By BARRY LICHTER
Sunday Star Times 6/12/09

HARNESS RACING’S wizard Todd Mitchell and his Road Runner syndicate took over the Avondale Jockey Club’s birdcage yesterday after Electronic Socks and rider Andy Webb scored a runaway win in a Dunstan Series qualifier. And now the happy band of 10 cross-code owners, which includes some of trotting’s best known northerners, are looking at making galloping headquarters Ellerslie their own on New Years’ Day when the $60,000 Dunstan Final is run.

Leading driver Peter Ferguson is already making plans for the day, while wondering how they can cope with celebrating in Auckland during the day, and still be fit to drive the same night at Cambridge.

“I thought greyhounds was easy but this is even easier,” said Ferguson, who has shares in greyhounds.

“I said the other day we should all put in $500 for Andy so he can pay his fine after he wins the Dunstan and gives the big Fergie salute over the line.”
The syndicate, which also includes Mitchell’s trainer father Robert, northern harness starter Colin “Shorty” Chandler, and a swag of Mitchell’s trotting owners, was put together when Mitchell organised the lease of a galloper a couple of years ago.

“I’d always wanted to try training a galloper – dad used to pre-train some, he called them road runners – and I got keen on it when some friends leased a horse and sent it to me to jog up.

“I liked the horse so much I took a half-share and told them I’d take out my licence.” But while the horse ran a few placings in only seven starts, the dream was over when it bled.

Mitchell had a taste for it, however, and asked Maryanne Simon, wife of friend and racecaller George Simon, to find him another one to lease.

“I like the gallopers,” Mitchell said. “You only have to put on a saddle and bridle – and it takes a lot longer to work a standardbred.

“The only downside is I can’t ride them so I don’t get the same feel for them.”

Mitchell said he had forged a good relationship with Webb, who was at the Cambridge track to help at 4.45am every gallop morning.

“And by the time I get home at 5.30am the girls have fed the standardbreds.” Training his now five-strong team of gallopers was otherwise not too taxing – “they jog for 15 minutes behind a cart with the trotters on other mornings or I swim them in my bungy pool.”

Mitchell said he believed the gallopers stayed happy with the variety of work and it helped that they were not ridden all the time.

But Mitchell admitted along with 22 standardbreds in work, and some late nights driving at away meetings, he was looking forward to a good sleep today.

Mitchell did not get back from driving at Palmerston North last Wednesday night until 4am and after a midnight finish last Friday night at Auckland, had only a few hours kip again.

Mitchell can now claim four notches to his galloping belt – Electronic Socks has scored three times and Novice Mistress once.

But he has a way to go to beat the four New Zealand Trotting Cup winners he’s driven, which include dual cup winner Just An Excuse, which his father trained.