FIVE-time Grand Annual Steeplechase-winning trainer John Wheeler will create an unwanted piece of personal history at next week’s TAB May Racing Carnival.
The New Zealander yesterday revealed he wouldn’t be part of the carnival — an event he has plundered in the past two decades.
Wheeler, a dominant figure in jumps racing, surprisingly had lodged no entries for the carnival when nominations closed at noon yesterday.
It led Warrnambool Racing Club chief executive officer John Green to speculate the trainer of last year’s Grand Annual winner Banna Strand might make late entries today.
But Wheeler told The Standard, while waiting to board a plane home to New Plymouth, he wouldn’t be back next week.
“I can’t remember the last time that I never had runners at the Warrnambool carnival,” Wheeler said.
He said he made the decision after second-string jumpers The Democrat and Riviera Star performed poorly in last weekend’s Von Doussa and Great Eastern Steeplechases at Oakbank.
“The Warrnambool carnival is too close to Oakbank this year,” he said.
“It’s useless going to Warrnambool with horses that are not at their best.
“The Democrat and Riviera Star were not my best jumpers. I had three of my top jumpers going well before Oakbank but they went wrong two weeks before Easter.”
Wheeler has won 11 jumps races at the carnival in the past 18 years — third behind Eric Musgrove and Robert Smerdon — including five Grand Annuals and four Brierly steeplechases.
He was the toast of the jumps racing industry after transforming Banna Strand from a villain which jumped into the crowd in 2011 into the 2013 Grand Annual hero.
Wheeler was the notable absentee from entries yesterday, with Gai Waterhouse, Peter Moody, Mick Price, Darren Weir, John Sadler, Michael Kent, Michael Moroney, Greg Eurell, Smerdon and Rick Hore-Lacy among the leading trainers bringing horses.
They will face stiff competition from a host of south-west trainers, many of who target the May carnival.
Trainers made 977 nominations for the carnival’s 27 races, 109 less than last year’s record of 1086.
While the number was down, Green expects the club will be forced to divide several races on the first two days and run 10 races each day.
He is confident of full, high-quality fields.
The time-honoured Grand Annual Steeplechase, the feature event of the carnival, has 11 nominations, down from 15 last year.
But some of the country’s best jumpers are entered to take on the 5500 metres and 33 obstacles, including Monday’s Great Eastern winner Lord Of The Song from the Patrick Payne stables and Von Doussa Steeplechase winner Palmero, for Winslow trainer Ciaron Maher.
Tuesday’s Brierly Steeplechase has 12 entries, eight down on last year, headed by defending champ Cats Fun and Palmero.
The Warrnambool Cup has 31 nominations, including last year’s winner Banca Mo, while the 1200-metre Wangoom Handicap has 37, compared with 53 last year.
“I don’t think we can be too disappointed with the numbers,” Green said.
He said the quality of entries was high and the club was coming off unprecedented numbers.
“With the change in the nomination format, I think some of those figures from previous years was over-inflated,” he said.
“Maybe we have had a settling with that. Maybe people who are realistically coming down, they have put their horses in.”
Green said that under the free nomination system, trainers in recent years had entered horses in every possible race to keep their options open.
Tuesday’s opening to the carnival attracted 302 entries for eight races but the maiden hurdle is likely to be divided because of the 37 nominations, while a benchmark 64 over 1100 metres and benchmark 70 over 1200 metres each had 60 entries, fuelling expectations they would also be divided.
Trainers nominated 316 runners for nine races on Wednesday.
A benchmark 64 over 1700-metres with 54 entries was likely to be divided. The first staging of a $50,000 futurity for three-year-olds, with bonuses of a further $100,000, received strong interest with 45 entries.
The final day of the carnival has 359 nominations for 10 races.