Twenty-eight years after he first won Down Under’s biggest trotting event with Diamond Field — and 16 years since his most recent — the driver has a shot to win his fifth title with Bolt For Brilliance.
by Adam Hamilton
More than 28 years after champion driver Tony Herlihy won his first Inter Dominion, he thinks he has the horse to win Down Under’s biggest event again.
Herlihy, New Zealand’s greatest and most successful driver with over 3,600 career wins, is buzzing with excitement about his new trotting star Bolt For Brilliance.
It was Diamond Field at Sydney’s Harold Park way in 1994 who gave Herlihy victory in the Inter Dominion for the first time. Other wins followed soon after on Pride Of Petite in 1997 and Buster Hanover in 1998, then Delft gave him a fourth win in 2006.
But it’s been slim pickings since.
Remarkably, the 64-year-old Herlihy – fondly known as “Skinny” or “Tony H” to his friends and fans – has only driven in one Inter Dominion trotting final since 2011. That was a fifth placing on Temporale in the 2019 Auckland final.
What makes Bolt For Brilliance’s looming Inter Dominion quest even more important to Herlihy is the fact the 5-year-old will be just the fourth horse (pacer or trotter) he has trained to make the final (on Dec. 10 at Melton) if he can do so.
Herlihy’s greatness has been built on driving, pushing his success as a trainer (largely in NZ) into the background, but Bolt For Brilliance could be about to change all that.
Rival trainer Chris Lang, long regarded as the “King” of trotters in Australia, is in awe of Herlihy work with Bolt For Brilliance.
“It’s got a great, old-fashioned Kiwi trainer written all over it,” he said. “He’s gradually asked more of the horse, built him up and got him ready for the big league. You could see it unfolding last year.”
Herlihy giggled when I put Lang’s comments to him.
“That’s very kind of Chris… he’s not wrong,” Herlihy said, laughing.
So, let’s go back to the start with Bolt For Brilliance, who Herlihy bought for just $NZ30,000 from the NZ Yearling Sales.
“I had a couple of young trotters by Muscle Hill in our stables for Ken Breckon (a big NZ owner/breeder) and liked them. One was a mare called Tickle Me Pink, who was really good before injuries,” Herlihy said.
“I went to the sales with that in mind and looking for a nice Muscle Hill. Bolt For Brilliance was the one I liked and bought. His mum (Toomuch To Do) won an Inter Dominion heat.
“He was a nice, big, strong colt and I left him with Kerry O’Reilly to break in. I was excited when he told me he ‘felt like a natural with a pretty big motor.’
“As a 2-year-old he took a wee while to get organized, but it all came together towards the end of the season when he won the Harness Jewels.”
After a deliberately light 3-year-old season where Bolt For Brilliance raced just four times for two wins, Herlihy took the “gloves off” and unleashed his latest star at 4.
“He was ready and had a terrific 4-year-old season,” Herlihy said.
Bolt For Brilliance’s 17 runs that season netted nine wins, five seconds and two thirds.
Although he had arrived as one of New Zealand’s best and most exciting trotters, there was an intimidating force standing in his way… called Sundees Son.
“It’s actually been good having Sundees Son over here as a benchmark,” Herlihy said. “He was too big, good and strong for us for a while. He beat us up a few times, but what I like so much about my guy is that he bounces back.
“He’s a bit of a warrior. He comes out of a scrap already looking for the next one.
“Despite those early beatings, he always kept his will to win, in fact it’s probably grown stronger.
“Those defeats were the making of him. By the end of last campaign, he showed he’d really arrived when he turned the tables on Sundees Son and well and truly beat him on his merits. It was at the end of a tough two miles in quick time, so the win had it all.”
Bolt For Brilliance’s emergence, traits and that career-shaping last-start win back in May in the Group 1 Rowe Cup – one of NZ’s elite trotting races – has convinced Herlihy the 5-year-old deserves to be in the same conversation as the trotting greats he’s driven through his illustrious career.
“He’s right up there and judging by how well he seems to have come back this time in work, he should only do more to prove that,” he said.
“He’s the best ‘going’ trotter I’ve been part of, better gaited than even Pride Of Petite, but he’s got the sort of will to win that reminds me of her.
“He’s the best trotter I’ve trained, and I did have One Over Kenny for a little while and she was fantastic. He’s right up with Sly Flyin and Ohoka Punter (pacers) as the best horse I’ve trained, full stop.”
Even talking of Bolt For Brilliance in the same breath as Pride Of Petite is quite something else.
Pride Of Petite is one of the all-time great Down Under trotters. She was by U.S. stallion Royal Prestige out of the former Kiwi trotter mare Petite Evander, who like Pride Of Petite, tackled Sweden’s Elitloppet. Petite Evander ran in the heats twice for a seventh and sixth, while Pride Of Petite ran fourth in heat and sixth in the 1996 Elitloppet.
Pride Petite won 35 races, was placed 42 times and banked $NZ811,816 back in the early to mid-1990s. She’s best known for winning successive Inter Dominion finals in 1996 and ’97.
That 1997 win when Herlihy drove her for trainer Mark Purdon was one of the most remarkable and enormous feature race wins Australia has seen.
“I just watched the replay the other day with a few people and they say surely there is still another lap to go when they saw how far off the lead she was with 300m to run. She was just something else,” Herlihy said.
It’s a feeling Herlihy wants to create at Melton on Dec. 10.
“The Inter Dominion, especially with trotters, has been such a big part of my life and my career, I can’t wait to be part of it again,” he said.
“I really think I’ve got the right horse this year and he should be right at the peak of his career when this one comes around.”