For more than a century, the Queen's Birthday holiday weekend was a pinnacle weekend for punters, with the staging of the Great Northern Hurdles and Steeplechase at Ellerslie racecourse in the City of Sails.

Jumps racing in New Zealand goes back to the start of horse racing in the country in the mid-1800's, with racing over the sticks going hand in hand with the myriad of Hunt clubs that sprang up and flourished in the new colony.

Queen's Birthday Monday would herald the Great Northern Steeplechase. The event was first run in 1885, until a date change in 2005 moved the marathon jumps race to September.

Known to most punters simply as the Great Northern, horses and riders clear 25 fences including three times over the famous Ellerslie hill on their 6400 metre journey.

Sideline Sid was on course in 1973, when a Western Bay of Plenty horse, owner/trainer and jockey upset the favourites to outstay the best steeplechasers of the time.

Bobs Luck was trained by Pongakawa farmer Bob McCosh and ridden by Tauranga apprentice jockey Graeme (Snow) Scanlon, and paid $21.10 and $4.35, after they beat off the challenges of Rabhaw and John Rose in second and third place.

McCosh, who was a real character of the 1970's racing scene in the country, specialised in picking up cheap buys and cast offs and carting them around the country in his horse truck to chase the spoils of racing on offer.

He became a well known face at the Gate Pa course bringing his horses to the track for fast work.

When invited to the Auckland Racing Club Presidents room to toast his success after the Great Northern win, McCosh instead jumped on his horse to ride bareback down the Ellerslie straight, back to the stables.

Among Bob McCosh's cheap buys that brought him success on the track were Mokopuna, Hasty Count, Golden Ambrose, Kaipipi and Gold Cloud.

'Snow' Scanlon's time in the racing limelight was brief, riding for just three seasons, before weight problems forced his retirement.

Apprenticed to Tauranga trainer Syd Sullivan, Scanlon rode 39 winners with his best being the 1971/72 racing season with 18 winners, which saw him finish eighth on the apprentice jockeys premiership.

He won five races apiece on Sea Chief and Sea Imp for Syd Sullivan, with his biggest win being on Sea Chief in the ARC Nolan Handicap in early April 1972.

The Great Northern Steeplechase has produced a multitude of highlights in its history, since Marconi carried 12 stone to victory in the inaugural running of the race.

During the past half century, two horses built a cult-like following with three wins in the great race.

Hunterville, ridden by amateur jockey Dennis Grey, prevailed in 1983, 1884 and 1985 with Hypnotise completing the same herculean feat in 2007, 2008 and 2010.

An amazing dead-heat between Smart Hunter, ridden by Michelle Hopkins, and Sir Avion, ridden by Wayne Hillis, thrilled the large crowd in 2001.

This was the first dead-heat in a major New Zealand jumping race since the Otago Steeplechase in 1918.

However, the most dramatic win in the Great Northern was provided by Eiffel Tower in the 1967 edition of the great race.

Trained in the Deep South by Bill Hillis for former All Black Bill Hazlett, Eiffel Tower was no slug on the flat winning the 1965 Wellington Cup.

Most punters on-course were ready to tear up their tote tickets, when Eiffel Tower ran off at the water jump on his second circuit of the course.

However, (trainer) jockey Bill Hillis calmly re-gathered his stead and set off again some 50 lengths behind the leaders.

Remarkably, Eiffel Tower who had been picking the other horses off, one by one, was in front when Calm Lad fell at the top of the hill on the last circuit.

To the roars of the disbelieving crowd, Eiffel Tower prevailed to hold on and beat 12-year-old Ringlock by half a length in one of the most remarkable displays corsage and stamina witnessed on the Ellerslie course.


Sideline Sid
Sports correspondent & historian