By Tony Megahey
When Graham Payne’s flying filly Northern River spaced her rivals twice at Goulburn, the knockabout trainer and Crookwell publican didn’t have enough money in his TAB to pay his drinking mates, cheering long and loud.
“They had to come back the next day for us to settle, but all sweet, I thought she was a good thing and sharing the good times with mates and family is what it’s all about,” chuckled Payne, a long time hotelier and former Cessnock first grade Rugby League and Soccer premiership winner.
Payne, relocated from the Hunter to Goulburn with just two gallopers and landed a plunge winning a 2016 Rosehill Gardens Highway with Correspondent.
Now the licensee of the Criterion Hotel in Crookwell, Graham admits he has been taken by surprise with the spectacular improvement of the former Victorian Northern River who contests a $60,000 TAB, Class 3, 1200m Highway at Royal Randwick on Saturday.
Northern River, an Ad Valorem filly is weighted on 54.5kg for Jamie Innes as her last start winning rider and track worker Simone Vella had other commitments.
“I’m not right across Saturday’s opposition just yet- she’s up in grade but she was unextended in both wins and the way this filly won a trial at Goulburn last Wednesday she could be something special,” Payne enthused.
“She was in against a couple of Danny Williams’s that he has an opinion of. No better judge than Danny and when young Simone Vella got of her she said, she’s never ridden one who lets down and quickens like her. Patrick Murphy was also impressed; said we could have something really smart.
"On trialling days at Goulburn, the fastest time has to shout the prawns and that was me. First-up for us when she was unplaced at Kembla was a total forgive. She missed the start, and what’s she done since you couldn’t ask for any more.”
There won’t be a more conspicuous galloper at headquarters on another spectacular Group racing day than Northern River who carries the colours of the Great Britain flag.
“Her part owners the Grays are English. They live in Adelaide, but there’s been some illness in the family so they can’t fly across. It’d be a real pick up tonic if she runs them a race.
"From the good draw and her form, we’ve got some confidence. She led in her last Goulburn win but that was at 1400m, so back to 1200m, there’s a couple who’ll be sharper. Like that that Ori On Fire, it’s got 1000m form. We’ll be looking to take a sit off the good draw, it looks the leader.”
Around four decades ago Payne won a Rugby League premiership with the famed Cessnock Goannas home of the famed Johns footballing family.
“Andrew and Matty came through as star juniors and of course were recruited by the Newcastle Knights - their father Gary played for Cessnock and worked in the mines. He was reserve grade coach when we won a premiership.
“Their mum Gayle served me my very first beer at the local pub. I started in Soccer, the youngest player at 16 to play first grade for Weston.
“Racing and footy have always had a really strong bond, especially in the Hunter. I played against Gary Harley, he was an outstanding player mate, guarantee you that.”
Meanwhile, the Highway series rises in status with every season and continues to offer the smaller country stables and opportunity on the big stage for unprecedented prizemoney. Invariably the races reveal marvellous anecdotes of the people and passions that make country racing a national institution.