By MIKE HILL
IT might have come a day late, but veteran Brisbane dog man Michael Stephenson admitted it had been a big celebration at Fishery Falls after Hara\’s Panda impressively won the $35,500 Group 3 Weseal Townsville Cup (498m) in late August.
Stephenson had based himself at Fishery Falls, a small village on the Cassowary Coast 40kms south of Cairns, as he plotted his first Group success with long-time mate David Church and owner Tony Glover, who was unable to make the trip north.
It was also Glover\’s first Group victory.
Church had trained the first dog Glover ever raced – Under Crail back in 1995 – when he lived in Brisbane.
These days, Church and Stephenson\’s niece Debbie Jessup operate the Fishery Falls Hotel.
\”Dave and I didn\’t have a drink, not even a celebratory one, after Hara\’s Panda\’s Friday night Cup victory,\” said Stephenson.
\”We had the four-hour drive from Townsville back to Fishery Falls.
\”But we partied – one massive Panda party – the following night at the pub.
\”I sang 10 or 15 songs during the night. It was a big night of entertainment and celebration.\”
Stephenson admitted Hara\’s Panda (Fernando Bale-Hara\’s Annie) had developed into \’a pretty good little dog\’.
\”He\’s the only dog I have in work at present and I went into the final confident,\” he said.
Known as Tricky to his friends, Stephenson had given his kennel star the best possible preparation he could, arriving a week before the series launch.
\”He trialled very well at his first run over the trip on the Monday before the heats, clocking a quick 28.52s hand-timed,\” the trainer said.
Hara\’s Panda lived up to his trainer\’s hopes with a solid second to another smart Brisbane sprinter, the Darren Johnstone-prepared Federal Morgan, in his heat – coming from box seven.
For Stephenson, \’all the stars were aligned\’ on final night and he landed the big prize.
\”I was confident, particularly after Hara\’s Panda drew box one,\” he said.
\”He\’s a smart beginner. I felt he only had to jump well and he\’d be hard to beat.\”
Hara\’s Panda, the $2.30 favourite, was quick to leave the boxes and had a two-length margin over Federal Morgan ($5) down the back straight with the remainder of the field six lengths away.
The Stephenson sprinter maintained his advantage into the straight before scoring by three-quarters of a length from a gallant Federal Morgan with Tipsy Four ($61) five and three-quarter lengths away third for caretaker trainer Danny Preh.
The winner clocked a slick 28.55s – only .22s outside Zabdon Ferrari\’s track record of 28.33s set in winning the 2016 Cup.
As a younger dog Stephenson doubted if Hara\’s Panda could run out a strong 500m, but the talented sprinter has improved greatly with racing.
Between late April and his Cup victory, the white and black chaser had been in exceptional form with 10 wins and five placings from 16 starts.
His only unplaced run came in the G3 Flying Amy Classic (520m) at Albion Park in June when fourth behind Kiss And Spin.
He has a best 29.79s for the Albion Park 520m journey and now has a Group victory to his impressive career record of 15 wins and nine placings from 31 starts. His prizemoney last month stood at $82,515.
Stephenson, fast approaching 73, has been passing on his vast knowledge to others for more than five decades after rugging up his first runner in his early twenties.
Over the years he has trained his share of handy dogs from his Bray Park property on the northern side of Brisbane.
\”Some of the better ones include Crail Spirit, Crail Tempest, Rangeview Boy, the Lawnton Greyhound Of The Year winner in 1988, Smell The Money (Capalaba GOTY, 2006) and Malawi Rocket.
\”Crail Spirit, a Beenleigh track specialist, was a very talented bitch winning on eight or nine different tracks.
\”I remember she beat the classy Shape Shifter – he later became a stud dog – one night at Toowoomba.
\”Smell The Money was a straight track specialist, scoring 10 of his 14 wins up the Capalaba 366m trip. He was a big dog that didn\’t like going inside runners, he\’d race around them.
\”He didn\’t like the circle tracks. He wouldn\’t go around corners. If he had, he could have been anything.
\”He went within a quarter of a length of one of the records at the Gold Coast Parklands track after dropping out to last and racing around the field.
\”Malawi Rocket was only a little fella – he weighed about 25.8kgs – but he could run. He won about 28 races. Paul Dolan used to love calling him when he raced at Albion Park.\”
Stephenson said his association with Glover had spanned many years.
\”I\’ve known Tony all his life and I have been training dogs for him for 15 or 20 years,\” he said. \”He is like a son to me.\”
Stephenson also praised his wife Annette for her enormous help over the years.
\’Darl\’, as he affectionately calls her, has been a huge part of his operation.
\”She has been supporting me all our married life,\” he said. \”I couldn\’t do what I\’m doing without her wonderful assistance.\”
Stephenson said he was also thankful for the existence of the Lawnton straight trialling track, a facility he ran for many years after the club folded in 1995.
\”It\’s an enormous help and a great facility for trainers on the north side of Brisbane,\” he said. \”Without it many wouldn\’t be able to stay in the game.\”
Caption: Presentation time … Michael Stephenson with his Group 3 Weseal Townsville Cup (498m) winner Hara\’s Panda (centre), Darren Johnstone with runner-up Federal Morgan (left) and Danny Preh with third placegetter Tipsy Four. (Photo: Louise Partland)