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Go ahead, make my day

By Tony McMahon

Aspen-Lad.jpgWhere there is a will there is a way.

Rockhampton trainer Darryl Johnston, 36, blessed with the virtues of ingenuity, resilience and a positive attitude has enacted those qualities with inspirational testimony.

I remember speaking to Darryl during his painful rehabilitation from a race fall he endured as a successful jockey at Rockhampton’s Callaghan Park racecourse on December 29, 2007.

As a result of the horror fall Darryl became a paraplegic but beaming his never too far away smile, he told me ‘life goes on and I will become a trainer.’

He did and from his wheelchair he led around and saddled his first winner Reraise at Mackay within a year on December 22, 2008.

Once again yesterday at Townsville’s Cluden Park in his snazzy wheelchair, that beaming smile was on display for all to see as Darryl greeted his latest winner the speedy Aspen Lad.

Ridden by Darryl’s loving partner, the jockey Natalea Summers and led-in by his son Will, the trio were a sight to behold as their elation was the product of tireless hours of dedication in the preceding 24 hours.

Before going there though, the win of Harry (Aspen Lad) was far from unexpected by the Johnston team as he firmed in the betting from $8.00 to $4.80.

Such generous opening odds were well off the mark as less than a fortnight back Aspen Lad was the talk of Rockhampton after winning a barrier trial by over eight lengths in brilliant time.

Gunned out of the barriers from his rails draw by Natalea Summers, Aspen Lad displayed his enviable speed to lead throughout and easily win the $31K QTIS Maiden (1000m) by 1.5 lengths.

It brought about a big post-race statement from Darry declaring Aspen Lad was ‘the best horse and fastest horse I have trained.’

That in itself is a huge compliment as among his numerous winners over the years Darryl prepared Isa Tala which among 10 other wins scored in the Cairns Lightning (950m) on August 12, 2017.

Diana Reck who owned and raced Isa Tala (gr m 2009, Dance Hunter-Palpitations) is also a part-owner of Aspen Lad along with trainer Darryl and Michelle Fitzroy.

‘’Dianne has been a long-time client,” Darryl said.

“We bought the Captain Sonador mare Sonador Rose from Vic Vagg when she finished racing and put her to Bagger Vance. That’s how we got Harry.

“Then when the time was right John Stephens broke him in and did a fabulous job.”



Regional and country-based trainers in Queensland are all too aware of the tyranny of distance that awaits them as they find suitable races to start their horses in and such was the case facing Darryl, Natalea and Harry the horse.

However, with a relaxed and easy-going temperament nothing fazes Darryl Johnston and he has never allowed his wheelchair to become his crutch and impair on his training responsibilities.

So, on Wednesday along with son Will, ‘Harry the horse’ and one of Natalie’s old favourite mares for a travelling companion, the float was hitched and Darryl drove to Mackay to overnight.

Natalea headed the 270km west to Emerald races as a passenger with jockey John Stephens where she rode three placegetters.

After the races, jockey Martin Haley drove her the 383km trip to Mackay where she teamed up with Darryl, Will and Harry.

Early on race morning Thursday, the complete team of jockey, trainer, strapper and horses floated up the 386km to Townsville’s Cluden racecourse.

In all the ‘Team Harry’ in their separate road journeys had completed 21 hours of travel to achieve a monumental win with Aspen Lad that took him a tick over 56 seconds in race time to achieve.

Believe you me the long nine hours’ drive back to their Rockhampton base last night would have been the proverbial piece of cake, but a sweet one at that.

“It’s all in a day’s work,” Natalea said last night while heading back to Rocky before adding “we’ll (Darryl and her) be at Callaghan Park at 3am in the morning (Friday) as we have three other horses in the stable to work.”

Now that’s dedication for you which is part and parcel of the racing game where the horses come first and the rest can follow.

Success from self-described battlers like ‘Team Harry’ should never be begrudged but most definitely be applauded.