SITTING down to relax is a rarity for Chris Alford.
Between his driving commitments and spending time with his family, Alford is always in demand and on the go.
And this morning was no different for the ace reinsman, who fielded phone call after phone call from well wishes while sitting down for an exclusive interview with National Trotguide.
Reliving the memorable moments which have taken place throughout the past four decades, Alford paused before coming to one conclusion: “I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.”
Alford’s declaration came as he pondered the highs and lows encountered during his journey towards yet another milestone – 8000 wins – which he reached in Ballarat tonight.
Sure there have been plenty of lows, to go along with an abundance of highs, but Alford is positive each hurdle, defeat and victory has made him the person, and driver, he is today.
“I wouldn’t change any of it for the world…it has all been great really,” Alford said. “Even the testing times when you wonder why you’re doing it soon fade away when you get another winner, whether it be a Group One or a country race.
“I’ve met so many great people, have been able to travel and had a lot of fun all while doing something I love.
“I’ve been pretty lucky. There is nothing else I would rather do.
“Although, if I was in another field, I’d like to be an Indiana Jones-style archaeologist.”
Following his father, the late Barry, into the industry, Alford made his debut as a ‘wet behind the ears’ 16-year-old at Shepparton on September 18, 1984.
Little did Alford, or any onlookers, realise it was the beginning of one of the most successful careers harness racing has witnessed.
There was no fairytale introduction, however, as Alford, driving Innisfree, finished an inglorious seventh – beaten 23 metres.
Three weeks later, Alford registered his maiden win behind Spring Vance in Wangaratta.
“That seems like a lifetime ago,” Alford said. “I was pretty excited when Spring Vance got the money.
“But I never thought I would get to where I am now when I first started out.”
Almost a year later, Alford claimed his initial metropolitan success when Tempest Neva scored at Moonee Valley.
Trained by Barry, Tempest Neva caused at upset as a 16/1 shot, beating 9/10 favourite, Deux Dark Ones.
“My first city win was also pretty special,” Alford said. “It brings back a lot of memories.”
While reflecting on his early days, Alford offered some advice to the current stock of concession drivers and those looking to enter a life in harness racing.
“It was a lot different when I was a junior,” Alford said. “These days they get it pretty good with their claims and it is something each concession driver needs to take full advantage of.
“It is not just a matter of jumping in the sulky when you get a drive either, you’ve got to put in the time with the trainer, put in the grounding and establish a solid foundation.
“If you don’t put in the time you will disappear pretty quickly when the claim runs out, which we’ve seen happen over and over again.”
Taking little time to establish himself as one of Victoria’s most talented young drivers, Alford was thrust into the limelight when he combined with an exciting colt named Golden Reign.
Trained by Noel Alexander, Golden Reign provided Alford with his first taste of Group One glory.
Making the trip to Harold Park for the rich Australian Pacing Gold Final, the pair eclipsed a star-studded field over a mile.
“Golden Reign just had so much raw talent as a two-year-old, he was a star,” Alford said. “That was my first Group One and is something I’ll never forget.”
During the next three years Alford and Golden Reign developed a formidable partnership as they captured seven Group One – including the 1995 Addington Inter Dominion.
Alford’s association with the Alexander stable also saw him catapulted to Australia’s premier reinsman as he broke records for the quickest century, double century and most wins in a season.
The trainer-driver combination annexed Group Ones seemingly at will with stars such as Blueagle, Tailamade Lombo, Croesus, Concorde Lombo, Espeshlimade Lombo, Lombo La Fe Fe, Tromos and Albuquerque.
Alford’s stint at the top also saw him represent Australia in the 1997 World Drivers’ Championship.
“I’ve had a great run with Noel and Jayne (Davies),” Alford said. “Golden Reign is still the best horse I have drive, with the Inter Dominion the best race I’ve won.
“He gave me my biggest thrill with the Inter Dominion win, but when he broke down soon after when he was ready to do it all again, is one of the worst lows I’ve had.
“Lennytheshark, which I also won an Inter Dominion with, is right up there with Golden Reign…there would hardly be a centimetre between them.”
