CHRISTMAS sees harness racing attention turn to Maitland over the next two weekends for the running of the time-honoured Maitland Inner City Pace. Contenders for the final will line up in heats at Maitland Showground this Sunday and the top 10 by time will qualify for the final to be held at the Showground next Saturday, December 28.
This year marks the 57th running of what is the annual the flagship event for the Maitland Harness Racing Club. First run in 1962, and today boasting a total purse of $30,000, the race draws top trainers and horses and is a stepping stone for horses that have ability.
"Throughout the years many have gone onto going onto bigger and better things," Maitland Harness Racing Club secretary Wayne Smith said. "The two night carnival attracts a strong support program, and for spectators it's like an annual reunion, as loyal race fans gather year after year. Some will be able to recall every race, and some haven't missed one since it first began."
For those coming along for the first time, the Inner City Pace is a chance to experience harness racing in its prime. "You've got that holiday Christmas atmosphere, those daylight savings hours, the evening light, balmy temperatures and red-hot action on the track as top harness racers from around the country go head to head," Wayne said.
"Maitland, being a smaller type of track, allows you to get up close and personal with the beautiful animals as they run past two or three times. You don't get that on bigger tracks.
"That intimacy really amplifies the atmosphere and along with the stalwarts, we catch people while they're in holiday mode and away from work.
"We have jumping castles, and mini trotters for the kids, plus food and beverage and full TAB on track and all up it makes for makes for a great family night of entertainment." Contested over 2422m, the Inner City Pace is a stayers' event.
"That mile and a half really tests the horses and heat performances are a strong indicator for the final," Wayne said.
"Rarely does a heat winner not perform in the main race." Sundays event will see an eight event card including three heats for the Inner City Pace in races two, four and six. Wayne said there were a number of entries to look out for.
"In heat one, HEZA CONMAN may be the one to beat. Of the locals, JUSTAJOLT will likely hold the greatest advantage being locally trained on the Maitland track," he said, adding heat two would be the most open of the three heats.
"ASHARK will likely start favourite with recent good form. Starting very close to the favoured runner will be MASTER CATCH."
In heat three, Wayne said newcomer OUR UNCLE ALAN will be returning to NSW after racing stints in Victoria and Queensland, however recent form suggests the the gelding will be primed for this event.
"GRACIE TALJUICE is an ever-consistent performer with the mare facing the starter 127 times before. OUR GIRL HARLOW trained by Richard Williams from Tamworth has good recent form suggesting a race of this caliber will be within range," he said.
"The one to watch in the final qualifying division will be FRANCO STORM, a big strong campaigner will relish the longer distance and may outstay his rivals."
Wayne said, despite the smaller fields, the heats provide for interesting and open racing with qualifying for the $30,000 final very competitive.
Gates open an hour before the first race at 5.57pm, admission fee is $10 for adults, $5 concessions and children under 16 are free.