The future looks bright with Rock N Roll Doo back on track

by Adam Hamilton

Down Under harness racing’s “problem child” has got his mojo back.

And, luckily, Rock N Roll Doo’s trainer/driver Michael Stanley is a “glass half full” person.

It would be easy for Stanley to lament what could have been over the past year since the best pacer he has trained thrashed his rivals and looked the sport’s next big thing in the Group 1 Victoria Cup at Melton.

So much has gone wrong for the horse and Stanley, but after the best part of a year in the wilderness, Rock N Roll Doo is back firing and seemingly primed for a Victoria Cup title defense on Oct. 14.

While many have referenced Rock N Roll Doo’s three-race New Zealand Cup raid just weeks after the Victoria Cup win as the trigger to his derailment, Stanley insists otherwise.

“No, I would still argue there were more positives than negatives that came out of the trip to NZ,” he said. “Obviously, [owner] Brendan [James] and I have had plenty of time to look back on it all and there’s no doubt it helped develop him as a horse.

“He was actually flying over there, but he just didn’t handle the standing starts. His one mobile run, which came after he messed up two stands, was really good when he sat parked and was beaten less than three meters in the NZ free-for-all. Sure, we didn’t get the results we hoped for over there, but we still took plenty from it.”

Rock N Roll Doo returned home and finished a terrific third in the Cranbourne Cup a month after his last NZ run, but that was to be his last glimpse for many months.

“It all went wrong for the horse and I in the Bendigo Cup at his next run,” Stanley said. “It was the start of a nightmare run on all levels, to be honest.”

Rock N Roll Doo started to hang so badly Stanley feared something wasn’t right with the then early five-year-old and went to ease him out of the race.

“Just as I did, Cam Hart tried to steer his horse around me, but it wouldn’t go and he cannoned straight into my back,” Stanley said. “The pain was unbearable. I knew it had to be something serious.”

When Stanley, an accomplished Aussie rules footballer, says the pain was unbearable, you listen.

After a night in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with two fractures in the transverse process of the L1-L3 of the vertebrae, Stanley was basically bed-ridden for a month and it was three months until he was back in action.

“It hurt so much because the fractures were where all the nerves are,” he said. “They thought it might have been kidney damage at the start because of the pain.”

So, there is Stanley stuck in bed and feeling hopeless, as the pacer he had always dreamed of training went on from the Bendigo debacle to race awfully again for 11th placings in the Ballarat and Hunter Cups.

“[My wife] Gen and dad [Ian] were a great help, but, clearly, the horse wasn’t right,” Michael said. “We still don’t know exactly what it was, except maybe some shoulder soreness. Maybe he was a bit tired after the NZ trip, too.

“We just needed to pull the pin, but that’s hard to do when you know how good the horse is and all the big races are on around that time. We did pull the pin, but probably waited a bit too long.”

It sparked some challenging times for Michael and his young family with not many horses in work, limited income and the lingering effects of the damage to his back.

“It put strain on us all round,” Michael said. “Financially, we took a hit and Gen, who had basically been in a training partnership with me, went back to relief [school] teaching and it’s taken the best part of a year to get back to where we were before it.

“Although I’m lucky with my back because it could’ve been a lot more serious, I’ve still got lingering effects like discomfort and numbness. They say I’ll never fully recover and will likely have lasting effects later in life, too.”

Michael needed Rock N Roll Doo back to his best, for his mind and his pocket, and he started to get excited when he got back to some serious track work in early July.

“He felt like the horse of old, but I didn’t want to get too excited until he got to the races and delivered,” he said.

The big, raw and rangy son of Rock N Roll Heaven put a huge smile on Michael’s face, even in defeat, when he resumed with a monstrous second when he broke the clock from a mile back at Melton on Aug. 19.

The run was so good, Michael and James quickly changed plans and decided to chase the Group 1 Len Smith Mile at Menangle two weeks later, which Rock N Roll Doo won despite sitting parked throughout.

“Yes, there’s been a lot of frustration, but it’s genuinely all turned to excitement now,” Michael said. “He was so good first-up, we decided to have a crack at the Len Smith and he won it, probably only about 70 per cent fit and with so much improvement to come. The race wasn’t even on the radar and he’s already come back and won a Group 1.

“I don’t want to ponder the past anymore. The future is too bloody exciting because he’s still young and quite inexperienced. I’m not saying he’ll win every big race, but we can be confident no matter how the race is run he will give them a big shake. Brendan summed it up best the other day when he said, ‘We respect all the rivals we’ll face, but we fear none.’”

Rock N Roll Doo was kept up to the mark with an easy Maryborough Cup win recently and had his last preparatory race for the Victoria Cup when he tackled the Group 2 Kilmore Cup on Friday night (Sept. 22)

Beyond chasing successive Victoria Cup wins on Oct. 14, Michael said it is “very likely” Rock N Roll Doo will tackle the iconic Inter Dominion series (consisting of three rounds of compulsory qualifying

heats into a final) at Brisbane’s Albion Park in December.

Then there are races like the Hunter Cup and Miracle Mile early next year.

“We’ll take what we can get, but if there’s one race I would absolutely love to win [it’s] the Miracle Mile,” Michael said. “We went so close with Soho Tribeca [third] a few years back and it still burns as the one that got away. We thought we had the right horse and he was primed.”

Back in 2018, Soho Tribeca sat parked throughout in a still Australasian record 1:46.9sec mile and was beaten less than a meter.

“We might have the horse to do it, too,” Michael said. “Two of his best wins have been at Menangle [where the Miracle Mile is run] and he’s come back a more mature and easier horse to drive now.”