Cambridge driver Leah Hibell admits it wasn’t her best day in the cart but she was still delighted to be at Banks Peninsula today for the finale of the Hygain Revel Douglas Junior Drivers series which she won by the narrowest of margins.
Hibell, 22, thought she had the series wrapped up after four races in the North Island when she led last year’s winner Alicia Harrison by one point and no southern driver could catch her.
But, despite the original conditions of the series stipulating drivers could compete in only one island, a change was approved allowing Harrison to secure a drive in the final South Island race, forcing Hibell to fly south too to try to hold on to her lead.
Hibell was favoured with the drive on Phone Tap, a consistent battler who was rated a better chance than his Bruce Negus-trained stablemate Mark Dunnett, Harrison’s drive.
But no sooner had Hibell taken Phone Tap to the front than she was attacked by Betterthandiva, a horse which Hibell’s form study told her was not a good one to trail.
“Then my horse started pulling and kicking the wheels and I thought if I took a trail it might choke down.”
To make matters worse, Phone Tap then started hanging badly making it difficult for Hibell to steer.
When Phone Tap, the winner of just two of his 57 starts, began throwing out distress signals at the 400 Hibell admitted she started looking round to see how Harrison was faring.
To earn points, Harrison had to finish at least sixth.
“I started counting how many horses were in front of her and it was only when I got to six that I started breathing normally again.”
Harrison ended up in eighth place, three lengths behind the sixth-placed horse.
While it had no bearing on the Revell Douglas series, Hibell fared no better in the following race for invited women drivers, punching forward on Elite Styx to find the parked spot, only to be left hung out three wide by Olivia Thornley on Hey Tonight.
“I was going to give her cover but she batted up. I’ve never been parked three wide before and it wasn’t a good feeling.”
Inexperienced at driving in capacity fields given the paucity of numbers in the north, Hibell said she faced a big learning curve.
Elite Styx was gone a long way from home, leaving Hibell apologising profusely to trainer Grant Payne on her return to scale.
“But he was really good about it,” Hibell said.
Harrison, who ironically won the Revell Douglas series by one point last year, gained some consolation when she led the invited drivers’ race home on her boss Steve Telfer’s horse, Aiming For Glory.
“It was a bit gutting coming all the way down here to drive like that,” Hibell said.
“I’m kicking myself but I’m still really happy. It’s amazing to win the Revell Douglas title and to be here to accept the trophy and meet everyone.”
While Hibell did not know Douglas before his death in 2021 she had heard the former horseman and club administrator had done a lot to promote juniors.
Douglas drowned at the age of 46 saving children from the treacherous west coast surf at Karioitahi.
Douglas’ father Don, mother Laura and sister Paula were at Motukarara to present Hibell with the trophy.
The prize also includes a 10-day working holiday in Queensland where she will learn from top driver Pete McMullen.
Hibell credited her boss Nicky Chilcott with giving her the opportunities that led to the win.
“Someone asked me how long I’d been driving. Officially it’s three years but this is really only my first season. Before I came to Nicky’s I had big periods of weeks and months between drives.”
This season Hibell has reined home six winners and, with another eight placings from only 27 drives, boasts the second best strike rate in the country behind Carter Dalgety.
Hibell paid tribute to Taranaki owners Alan and Lyn Messenger for allowing her to drive Katies’ Princess who earned the majority of her series points at the two-day Hawera meeting last month, with a win and a second.
“I’ve got Freddy Mitchell to thank too.”
Hibell drove Mitchell’s Voodoo Prince into second on the first day and the horse had hung on bravely to earn her points for sixth on the second day.
It’s an understatement to say Hibell’s path to the top of the juniors’ dais has been a rocky one.
A talented rider at 13, and in the New Zealand squad to compete in Australia, she crashed in a show hunter event at Pukekohe, snapping her right arm in six places.
The injury was so severe, with extensive nerve damage, that she spent the next year in hospital.
“It took nine months for the bone to heal and I was in and out of hospital for two years after that before it got back to normal. It was a bit of a setback for my teenage years.”
Hygain Revel Douglas Junior Drivers Series final points