For most years in the last half century  harness fans have grown used to the name Purdon among the list of winning trainers- nearly 40 premierships for Roy Barry and Mark in that  time, unheard of before and never likely to be repeated.

Most  will not remember anything that can compare.For our winter feature we want to pay tribute to some of the Giants of the Pre-Purdon Era. 

This week one of the most innovative harness trainers of all time- CES DONALD

Of all the pre-Purdon era harness giants among trainers none stands out more than Ces Donald for performance, scale of operation, innovation and industry.

Have a look at this list

*FIRST  trainer of either code to train 1000 winners.

*NINE  Training Premierships,a record for many years

*SIMULTANEOUSLY principal of  New Zealand’s leading racing stable and  New Zealand’s biggest stud.

*JACK POTTS the champion stallion he stood at stud won 9 premierships, a record not beaten ( by Vance Hanover) for some 50 years.

 *BIGGEST SALE  in our trotting history (1936 ) nearly all his own horses and a great success, was the inspiration for the National Sales a few years later. He also  pioneered his own sales in Australia shipping over 30 horses there for auction or later to be sold as racing propositions

*WINTER TRAINING in Oamaru the first on a large scale of preparing for August meetings where tracks were more available.

*FIRST   to drive at Alexandra Park on Friday afternoon and Addington on Saturday morning,pioneering use by horsemen of air travel.

*RACED  horses at up to six  meetings at the same time during  holiday racing  85 years ago when floats were few, spread throughout the country.He was constantly travelling around New Zealand himself in search of more winners.

*AMONG the pioneers of Kiwi trainers invading America, preparing Falsehood for the International Pace at Yonkers in 1963

*Most remarkable of all ?Horse horse racing wasn’t  his main source of income!

Ces Donald’s amazing career began in a small way with a stable of two horses at Heathcote in 1922 his first winner being in December of that year. Within 8 years he was the country’s leading trainer.

 Most leading horsemen  in that era were experienced horse handlers with the right family connections  but his back ground was farm related animals and none of his family had been involved professionally with racehorses -making his early growth  and innovations all the more impressive. If it might work,Ces Donald was always on to try it.

In his 8th season  he won the premiership with 45 winners, a record which lasted several years.

His second winner,Harbour Light, graduated through Westport and Greymouth Cups to place in the Dunedin Cup. By the mid 1920’s Ces had taken over a property at Belfast previously used by a champion trainer, Dil Edwards, who was shifting to Yaldhurst, and soon began to expand.

In his heyday it housed a large training establishment and a stud serving well over 100 mares a season,where he also stood thoroughbred stallions; there was a Flaxton dairy farm; a separate pig farm adjoining; and a large sheep and cattle farming operation at Belfast. Cecil was one of the major stock dealers in New Zealand -and simultaneously running its biggest trotting racing and breeding establishments !

In the mid 30’s when five horses might be quite a large team he trained 35 and had more than 100 horses under his care.Not surprisingly he was one of the first to have his own track irrigation system to enable a large team to be trained over summer.

Probably his biggest thrill was training  his own horse Marlene, driven by his brother,Ron,to win the 1940 NZ Cup after she was declared an unlikely  runner even a day before the race. She was lame after and would not be allowed to start today.She had won the Auckland Cup the previous year.

He later trained and drove Cairnbrae to win the 1964 Cup for Ted Lowe.That  was the veteran at his best, leading the last round,judging his pace expertly and winning easily, His first Cup  runner had been Jack Potts,then owned by his importer from America,Alec Anderson, away back in 1926,an outstanding but unsound horse who finished 4th. 

Ces gained national fame in 1931 when he drove at Auckland and Addington on successive days,unheard of then. He left Alexandra Park about 5.30 pm after Friday’s drive behind another of his Auckland Cup winners,Carmel,and caught the 7.15 Express overnight, getting off at Feilding where he had arranged for a De Havilland to be flown up from Christchurch two days previously. The plane left for Wigram at 7.15 am on Saturday morning and landed at 10.30. Donald was on course by 11 am and won the first race with the appropriately named Standby.Also appropriately his main drive on the day, his own  outstanding Cup class pacer, was called Lindbergh!

In 1936 he held a sale claimed as the biggest in the history of trotting with 44 lots fetching an impressive 6000 guineas, most by Jack Potts.Within a few years the National Sale was introduced.

One of his more remarkable feats was winning his last training premiership in 1961, the era of the well remembered Falsehood -King Hal-Gildirect- Dandy Briar open class bracket. Two years before the Belfast trainer was almost out of the game after a lean season or two with few winners and dismissed by many as a spent force after doing so much for so long. 

When Ces Donald realised many were of that opinion his ambition was revitalised and in only two seasons he returned to the top.

He remained a unique force in the game, his last top class pacer,Rauka Lad which he had sorted out in the south when it was a problem, being surprise favourite for the 1972 NZ Cup in spite of moderate leadup form.The word was out that the Donald stable had the goods.

He was widely  regarded as a certainty beaten in the race,driven by Ces’s son in law Bob Nyhan.

There was a melee at the 1600 which wiped out several horses including Rauka Lad. His huge run for 5th was the highlight of the race.

“Without that check he must have won” Nyhan said.What a farewell for C S Donald that would have been.

Stories of the Donald era abound.One  was how he took on the talented but erratic Falsehood whose dam he had also trained for Jim Steel of Greymouth; tamed him, but then  a broken knee  meant he was barred from the track  until it could be shown not to affect his manners. Two years later he started on a winning streak that took he and his trainer all the way to Yonkers Raceway.

Forest King whose dam Ahumai he had also trained,became his 1000th winner in 1972.At that time only three jockeys in New Zealand had ridden over 1000 winners, never mind 1000 training successes,

Ces also  dabbled in thoroughbred racing in the 1930’s standing the well known stallion Airway who died just as his best stock were appearing and training winners he owned himself. He was dogged with ill luck with early deaths of some of his standardbred imports most notably Lusty Volo. He won many stallion awards with his horses at Canterbury shows.

Like all industry leaders Ces had his clashes with officialdom but usually came out on top- including getting an apology from the country’s leading barrister after the Donald team’s interpretation of the rules of trotting  proved superior to his under law. 

A stable fire that claimed the life of several horses including his  top pacer Accountant,a relative of Marlene, was a sensation at the time and there were problems with some of the stud accountings but  Cecil seemed to overcome all obstacles.

In spite of his travelling and diverse farming interests he kept a close eye on the racing team and employed a big staff -a full time job for Mrs Donald-though usually handling  any tricky horses himself up until the time he died at 72. 

Some years later the racing property was sold for housing after long delays for $500,000 though the complicated total estate had been more than double that.For Ces Donald however,like so many successful racing stars, it never seemed really about the money,just the adventures to be  had earning it.

When you look at the list at the top,there were  a lot of adventures.


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