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Hillis gives southerner thumbs-up for Great Northern
30 Aug 2016

Wayne Hillis rode two Great Northern Steeplechase winners during his successful jumps jockey career and now reckons he might just have ridden a third.

These days a trainer based at Matamata, the 54-year-old still keeps his hand in with regular trackwork duties and this morning he partnered Southland-trained Great Northern entry Gargamel in a searching workout ahead of Saturday’s Ellerslie marathon.

The 2014 Grand National Hurdle winner and third placegetter in the Grand National Steeplechase at his last start, Gargamel was sent over two rounds of the course proper at good jumper’s clip. He was timed over his final 1200 metres in 1:31.2 and finished off with 600 metres in 44.7.

Since arriving in the north a week ago, Gargamel has been stabled with the Hillis team in the care of former jumps jockey Jason Spencer, who races him in partnership with the gelding’s Winton-based trainer Leda Beck.

After this morning’s hitout Hillis was able to tell Spencer that Gargamel felt “up to the mark” for the 6400-mertre Great Northern.

“Not bad work for an old jumper,” quipped Hillis. “No, he felt good. He had a bit of a puff when he pulled up, but that was solid work having to carry me.

“Maybe this time next week I’ll be able to say I’ve ridden another Great Northern winner!”

Hillis first tasted success in the iconic steeplechase when combining with Heddawin in 1988 for Te Kauwhata owner-trainer John Bullock. Three years later he was part of the historic dead-heat when riding Kevin O’Connor’s Sir Avion versus the Michelle Hopkins-ridden Smart Hunter for Ken and Ann Browne.

Spencer admits to being happy with Gargamel’s progress since arriving in the north, but concedes the task is a big one, especially against what is shaping as an outstanding field for Saturday’s 2016 edition.

“He’s done everything we could have wished for since the Grand National, but it won’t be easy,” he said. “Trust our luck to strike what’s looking like the biggest field in years!”

While last year’s Great Northern winner Jack Romanov has been sidelined with another tendon issue, all five finishers in the Grand National – Upper Cut, Mr Mor, Gargamel, High Forty and Snodroptwinkletoes – are expected to line up, along with Pakuranga Hunt Cup winner Kick Back and her Kevin Myers-trained stablemate Crash Bandicoot, 2015 Great Northern winner Amanood Lad, and Big Brownie, who confirmed a start in the famous Browne colours after his win at Te Aroha on Sunday.  

Dennis Ryan

The Informant