Two Time Sunset

proves there is life after racing

By Tony Clifford
Reproduced with permission from Harness Racing Weekly

Three years ago if you had suggested to former Australian Navy weapons expert Ian Symington that he would in the future set out at midnight on a grueling 160-kilometre, 24-hour overland trip through the outback riding a horse, then he would have asked what type of mind-changing chemical cocktail was flowing through your system.

Back then, the closest thing Symington had ever got to a horse was an affectionate pat to one or another of the handful of pacers he and wife Deb had in training with Perth horseman Ross Keys.

Symington had certainly never ridden one, and never thought of himself likely to either.

If the recent result of the arduous Tom Quilty Cup in West Australia can be used as a pointer, however, then 48-year-old Vietnam veteran Symington and his pride-and-joy, Two Time Sunset, proved there can often be a rosy, active and competitive life after racing for sound standardbred horses.

The Tom Quilty Cup was a 24-hour, 160km (one hundred mile) endurance race through the rugged Darling Ranges, east of Perth. The event rotates around the States of Australia annually and is open to all breeds of horse.

Most endurance events around the world are dominated by pure-bred Arab horses, or Arab hybrids. Standardbreds are generally quite a way down the pecking order in terms of the high-finishers.

A field of 130 of the best endurance horses in Australia were teamed with riders from all around the country, and visitors from South Africa, New Zealand and Arabia for the 2001 Quilty.

It was the 12-year-old Two Time Sunset, a former tough staying pacer, which earned a place in the limelight when he crossed the line in 41st place.

Two Time Sunset, or 'Simmo' as he is affectionately known, covered the 160km in 20 hours and 36 minutes.

Along with owner-rider Symington, he finished eight hours and 24 minutes behind the joint winners - two Arab horses, which were ridden by Meg Wade and Kristie McGaffin, who both hail from New South Wales.

Only 90 of the equine contestants completed the course. The remaining 40 were ruled out at various stages, following a stringent series of veterinary checks at the end of each leg.

Symington, thrilled just to finish inside the required 24-hour limit, said he was extremely proud of his courageous mount. "It took us 20 hours and 36 minutes to run the 160km, to finish 41st of the 130 starters," Symington said.

"I was over the moon about where we finished. It was excellent. But the winners ran the distance in 11 hours. Now that's amazing, because I couldn't ride a motorbike for 100 miles in less time than that!"

The Symingtons began racing standardbreds a little more than six years ago, and their first venture was an import from New Zealand.

"When Deb and I first got into horses I had a few from New Zealand, including 'Simmo', and looking back I should have just stuck to doing that, too," Symington said.

"Everyone I knew at the time said it was better to invest in going-horses from New Zealand, but, like most things, if someone tells me to do something, I do the opposite!"

"We bought a few at the yearling sales and started breeding our own. Right now I have two broodmares and eight foals, as well as four endurance horses, which include Anglo-Arabs and pure Arabs."

Two Time Sunset was bought in May 1995 from a retired couple, Tyrrell and June Odgers, of Kaiapoi - a small township about 20km north of Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island.

A powerful black gelding by Tuff Choice, from the same maternal line as the outstanding Chandon, Two Time Sunset won six races, including the 1994 Nelson Winter Cup (3100m), for the Odgers before he was bought by the Symingtons.

Tyrrell Odgers, a 68-year-old retired abbatoir worker, is not surprised Two Time Sunset has been a success in his new role as an endurance horse, and recalled recently that he was at most times a pleasure to have around the stable.

"We bought him as a yearling and he was a very kind horse," said June Odgers. "We used to throw a saddle on him and our grandkids rode him around."

"But you could almost tell when he was going to run well. On the morning of the races, if you couldn't get near him, he nearly always won, or put in a big effort."

After buying Two Time Sunset, Symington placed the horse with Ross and Betty Keys.

When he retired, aged nine, Two Time Sunset had won more than 15 races and earned more than $126,000. His major win for the Symingtons was a Parliamentarians Cup and he also ran third behind John Albert and Mark Craig in the Group One 1995 Fremantle Cup.

"He ran well during the (1996) Perth Inter Dominion," Symington said. "He missed making the Gran Final by one point, and did well to finish fourth (behind Tibet) in the Consolation."

"He never had leg problems and retired as sound as a bell, which is a tribute to the way the Odgers, then Ross and Betty Keys looked after him."

"We were always going to keep him as a paddock horse at home, to help educate the young ones."

"My daughter, Tegan (19), became involved with endurance horses a few years ago, and Deb and I used to go and watch."

"I'd never ridden a horse in my life before that, but, being the person I am, I can't stand around watching."

"One morning Tegan went into the paddock to catch 'Simmo' to put the saddle on him, and he spread his legs like a turtle. After she'd ridden him around for a while I decided to jump up and have a go myself. That was two years ago."

"I loved the experience, so I decided to take the next step and have a go at endurance racing myself."

Horse and rider started off in the endurance game at the novice level. They competed over a distance of 40 kilometres, then built up to 80km, and, eventually, they set their sights on the 160km of the Quilty Cup.

"After our first 40km race I got off and thought, gee, that was pretty hard," Symington said.

"I thought the next step - 80km - would be just an extension of that, but when I got to the 70km point I nearly died."

"It was like you hear about marathon runners hitting 'the wall'. You don't know how much body fluid you lose during a ride, and heat from the horse's body doesn't help you there."

"We got through that, though, and it was like people say - the first one's always the hardest. And I've never felt that bad since. Even when we'd finished the 160km of the Quilty Cup I didn't feel that sore in the bum."

"If anything, my knees hurt more because I played a lot of football when I was younger, while I was in the Navy and afterwards."

"I went into the Navy as a recruit at the age of 15 and left at 22, then played Sunday league for one of the Fremantle sides - as many B grade games as A grade. As a footy player I was a good average player, but definitely no champion."

"I guess 'Simmo' and I must look pretty good during a race. I'm only five foot five. I've got the tallest horse in the field and he's got the rider with the shortest legs!"

Although not a dominant force, Two Time Sunset and Symington made an impression on the opposition during the Quilty.

"It was funny," Symington said, "because all of the Arab and Anglo-Arab (Throughbred-Arab cross) horses were a bit wary of him - this big plodder. You can hear him coming from 5km away!"

"Although he did very well to complete the 160km, I do believe it's highly unlikely that he or any other standardbred would become one of the leading performers in endurance racing. The endurance is fine, but for outright speed standardbreds are not up to the Arab and Arab-hybrid horses."

"For centuries the Arabs have bred their horses to run through the desert relentlessly, and, just by looking at the animals, you can tell they're ideally suited to it. They're lean and tough."

"Standardbreds are tough too, though, and if they haven't had any previous problems with their legs, which is extremely important, then they'll be OK."

Symington has not been inundated with offers for Two Time Sunset since the Quilty, but said there was no way he would part with the horse who has brought him so much enjoyment.

"No, I haven't had any offers from buyers to sell him, but I wouldn't anyway because it would be a life completely different to what he's been used to," he said.

"I do have a couple of milestones I want us to achieve though. He's raced 1000km in one-and-a-half seasons, and in endurance racing it's a real achievement for a horse to reach 3000km during its career. Very few horses ever reach 10,000km."

"Whether he achieves that or not isn't that important at the end of the day. He's been such a wonderful horse to us that he'll have a place at home for the rest of his life."

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Copyright Jo Brock 2001
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