The excitement is building, as new names are added to the list of contenders to qualify for the Alabar Hero Series Final.
The preeminent event, regarded as ‘the nation’s richest and most prestigious annual standardbred showing competition’, invites qualified retired harness racehorses to contest the Series Final class, held at the VAS Saddle Horse Championships at the Bendigo Showgrounds on the 7th of January 2024.
Series Final competitors will put their best hoof forward to win a share in over $3000 in prizes, including garlands, trophy rugs and cash, with $1000 awarded to the overall Alabar Hero Series Final Champion, $500 to the Runner-Up, $500 to the Highest Placed Newcomer, $500 to the Highest Placed Owner-Rider, plus generous awards for placegetters.
To qualify, combinations must have been sashed as the Best Ridden Standardbred Exhibit at one of fifty-three Victorian Agricultural Society (VAS) events held across spring/early summer 2023.
Last year’s Alabar Hero Series Champion, talented mare Mazza’s Delight, is eying off back-to-back sashes, having qualified for this year’s Final at the Sunbury Agricultural Show held on October 14th.
Mazza Delight’s part-owner Kylie Gleeson, who shares the mare who is affectionately known as ‘Suzie’ with Marilyn Cauchi, says it’s ‘always lovely to get that qualifier in’.
“It feels great to know that’s a box ticked and the work for the Final can begin”, Kylie explains.
“After her win last year, having only being under saddle for five months, it’s been a goal to get some decent training/education under Suzie’s belt and to get her to use her body correctly.
“Suzie’s rider, Sebastian Bellamy, has started doing some dressage with her, which is fabulous for her mind and body.
“We enjoy watching all the workouts at the Final, getting to have a chat and admiring the horses on offer for the day. It’s also nice to see what new horses and faces are in”.
A first-timer eligible to contest this year’s Final is Leah Kinman’s handsome gelding Shadow, who claimed the Ridden Champion title at the Kingston Show back in March.
“It felt incredible to qualify for the Final, which was certainly a goal for Shadow and I”, Leah explains. “It’s an honour to be invited into the Final, especially after going through some challenges as a partnership. It feels like all our hard work has paid off”.Another qualifier thrilled with her standardbred’s progress is Skye O’Brien, who considers the invitation to the Final ‘a huge achievement’, especially given where her standardbred Darcy Park Classic Connection was at in his retraining only a couple months ago.
“The Alabar Hero Series Final is definitely something I’ve had in my mind, but I wasn’t sure whether we’d be ready in time”, Skye says.
“We’ve pushed to make it happen and I’m just really happy to being able to compete. Hopefully Snoopy and I work to our full potential”.
Another rider who set her sights on qualifying for the Final was Hero Ambassador Katie West, whose dedication has seen her talented standardbred Future Bliss receive his fifth invitation to contest the event.
“Winning the qualifier gives you a goal to work towards for the rest of the season. It provides the challenge of having your horse ready to give a peak performance on show day”, Katie explains.
“I am looking forward to seeing how Barry (Future Bliss) stacks up against all the other quality standardbreds in Victoria and if we can produce our best work in the ring. “I think the Alabar Hero Series Final is a positive addition to the VAS classes, as it helps showcase standardbreds on the same level as the other top show horses in Victoria.”
These sentiments are echoed by long-time standardbred lover Nikky Fontana, whose mare Ellingworth Black Lily qualified for the Final at the Daylesford Agricultural Show in November.
Nikky says the Alabar Hero Series “highlights our amazing breed and promotes standardbreds to the greater population”.
Esteemed competitor Brooke Sweeney, speaking on behalf of her partnership with Mitch Fox, agrees that both the qualification requirements to attend VAS events and the Series Final itself serve as ‘great publicity for the breed’.
This has certainly been the case at Brooke and Mitch’s stables, with three standardbreds qualifying for the 2024 Final: Samandnic, Majestic Cruiser and Hero Ambassador Kasbah Kid.
“It’s a state championship and that’s the attraction for us with our boys. We get the opportunity to compete against the best of the best”, Brooke explains.
Talented mare Ethernet is another return competitor, this year hoping that the third time’s a charm in the Final.
“I didn’t know much about the Series Final the first time”, explains rider Kylie Slockwitch, who will campaign Ethernet on behalf of owner Jessica Gale.
“It would be wonderful to make the Top 10, on our third try”.
With qualifying events held all around the state with no pre-requisite barriers to entry, the Alabar Hero Series encourages standardbreds of all experience levels to participate.
Alison MacLaren, who comes from a background in eventing, made a ‘spur of the moment decision’ to enter the Alabar Hero Series class at a local event.
“The Series Final is a prestigious event which I am proud to support and be part of. I am by no means a show rider, but I’m enjoying the opportunity to improve my presentation and turnout skills”, Alison explains.
“There are some quality horses out there now doing well in the open ring as well as standardbred-specific classes. It’s also a lovely thing for standardbred riders who enjoy showing to work towards”.
Alison has qualified for the Series Final on two different standardbreds this season: Yoshi Dynamite and up-and-coming gelding Hallaboutme, who has been under saddle for less than three months.
With inclusiveness at the forefront, the Alabar Hero Series not only attracts competitive riders, but also sees many harness racing participants swap their silks for show jackets to step into the ring.
Stacey and Jackie Barker, generational harness racing participants and co-founders of retraining operation Monivae Park Standardbreds, have, collectively, qualified for the Final every single year since the event’s inception.
In fact, Nardoo Sam, who qualified this year at the Port Fairy Agricultural Show in November with Stacey, has been invited to the Series Final each year dating back to the inaugural 2017 event.
Across 2023, the Barker sisters have received invitations for four horses to contest the upcoming Final: Jilliby Babavska, Murdoch, Nardoo Sam and Lochlee Simpson.
“To win a qualifier is always great, but the invitation and opportunity to showcase the standardbred horse and their versatility at state level is really exciting”, Stacey Barker says.
“The Series Final has always been the main goal for Jilliby Babavska ever since I had my first sit on him and we’ve been working towards it pretty much from that day.
“The Alabar Hero Series is such a positive addition to the not only the standy comps, but VAS as well. It’s a great platform to promote the progression and versatility of the breed to a wider audience, hopefully encouraging people to realise that standardbreds are more than just great trail horses”.
Sharing Stacey and Jackie’s adaptability across racing and equestrian pursuits is accomplished horsewoman Casey Leijen, who will be on this year’s panel of judges.
“It’s a privilege to be selected to judge this year’s Alabar Hero Series Final. I am very much looking forward to it and can’t wait to see all the horses out there in all their glory”, Casey says.
“I started working in harness industry about five years ago and have fallen in love with the breed. I am now trainer and driver and hope to have my first starter in the new year.
“I think the Alabar Hero Series a very important event for standardbreds and I’m just looking forward to seeing all the lovely horses out there representing the breed”.
Increasing breed awareness has been a driver of the Alabar Hero Series, which is a core program in HRV Hero’s broad portfolio of standardbred promotional initiatives.
“HRV Hero is proud to continue its collaboration with prominent standardbred stud Alabar Farms, to provide a platform for standardbreds to be recognised for their abilities in the show ring and vie for a share in some fantastic prizes”, says Hero Operations Manager, Tara van der Minne.
“The energy surrounding the Alabar Hero Series continues to grow year on year. It’s fantastic to see retired harness racehorses so immaculately presented and thriving in their lives beyond the track”.