Howie Mathews is hoping “the old boys” will be the toast of Trentham on Saturday. The 66-year-old Otaki trainer will saddle up 10-year-old Sampson, the oldest horse in the Group 3 NZ Campus of Innovation and Sport Wellington Cup (3200m), in a bid to notch his second win in the staying feature, 41 years after he trained Big Gamble to win it in the hands of Toby Autridge.
Mathews obviously has fond memories of Big Gamble’s win and he laughs when he thinks of the party that followed back in Matamata at owner Hec Tapper’s home. “I’m too old to be partying like that now. I’m a pensioner,” Mathews said jokingly. “But we’ll be celebrating for sure if Sampson wins on Saturday. “It will be Sampson’s third start in the Cup. From memory, Big Gamble had three starts in it, too.”
Big Gamble preceded his 1979 Wellington Cup win with a second to Good Lord the previous year and he ran fifth in the 1981 edition. Sampson’s two Wellington Cup starts have resulted in a third to Mister Impatience in 2016 and a second to Magic Chai two years ago and, after a last-start encouraging second behind Beauden in the Listed Marton Cup (2200m) at Awapuni, Mathews believes the son of Dubai Destination has a good chance to succeed this time.
“I’ve got my heart set on him running in it,” Mathews said. “Just to have another Wellington Cup runner will be pretty awesome and I think he can win it. “He went a hell of a race in the Marton Cup and there’s only another few in it that have gone the two miles (3200m). “He’s done well and his work was fantastic last Friday morning. There was a bit of give in the track and he ran his last 600m in 35 (seconds). “He’s very fit and Johnathan Parkes (jockey) is back on him.
“Parksey had a great season on him last season when he won the Marton Cup and St Leger (Listed, 2600m). “Actually he should have won the Wellington Cup last year. He had won the Marton Cup and was so well, but a stone bruise burst out on the morning of the Wellington Cup and we had to scratch him.” Raced by Mathews’ wife, Lorraine, and Janice Street, Sampson has won 11 of his 76 starts and earned more than $528,000 in prizemoney.
His latest win was an eight and a quarter-length triumph in the Listed New Zealand St Leger (2600m) last March and between times Mathews and his wife have campaigned him in Australia. “We were away for three months and it was a great trip,” Mathews said. “He didn’t win a race, but he went some top races and ran second in the Ipswich Cup (Listed, 2150m). He paid his way. “We stayed with a lot of friends and started off in Melbourne and ended up in Brisbane. It was a great time for us all.”
Sampson’s Australian campaign ended with a fifth in the Listed Queensland Cup (3200m) at Eagle Farm last July and he reappeared on the New Zealand scene when winning over 1400m at the Foxton trials on November 4. The Marton Cup was Sampson’s fourth run this campaign and followed an eighth in the Group 3 Manawatu Cup (2300m). “It’s best to space his races,” Mathews said. “Us old boys need our nana naps.”
Trentham has been a happy hunting ground for Mathews over his long training career with Big Gamble also winning the 1981 Group 2 Trentham Stakes (2400m) on the course and other highlights including Dorabella’s victory in the 2007 Group 1 Captain Cook Stakes (1600m) and Extra Flash’s win in the 1978 (then Group 2) Telegraph Handicap (1200m).
Sampson has chimed in with four wins at Trentham, the first highlight being the 2017 Group 3 Trentham Stakes (2100m) and the latest, the 2019 St Leger. But both will be overshadowed if Sampson can win Saturday’s Wellington Cup. “It would a dream come true if he could win it,” Mathews said. “He’s 10, but he’s not showing it. He’s not ready to be pensioned off yet. “If he runs a good race and pulls up well I’d like to have another go at the St Leger with him.”
These days Mathews is happy with just two horses in work, the other being Vermont, who joined his team after winning two races for Danica Guy. Mathews also fills in his days driving the float for fellow Otaki trainers Johno Benner and Hollie Wynyard when required and also working part-time at the Otaki racecourse. “Racing is so demanding and it’s great to be able to step back from it and enjoy life more,” he said. “Having a horse like Sampson helps us enjoy it, too.”