While Alford’s ultimate high was an obvious choice, he surprisingly didn’t cite a win that ‘got away’ as his biggest disappointment.
For Alford, the loss of any horse remains hard to take.
“I was pretty shocked the day Century Reign dropped dead of a heart attack not far past the post after winning at Moonee Valley,” Alford said.
“I’ve driven a few which have had to be put down after breaking a leg on the track.
“It’s not nice when you have to hold them there to be put down. For me, those occasions are the lowest points of working with horses.”
As for the lighter side of life in the industry, Alford picked two moments which stand out in his mind.
“The day John McLean was tipped out of the cart at Moonee Valley and he landed with one leg on either side of the running rail was pretty funny,” Alford said. “Although I don’t think he saw the funny side of it like the rest of us!
“That and the time Stephen Dove’s sulky came apart and he fell out the back and walked off the track at Kilmore with a hole in his pants.
“There have been a lot of good times during the years.”
A few weeks ago Alford all but copied Dove as he was about to win in Maryborough.
Partnering Park Lane, Alford reined the son of Art Major to the lead around the final bend, with the pacer responding to the champion driver’s vigour.
What didn’t respond so well to the Alford’s thrusting motion was his sulky, which collapsed 75 metres from the finish.
With the shaft snapping near the right wheel, Alford dropped to the ground as the sulky folding inwards.
“I thought I had the race won,” Alford said. “He was getting tired, but I reckon he had them beaten.
“There was no warning…it just gave way! These things happen and I was lucky it was the last race.
“When I was on the ground I was just hoping no-one was going to run over me.”
On a personal note, the death of his father presented Alford with the toughest period of his life.
“Dad’s passing was hard to get over,” Alford said. “He was always my source in life and in harness racing.
“It was hard enough when he was sick, but it was even tougher when he passed away.”
Pushing through the heartache, Alford has maintained a remarkable career towards the top of the drivers’ ranks in recent years.
Losing his title as the premier driver to Kerryn Manning and Daryl Douglas for more than a decade, Alford reclaimed the throne in 2011/12 with a career-best 336 wins.
He has won nine of 12 premierships since then, while being runner-up in two others.
Alford credits his longevity to his marriage to Alison and their two children, Katie and Sam.
Admitting his career leaves him with little spare time, Alford enjoys spending his days away from the industry with his family.
“I’ve never been happier,” Alford said. “Driving and working around the stable obviously keeps me busy, so I don’t get a lot of time to myself.
“I used to enjoy a round of golf, but nowadays I prefer to be with the kids whenever possible.”
As for his latest milestone, Alford reached the magical figure thanks to success with Im Wesley in Race 5 at Ballarat tonight.
Alford’s journey from 7990 to 8000 has been well documented on social media, but the real pressure to get that final winner was self-inflicted.
“I saw the countdowns around on Facebook and Twitter, but I didn’t feel any pressure from it at first,” Alford said. “It started getting a little draining with all the calls and attention.
“Though the 8000 is a significant number, really there isn’t much difference between 7999 and 8000…it’s another win for the trainer and owner who trusted me with their horse.
“I never could have achieved this without the support I’ve had from my family and all the trainers and owners who put their faith in me.
“It is those people who have helped me get to this point in my career and life.
“Like I said, I never thought I would get to where I am now when I first started out.”
CHRIS ALFORD FILE:
FIRST WIN: Spring Vance, Wangaratta, 1984
FIRST METROPOLITAN WIN: Tempest Neva, Moonee Valley, 1985
FIRST GROUP ONE: Australian Pacing Gold, Harold Park, 1992
GROUP ONE WINS SINCE 2001: 128 – Pacers (73), Trotters (55)
BIGGEST WINS: Inter Dominion, Victoria Cup, A G Hunter Cup, Victoria Derby.
BEST HORSE(S) DRIVEN: Golden Reign/Lennytheshark
BEST HORSE SEEN: Popular Alm
MOST ADMIRED DRIVER: Brian Gath
- 15 Australian Drivers’ Premierships
- 17 Victorian Drivers’ Premierships
- 13 Victorian Metropolitan Drivers’ Premierships
- Australian record 31 consecutive century seasons
- Harness Racing Weekly Vin Knight Medal