Former Victorian and now Fernvale horseman, Craig McKinnis, has spent a lifetime working alongside standardbreds, but remembers his father’s 48-win pacer, Sporting Son, as being the best he has sat behind.
“He was a 1969 Typhoon Hanover colt, who really hit his straps in the 1970s. He was one of the main reasons I left school at 15 (1977). He was a star and gave me a lot of enthusiasm for the sport.
“In saying that I wasn’t much at school. I was never focussed enough. All I could think about was helping Dad with the horses. I used to wag school to go to the trots,” McKinnis said.
Born and educated at Ararat, he said his father Milton, was a hobby trainer whose main job was a pastry cook and baker.
“Sporting Son and Sporting Star were his two best horses. The former competed in three straight Interdominion Championships at Adelaide 1976, Brisbane 1977, and Melbourne in 1978.
“1977 was the first year I came to Brisbane. I was just 15 and Sporting Son won two heats and finished third in the final behind Stanley Rio.
“We stayed with Kevin Thomas and have been friends since. Sporting Son was an amazing pacer. He was a lovely gaited horse with high speed. He won a few Cups and Group races,” McKinnis said.
“I’d say he’s still the best horse I’ve had anything to do with, and I’ve been involved in the game since leaving school in 1977,” he stressed.
That’s some comment because McKinnis has worked in several Australian stables and also taken horses to America with his former boss, the late John McMullen.
In fact, McKinnis worked alongside John McMullen Senior and Junior for many years, and today is the stable foreman for Peter and Chantal McMullen. Peter is their grandson and son.
“The McMullen’s’ have played a big part in McKinnis’ working life. He said his grandfather had horses on a farm but never raced them.
“Like the McMullen’s’, the racing bug has been passed on. I was 15 when I went and worked for Dave (Darky) Wilson. He worked his team out of the Melbourne Showgrounds at Flemington. That’s where they used to race before Moonee Valley.
“He was the top trainer and leading driver in Victoria during the 1960s. Sadly he had a race accident and ended up in a wheelchair,” McKinnis said.
McKinnis then worked for Noel Alexander in Cranbourne for a year before heading to Queensland in 1980 as an 18-year-old.
“I worked for Kevin (Thomas) for three years and then did another three years with John McMullen Senior. Both Kevin and John taught me a heap.
“I remember John Senior and I took 18 horses to America for three months in the 1980s. He was truly one of the pioneers of our great sport. I miss him.”
In March 1986, McKinnis married Donna, and they worked out of her father’s property near Marburg, named Paragon Park.
“Donna’s Dad was earth an moving contractor, who had his own private stables at Paragon Park. We must have stayed there all of the 1990s.
“I used to break and work a lot of Kevin’s horses back then. We had some nice horses like Adios Astrax, Paragon Pearl, Paragon Pete, and Triad winner, Chippendale, and Alba Wings. That horse was trained by John McMullen Senior and I drove him to win the Redcliffe Cup.
“Then we had Kevin Seymour’s good horse Branston. David Aiken would also send us up a few horses each year. Franco Glen and Gay Adam come to mind – but I still say that Sporting Son was the pick of them,” McKinnis said.
“That horse helped our family so much. He kicked us off and made life a bit easier for Mum and Dad,” he added.
In 1998 McKinnis returned to Victoria to help his parents who were both unwell.
“I went back and did a bit of work for Andy Gath and Kerryn Manning when they were together, and I also did a lot of farrier work for all the top stables in Victoria.
“Then when Mum and Dad passed away, we returned to Queensland. That was almost two years ago. Our daughter Zoe (26), who is a hairdresser, moved to the Sunshine Coast, three years ago and that played a big part in our decision making. We also have a son named Justin (30),” McKinnis said.
"Before we moved back to Queensland, I worked for Mattie Craven for 12 months. While I was there, I brought Master Moonlight up here for the Queensland Pacers Derby and then went on to win it.
"When we returned to Queensland, we also brought with us our lightly raced mare Ballerina Couru who went on to win five races at Albion Park. She has since been retired due to injury,” McKinnis said.
He said he was enjoying working at Peter McMullen and Chantal Turpin’s stable.
“I still get to train a few of my own and do what I love most. I enjoy training and doing the fast-work for Peter. I haven’t driven on race-day for 20 years, but I’d never say never. I still enjoy it. I just love horses, full-stop!”
He said he owed a lot of his happiness and employment to many harness racing people. He made special mention of Egmont Park owner, Kevin Seymour.
“You could go three or four lifetimes before you would come across anyone like Kevin and his wife, Kay. They have given millions to the industry over the years, and yet they still have their knockers. Unbelievable!
“I personally think Queensland harness racing would not be in the state it’s in now had it not been for the Seymours’ kindness.
“Furthermore, they love the sport and have the industry at heart. I first met Kevin when I came up here as a teenager. He has inspired me since. And Egmont Park is also a big credit to them and of course Peter and Leean Bell.”
And speaking love, the McKinnis family are huge Richmond AFL fans.
“We are Richmond mad. Dad’s colours were yellow with the black band. Mine are similar,” McKinnis said.