Stewards react to Butcher's driving tactics

STIPENDIARY STEWARDS will consider laying further charges against driver Philip Butcher after his brutal drive on Awesome Armbro in the New Zealand Free-For-All at Addington caused the defeat of the red hot favourite Auckland Reactor.

And the connections of the champion believe Butcher's tactics were so disgraceful he should be facing charges of team driving and even committing an act detrimental to the interests of harness racing.

Stewards charged Butcher with driving the Geoff Small-trained horse "in a manner that was capable of diminishing his own horse's chances" after he launched a non-stop attack on Auckland Reactor in the lead. In doing so he gave his brother David, on stablemate Changeover, perfect cover in the one out-one back sit.

Stewards were forced to adjourn the inquiry when Butcher failed to respond to their summons and left the course to fly back to Auckland. Their attempts to carry out a veterinary check on Awesome Armbro, who stopped so badly from his exertions that he finished 77.5 lengths from the winner, were thwarted because the horse had been taken from the course.

The incident, which completely overshadowed a superlative winning performance from New Zealand Cup winner Monkey King, comes just a week before Small is due to begin serving a six-month disqualification for committing an act detrimental to the interests of harness racing and uttering abusive and insulting language.

Racegoers who backed Auckland Reactor down to the microscopic odds of $1.20 in his New Zealand farewell were aghast when Butcher sooled Awesome Armbro from the rear to challenge him, despite the horse being a renowned sit-sprinter who invariably comes from the back with one run.

Purdon, sitting behind the champ, said he "knew what was going on" as soon as he saw Awesome Armbro appear.

"I knew where Changeover would be without even looking. The horse [Awesome Armbro] never let up and he was buggered down the back straight. He [Butcher] had to pull the plugs in the back straight to keep up."

The tactic forced Auckland Reactor to run fast sectionals early in the race and he succumbed to Changeover, who was in turn gobbled up by Monkey King, who came with a late burst to win in 2:22.4, just 0.6s outside the Auckland Reactor's New Zealand record set in the race last year.

Purdon, sensing Auckland Reactor had given his all, nursed him home, 4.6 lengths from the winner, but beating home only Awesome Armbro.

The blatant assault left one of Auckland Reactor's owners, Gary Lyons, so incensed he approached and verbally abused Philip Butcher as he returned to the stabling area. Butcher did not respond to Lyons, a former Golden Gloves boxing champion, but later reported the abuse to stewards who spoke to Lyons.

Butcher defended his drive, explaining to one reporter the pace was not as fast as it appeared. He believed Auckland Reactor had simply not performed as well in Friday's free-for-all.

Purdon, who also had words with Butcher, was gutted by the experience. "That was one of the most disappointing things I've had happen to me in harness racing. You don't mind being beaten fair and square but to be beaten like that ..."

Purdon said he was sad racegoers had to watch a deliberate ruining of his chances.

"I would have thought that was an act detrimental to the industry. People came to see a great horse and instead saw that done to him. They must be thinking `what kind of a show are we running?' And what about those who backed Awesome Armbro? People would walk away from the game over something like that."

The owners of Awesome Armbro had every right to feel aggrieved too – the horse had run second to Auckland Reactor in the free-for-all last year.

Chief stipendiary steward Neil Escott said the adjournment would allow the stewards time to review the past performances and racing style of Awesome Armbro and, if necessary, charges could be changed before the resumption of the hearing, expected to be next week. While it would be up to the JCA to rule on penalty, Butcher could be looking at between three and six months out.

Harness Racing New Zealand general manager Edward Rennell said the incident was "not a good image for harness racing, an industry where punter confidence was crucial".

It is the third time in three years Small, or his drivers, have been involved in team driving or allegations of it.

Sunday Star Times