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Monkey Business

by fatweb


November, 1976 — 18-year-old Ricky May secures his first win driving Ruling River, his grandmother’s horse, at Geraldine. Some 35 years later and all eyes are on the humble Methven farmer as he once again partners with champion pacer Monkey King in the prestigious Christchurch Casino New Zealand Trotting Cup.

The winning duo have won New Zealand’s greatest race for the last two consecutive years, stealing the attention of many and earning millions along the way. The big question now is whether they can claim the coveted crown for a third time. Katie McKone talks to May in the lead up to the big event at Addington Raceway this November.

The winning partnership between horse and driver began in 2005 at Auckland’s Alexandra Park. “He (Monkey King) went phenomenal when I first drove him — he came from last at quarter peg to take the win,” says May. “He was the favourite for the race but it was just the way he did it that really proved how good he was.”

Monkey King has since become a star in his own right — his stake earnings have surpassed the $3.3 million mark, he was named New Zealand Harness Horse of the Year for 2009-2010, and has joined the likes of Flashing Red as dual winner of the Cup.

So what is the secret to their success? “I know him inside and out,” claims May. “He is a funny little horse with his own tricks, and if you look at him he is a pretty ordinary horse to be fair. But he has a big heart and a will to win.”

The mid-Canterbury based driver is also full of praise for trainer Brendon ‘Benny’ Hill and owner Robert Famularo, who “put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes”.

“Benny trains him incredibly well — it’s really all him.”

May has driven horses to victory in the New Zealand Trotting Cup on five separate occasions, the first being Inky Lord in 1989. This was followed by Iraklis in 1997, Mainland Banner in 2005 and of course Monkey King in 2009 and 2010.

While any win in this esteemed two-mile harness race is a career highlight, Monkey King has a habit of standing out from the crowd, he says. “I have had a lot of other great drives, but none have been up to Monkey King’s standard. The Cup is the ultimate race for anyone, and to this day it is still an extreme privilege — just to get a drive in the race is a great honour.”

Despite joining the elite 2000-wins club, May claims he “wouldn’t be human” if not succumbing to pre-race nerves. “I still get a tingle down my spine. When you have over 25,000 people making a racket it definitely makes you hope that everything goes your way.”

Before Monkey King

Harness racing is very much a family affair for May, who grew up helping his grandfather work the horses at his Methven farm — a 400-acre property which has since been handed down to him. However it was not love at first sight, with May only showing a real interest in harness racing later in his teenage years. “I was more interested in the farming side of things to be honest, and it was my family that really pushed me at the start and gave me the opportunities.

“I remember my Dad telling me you either do it or you don’t — you give 100 percent or nothing. That’s when I decided to make a go of it and I started to work hard and really button down, and things just went on from there, I suppose.”

It was then a case of making the most of somewhat limited opportunities available in the 1970s for a young driver trying to get his foot on the ladder. “It was pretty hard at the start and I was definitely no Dexter Dunn or anything like that. There were just not a lot of races for the junior level back then — not even ten a year. These days that number has increased by about three or four times.”


Time will tell

With only weeks until the big day, the question is whether Monkey King can rise up to his best and claim victory for the third year running. “It is all looking very promising at this stage. Benny is really pleased with him and all going well he should be in good form come Cup day,” May claims. “He has a big showing this year, and he is a proven two miler with a pretty good record.”

Monkey King’s performance at the recent August Workouts is a case in point. “He went really well. For his first run back it was really pleasing, and I couldn’t be happier with him, to be honest.” But it all comes down to what happens on the day, adds May. “The horse has got to be geared 100 percent and that has been the case with Monkey King for the last two years  — touch wood it is going to be good this year as well.”

May’s status as one of New Zealand’s top reinsmen has been significantly heightened in the wake of his iconic victories with Monkey King. While well aware that there are a number of talented young drivers “trying to kick you off your perch,” this by no means deters him. “I am pretty lucky in that I only have a few aches and pains, with no major injuries. At this stage I plan to just carry on what I am doing, and that 100 percent philosophy still applies.

“When Benny and Robert tell me I am getting too old then I will probably have to rethink things. But when you are driving horses like Monkey King it certainly provides an incentive to keep going.”

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