At an eerie, spectator free evening at Alexandra Park on March 20, the favourite, Majestic Sunrise trained by Ross Paynter won the non-winners trot in the second-last race of the night. But there was more to it than your average maiden win. It was win number one, on comeback number two for Phillip Jeffries, 12 years since his previous winning drive.
Rewind to the late 80’s and Jeffries was one of the North Island’s leading junior drivers, chalking up 52 wins in only three seasons as well as taking out the New Zealand Junior Drivers’ championship in 1990.
Jeffries started his career in harness racing in 1984 at almost 15-years-old with the legendary Purdon family’s stable, working alongside the likes of Brent Mangos, Cran Dalgety, Tony Herlihy and Todd MacFarlane.
“They are great people, I cannot speak highly enough of them,” Jeffries said.
“I had some pretty good tutors.”
Jeffries moved to Irvin Berhns stable where he began race driving as a 19-year-old, saluting for the first time on September 25, 1987 aboard Andywin.
“I had some nice horses to drive and for that I’m so grateful,” he said.
A career highlight for Jeffries was winning the $55,000 Gr.3 Caduceus Club Classic on Fern Glen in 1989, defeating Jiffy's Girl.
“It was the two smallest fillies doing battle up the straight and I got up,” he said. “That was pretty special.”
Another special moment was winning the Taranaki Cup in 1989, on Browngate Lumber with his father Pat Jefferies on course.
“Dad made the trip down to watch and he got to make a speech. It was really cool seeing him up there smiling and that is a pretty memorable moment for me.”
Jeffries senior worked for Cambridge Raceway for years in the numbers box. He passed away while Jeffries was driving in Adelaide (South Australia) representing the North Island at the Australasian Young Drivers Championships in 1989.
“Mum told me to stay there, keep driving and they’d have the funeral when I got back,” he said.
“Dad would have wanted me to keep going. It was hard but a good experience being over there.”
Due to age restrictions Jeffries only got three seasons as a junior, and not long after becoming an open horseman, decided it was time for a fresh start, moving away from horses all together and driving trucks for the next 10 years.
Later switching to a night shift position enabled him to help out Nicky Chilcott in the mornings where he got the bug back and this was the start of comeback number one.
Between 2002 and 2008, Jeffries helped out Nicky Chilcott, Todd Mitchell and later on Mike Berger, having great associations and friendships with them all, notching up another 32 wins during that time.
When asked why he took another lengthy break from driving Jeffries response was, “I felt as though I wasn’t driving any good. I wasn’t doing the horses, the owners or myself justice by being out there so I gave Mike a months’ notice and stepped down from driving.”
Those that know Jeffries, know that letting people down doesn’t sit well with him.
The Te Awamutu-based horseman has spent the last 12 years as a Breckon Farms employee and he’s a familiar face at their parade days and the Karaka sales every year.
“Officially I’m 2IC (second in charge), but I just do my job. I love it here, it’s a great job.”
It was his good friend and fellow Breckon colleague, yearling manager Philly Higgins-Drysdale who inspired him to make another return to the sulky.
Owning a share in Majestic Stride, the mare trained by Higgins-Drysdale, Jeffries said he would take the drive if she had trouble finding another driver.
The seasoned mare went close to giving him his first win back, going down half-a-length at Stratford on February 27.
Jefferies was quick to thank a lot of people for giving him trial drives and encouraging him to make his return. In particular Higgins-Drysdale, along with Ross Paynter, Nicky Chilcott, Mike Berger, Derek Balle and Adrianne Matthews.
“I really am just so grateful for everyone’s help,” he said. “There has been no sour grapes with anyone about me getting back out there and it’s such a great group of people to drive against.”
“Ken and Karen (Breckon) as well as Nigel (Fahey) have been so supportive and awesome with letting me head off to the races when I need to.
“I’m not out to drive full time, I just want to get out there at every opportunity and do my best.”
Sitting at a total of 89 wins, when asked if he had any goals to reach the century milestone, there was no hesitation. “Definitely! It’s really neat being back out there.” – Jo Stevens.