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Karnicnik chasing his own slice of Grand National history

  • Fri, 11 Aug 2017
  • Dennis Ryan
Wearing the famous Hazlett colours, Stephan Karnicnik guides Tai Hoa to third in the Koral Steeplechase.

Wearing the famous Hazlett colours, Stephan Karnicnik guides Tai Hoa to third in the Koral Steeplechase.

Stephan Karnicnik may be short on the history surrounding one of New Zealand’s iconic races, but there’s no lack of confidence in his prospects of adding his name to the Grand National Steeplechase honours board at Riccarton tomorrow.

Austrian-born Karnicnik has been one of the battlers of the New Zealand jumping scene since arriving in the country to take a job with Taranaki trainer John Wheeler. The 38-year-old rode two winners from 49 rides in 2014-15, added another three the next season and in the just completed term he made further gains for five wins from 85 rides.

One of his four jumps wins last season came on Tai Ho, who he will combine with again in tomorrow’s Racecourse Hotel & Motor Inn Grand National Steeplechase. The Southland gelding’s earlier form this winter included a second in the Great Western Steeple at Riverton and he followed his mid-July Washdyke steeplechase win with a solid effort for third behind Grand National favourite The Big Opal in last Saturday’s Koral Steeplechase.

When Karnicnik heads to the start of the 5600-metre feature tomorrow, he will be wearing what could be arguably described as the country’s most historic set of racing colours. The emerald green and white silks were made famous by horses raced by the late “Big Bill” Hazlett, a 1920s All Black who went on to dominate ownership ranks for decades from his Southland base.

Hazlett, who died in 1978, was recognised for his achievements in racing with induction to the Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.

In a Grand National context, two of his greatest horses were Loch Linnhe and Eiffel Tower. His 1965 Wellington Cup winner Eiffel Tower went on to win two editions of the Grand National Hurdle and wrote his own chapter in racing folklore when he won the 1967 Great Northern Steeplechase after being run off at the water jump by another outstanding southerner, Kumai.

Eiffel Tower had to settle for second in the Grand National Steeplechase, but a decade later Loch Linnhe went one better around the Riccarton country. The big bay’s 25 wins also included two Great Northerns and a VRC Grand National Steeple at Flemington.

The Ellis Winsloe-trained Tai Ho is a member of the family that produced Eiffel Tower and is raced by a partership that includes the estate of Bill Hazlett’s son Bill, who passed away in May just days after seeing his horse finish fourth in the Hazlett Contracting Steeplechase at Riverton. His widow Alison continues to race Tai Ho in partnership with long-time family friend Colin Ashby.

“I remember seeing Mr Hazlett at the races that day watching from his car and it was very sad to know that he died soon after,” Karnicnik recalled. “Mrs Hazlett was at Riverton when we finished second in the Great Western and I know how much it meant to her for their horse to run so well.”

Karnicnik will go into tomorrow’s big race knowing he has a horse that is still developing and with the racing and fitness behind him to make his presence felt.

“He’s just improved all season, it’s been his learning year and his run in the Koral was very good,” Karnicnik told on the eve of the Grand National. “He’s definitely in with a shout and I would just love to be able to do the job for his owners.

“They’re lovely people and they have been very loyal to me. I know they’re very excited to have a runner in the Grand National and it’s a great honour to be riding for them.”