by Adam Hamilton
It is 13 years since champion Aussie trotting trainer Chris Lang was completely overwhelmed at Sweden’s Elitloppet.
Lang had his then best trotter Sundons Gift absolutely flying and snapped-up an invitation to fly the Aussie flag against some of the world’s best trotters on such a stunning stage.
“I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I was at the top of the tree at home, but didn’t realise how big the global stage was.
“It was overwhelming. As good a trotter as Sundons Gift was, he wasn’t the right horse for a race like that. He was better suited to two-mile standing-start racing at home, not the helter-skelter mile mobile racing.
“As much as I tried to remain optimistic, it was obvious after a couple of runs over there we were really up against it.”
Sundons Gift eventually drew wide in his Elitlopp heat and finished sixth.
“He wasn’t the best gaited trotter, either. That certainly didn’t help the cause because he had to race in heavier shoes than most,” Lang recalled.
“He wasn’t the only one from here (Down Under) to struggle to adapt. Lyell Creek was an absolute great, a freak, but the mobile racing wasn’t really his cup of tea either, despite how great a trotter he was.”
But Lang is resilient and stubborn. He’s longing to get back to try again and thinks he has found the trotter to do in his emerging 4-year-old son of Orlando Vici, Ollivici.
“The whole trotting landscape has changed Down Under since Sundons Gift and even more so since Lyell Creek,” Lang said. “We’ve got so much more US and European breeding behind our trotters now and they’ve gone to another level.
“We’ve modernised. We’ve got modern-day trotters now compared to even just a decade ago and that’s what I’d call Ollivici, a modern-day trotter. He’s a flawless trotter, has been since day one. He doesn’t seem to move his legs any quicker when he accelerates, he just extends them.”
Lang, 62, had trained four great trotters in a stellar career – Sundons Gift, Let Me Thru, Skyvalley and National Interest – and says Ollivici is showing all the makings of joining that elite quartet.
“He is potentially in their league, yes,” he said. “I think he’ll be more of a sit-sprinter at the very top level because he is so fast, but he can also switch-on and relax really well. His times are already comparable to the best going around.”
Lang bought Ollivici – who is a half-brother to $A1 million-earning trotter Stent – from the Christchurch yearling sales and immediately fell in love with him.
“From day one, he had the makings of being one out of the box, mainly because of his flawless gait and ease with which he did everything,” he said.
“Just when we were starting to get really excited, he had a paddock accident and the vet thought he would never race… you can imagine how devastated we were. It was before he’d even raced.
“Thankfully, he made it back but we always worried the injury would alter his gait and he’d never be what he was going to be. It seemed that way when he raced last season, he just wasn’t right at times and had soundness issues.”
But, after a long break and plenty of tweaking, Ollivici has returned with six wins from as many starts since season and now has Lang thinking big time again.
To get his wish and head back to Sweden again, Lang will need Ollivici to win a “major” at home.
He’ll get his first chance in the Inter Dominion trotting series – consisting of three compulsory qualifying heats into a final all in the space of 15 days – in Victoria from November 26 to December 10.
“That’s his first really big target,” Lang said. “But I have to say I think he’s 12 months away from being as good as he can be, both through maturity and race experience. He’s only had 17 starts (for 10 wins).
“We’re taking on a star from NZ in Bolt For Brilliance, who is a year older and I see how much that past year of racing has done for his development. He’s gone from a boy to a man and we’ve got that year ahead of us.
“That said, I think so much of this horse and his speed, if things went wrong for Bolt For Brilliance and everything went our way, I think we could beat him. Queen Elida, the top four-year-old mare here, is the other big danger in the series. She looks special, but, like us, she’s still short on experience.”
Realistically, Lang thinks the 2024 Elitlopp might be Ollivici’s go, but he’s certainly not ruling out next May.
“No, no way. If he won a big one and the opportunity to go over presented itself, we would go,” he said.
“The Inter Dominion isn’t our only chance to get an invite, in fact the Great Southern Star (in February) is a race they seem to look at even more as far as a trotter to invite from this part of the world.”
Like the Elitlopp, the Great Southern Star is somewhat unique in that the heats and final are on the same night.
“He’ll be given his chance to book a ticket to Sweden this campaign, but if we have to wait until 2024 it won’t be the end of the world. I just hope he’s as good as we think and he gets us back across there,” Lang said.
It would cap the renaissance of Lang, who took three years away from the game he had conquered, and Ollivici was the first horse he bought when he decided to get back into it.
“I call it my long service leave,” Lang said, laughing. “I needed it. It was a good way to clear my mind and clear my life out.
“I’m back, training from a really good farm, have a horse to take back into the big time and probably enjoying it more than I ever have.”
Lang also admits to having a far greater perspective on training and life in general after his own serious health battles and the loss of his brother, the Hall of Fame driver Gavin Lang, to cancer.
“Losing Gavin was a shock. He was a giant and an icon of the industry and you just sort of think he’ll be around forever,” he said.
“I’ve got a condition called connective tissue disease. It was fairly serious for a while, but I put myself on a special diet and manage myself better and the symptoms are nowhere near as bad now.”
How bad did it get?
“It really affected my hands. It basically stops the circulation so I’d get mild frostbite in my fingers and my nails would fall off. It’s a big part of the reason I took time away from the game,” Lang said.
“But I’m not the first into the stables in the morning anymore and I’ll work the horses later, especially if it’s a really cold morning.”
It’s pretty warm in Stockholm in May, maybe that’s an extra part of the Elitlopp attraction.