin and Alice Springs in an attempt to give the sport a boost during the off-season.

It’s no secret that race fields and horse numbers drop away in the Top End and Red Centre following the Darwin and Alice Springs Cup carnivals.

The Alice Springs Cup Carnival at Pioneer Park accommodates five race meetings starting in April and culminating with Cup Day on the first Sunday in May.

The Darwin Cup Carnival at Fannie Bay accommodates eight race meetings commencing on the first Saturday in July and ending with Cup Day on the first Monday in August.

The build up to both carnivals is well supported, which includes arrivals from interstate, and there’s also the annual Tennant Creek, Adelaide River and Katherine Cup meetings.

Tennant Creek’s big day is held two Saturdays after Alice Springs Cup Day, Adelaide River’s big day is normally held in early June before the big racing starts to intensify in the Top End, and Katherine’s big day takes place two Saturdays after Darwin Cup Day.

This year’s Adelaide River Cup meeting was transferred to Darwin following damage caused to the NT’s one and only grass-surfaced track by feral pigs.

In all, there are 38 meetings held in Darwin throughout the year with Alice Springs hosting 33.

It was following a suggestion by Darwin trainers that TRNT ended up devising a concept whereby a series of heats would be held during the wet season before a final in January.

Mainly accommodating the mid-grade sprinters, horses were awarded points based on where they finished in a heat – those at the head of the pack passing the winning post picking up more points than those finishing at the tail of the field.

There was $20,000 up for grabs in each of the heats before the Wet Season Series Final (1200m) took place on Australia Day – January 26 – with $40,000 on offer and the race itself granted 0-70 status.

The Gary Clarke-trained Blue Odyssey, with Barry Huppatz in the saddle, won the inaugural Wet Season Series Final from stablemate Mr Cashman (Jarrod Todd) and the Mark Nyhan-trained Pembroke Castle (Sonja Wiseman).

“Top End trainer David Bates, also a former champion jockey in the NT, was pretty instrumental in the early stages – he came up with a bit of a plan,” TRNT chief executive officer Andrew O’Toole said from Darwin.

“We were happy to work with the trainers, who suggested that we do something off-season.

“Obviously we believed that something similar needed to be run in the Red Centre as well.

“Basically in Darwin during the wet and in Alice Springs during the winter as a further incentive to race horses with a bit of a carrot at the end.”

The inaugural Winter Series in Alice Springs started on May 29 and heats were scheduled over seven race meetings, but following the Wet Season Series in Darwin there were slight adjustments made to the racing conditions as far as qualifying for the final was concerned.

There were originally going to be just seven heats in the Red Centre, but such was the popularity of the concept that three heats were divided with races held over 1100m and 1200m at either 0-64, 0-58, 0-54, or Class 2 level.

As was the case in Darwin, horses qualified for the final based on a points system.

The winner of each heat secured five points with three points on offer for third and two points on offer for third, while every unplaced runner picked up one point.

Just like the Wet Season Series in the north, the heats of the Winter Series in the south had a purse of $20,000 with the $40,000 final over 1200m at 0-66 level taking place last Friday.

The Lisa Whittle-trained Liberty Blue (Sonja Wiseman) won the race from Jess Gleeson stablemates Bartolini (Wayne Davis) and Sedona (Adam Nicholls).

Clarke, who won the inaugural Wet Season Series Final, and Whittle, who won the first Winter Series Final, were the champion trainers in the NT for the 2021/22 season.

Clarke took out the Top End premiership, while Whittle secured the Alice Springs premiership.


“The concept worked really well in Alice – probably worked less well in Darwin, but that said the Wet Season Series and Winter Series has got merit and potential,” O’Toole said.

“Alice Springs trainers really supported it, we had some really good fields.

“In fact, we divided a couple of the heats because of the numbers.

“The Alice series was probably a step above Darwin, but we’ll run a series again here in the Top End this wet season with it likely to start on Melbourne Cup Day with the final on Australia Day.

“There will likely be eight heats that will be on a points basis and it’s just basically a further incentive for the trainers to race their horses in the off-season when it can be a little bit quiet.

“We’re pretty pleased with the results – certainly after what has transpired in Alice and we’ll do it again in Darwin and hopefully we can grow it further.”

O’Toole has faith in the Wet Season Series and Winter Series, adding that if the interest continued and where possible TRNT could provide further assistance financially, future heats might jump to $25,000 with each final perhaps increasing to $50,000 in stakes.

“They’re sort of for the mid-grade horses – it’s like a mid-grade sprinting series,” he said.

“When we do the programs we look at the races that will be applicable, normally in the 0-64 or Benchmark 54 grade – even up to the 0-70, so it’s in that sort of grade.

“We currently pay bigger stakes for those heats – they’re $20,000 races rather than the normal $17,500 or $18,500.

“I know they have a number of series in South Australia.

“Of course, the difference is they have multiple tracks – we only have the one track in two areas.”

Alice Springs trainer Jess Gleeson was more than happy to see a $40,000 race in the Red Centre during the off-season, while Darwin-based jockey Sonja Wiseman is adamant that having the Wet Season Series and Winter Series is a good idea.

As highlighted, Gleeson and Wiseman left their mark on the Winter Series Final last Friday.

“Not that we get a lot southerners or anything like that up here, but I think it’s good to get that little bit more money for people that are racing their horses and being able to actually aim them at a race throughout the year,” Wiseman said.

“You just can’t have something that you’ve just randomly bought and put them straight in the race and come out with a win.

“Because I think it’s kind of unfair when people I guess are aiming at a certain race and they’re making sure they’re getting their points up and everything at the end of it and you get a horse come in and they win it, but hasn’t raced in any of the heats.

“Personally, the concept in Darwin and Alice Springs is really good.”

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