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Queensland winter carnival a defining habit for Wheeler’s warhorse 

7 min read
On the 30th anniversary of 11-time Group 1 winner Rough Habit’s (NZ) (Roughcast {USA}) first G1 Stradbroke H. victory, TDN AusNZ revisits the cult hero’s remarkable career and affinity for the Queensland winter carnival.

Born and based in New Zealand, the unfashionably-bred prospect didn’t initially catch the eye of New Plymouth-based trainer John Wheeler.

However, much to Wheeler's surprise the gelding could seriously gallop, winning six of his first eight races and finishing second on another two occasions.

The then 3-year-old’s final victory on home soil in the autumn of 1990 saw Wheeler target the G1 Queensland Derby and G1 Doomben Cup. Rough Habit would go on to win the former while running third in the latter.

“Before coming over I said to the owners 'I’m going to do something a bit unusual and run him three times in a week and see if he cops it' and his ability to do that made it known to me that he was tough enough to go to Brisbane,” Wheeler told TDN AusNZ.

"I said to the owners 'I’m going to do something a bit unusual and run him (Rough Habit) three times in a week and see if he cops it' and his ability to do that made it known to me that he was tough enough to go to Brisbane." - John Wheeler

“Seeing him win that Derby was amazing. Those horses that he beat, Ray’s Hope and Castletown went on to be Champions of their time.”

Rough Habit proved his 3-year-old season was no one off and in the winter of 1991 spaced his rivals in Queensland’s most prestigious feature, the G1 Stradbroke H. before going on to take out the first of three successive G1 Doomben Cups a fortnight later.

However, it was the 1992 edition of the 1400 metre Stradbroke that would cement Rough Habit’s cult status on Australian shores, a victory that still sends shivers down Wheeler’s spine and is only enhanced by his galloper equalling the race’s weight-carrying record of 58.5kgs.

Tucked away nearest to last in the capacity field on straightening, Rough Habit would spot the lead multiple lengths and while many would credit Jim Cassidy’s weaving rails ride, Wheeler believes the then 5-year-old had eyes only for the winning post and towed Cassidy through the line.

Along for the ride

“We knew before the race that there was a lot of speed and I said to Jim you may have to come wide and when Jimmy went to do so the horse wasn’t interested, he was adamant he’d go through them,” he said.

“So, I don’t think Jimmy had a lot to do with what was happening. He (Rough Habit) took him along for the ride.

"I don’t think Jimmy (Cassidy) had a lot to do with what was happening. He (Rough Habit) took him along for the ride." - John Wheeler

“However, my most enduring memory from that day is that a legendary race caller in New Zealand called Peter Kelly said to me, that’s the greatest run I’ve ever seen in a handicap race in my life.”

Rough Habit made his presence felt not only in the sunshine state, but right down the eastern seaboard, winning the 1992 G1 Queen Elizabeth S. before claiming the first of two G1 All Aged S. over 1600 metres only five days later. He was placed at Group 1 level during the Sydney autumn carnival on a further five occasions.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the 8-year-old veteran of more than 60 starts would prove his star status to the people of Melbourne. He did so by winning the G1 Caulfield S. before finishing a bold second in the G1 Cox Plate.

“He almost never failed at any carnival except that spring in Melbourne as a 4-year-old, but the Queensland winter carnival I aimed at that to an extent compared to the others. I had a stable there, an apartment and it’s just a nice place to spend winter,” Wheeler said.

“The other two (Sydney and Melbourne) were great experiences but Brisbane is just that little bit more laid back, it was great to be involved with.”

Larry Cassidy and John Wheeler

A career-defining triumph

While the G1 Stradbroke H. of 1992 remains one of the carnival's great individual feats, Rough Habit’s victorious Australian swan song in the 1995 G2 O’Shea S. at Doomben is a moment that stands out as a career-defining triumph for Wheeler.

He said the Australian public's love for a New Zealand raider is a testament to his 'blue-collar' galloper’s toughness and will to win over any distance, from any position and in all conditions.

“He was a pretty special horse and that moment when he won the O’Shea was just as memorable as any day that I have had in racing. It brought the house down, it was so emotional,” Wheeler said.

"He (Rough Habit) was a pretty special horse and that moment when he won the O’Shea was just as memorable as any day that I have had in racing. It brought the house down, it was so emotional." - John Wheeler

“It was almost dark, there was no speed in the race, and everyone thought he was past his used by date, but I had faith, as his work at the time was just too good. So, that win along with his Derby and second Stradbroke really stand out for me, they were incredible days.”

The New Zealander remained sound throughout the vast majority of his career winning at Group 1 level during each of his three, four, five, six and 8-year-old seasons.

He made 17 trips across the Tasman, ran fifth and seventh in the time-honoured G1 Japan Cup, along with a failed attempt at the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup on the dirt at Santa Anita Park in California.

“Japan was a great experience, he got held up at the 700-metre mark back in the field in 1991 and he probably should’ve run in the first three so it was a big effort,” Wheeler said.

“He was a horse who you could travel, it didn’t affect him, he was happy in any environment but the only decision that was a mistake in hindsight was going to America because he missed the kick and didn’t like the kickback. He had his head in the air and eyes closed most the way.”

Champions of the 20th Century

Wheeler is unwilling to pick favourites between Rough Habit and his two other Champions of the 20th century, Veandercross (NZ) (Crossways {GB}) and Our Poetic Prince (Yeats {USA}), saying they all deserve to be remembered for their individual greatness.

“Veandercross was the toughest horse I have ever trained; Rough Habit was the competitor and if he hadn’t been to the races for a while, he’d start to stand there tremble and sweat, while Our Poetic Prince was the best athlete of the three,” Wheeler said.

The Queensland winter carnival still holds a special place in Wheeler’s heart right to this very day and he will continue to make the journey across the Tasman to attend its feature racedays.

Rough Habit accumulated more than $3.7 million in prizemoney, won 10 stakes races and placed at the same level on seven other occasions in Queensland alone.

While Rough Habit passed away in 2014 at the age of 27, the accolades came long before the his passing, with the Brisbane Racing Club honouring his deeds through the adoption of the G3 Rough Habit Plate in 1993 along with the aptly named Rough Habit Bar at Eagle Farm. He was also inducted into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.

“I would go out and see him every six months or so after he retired. We had a very special bond, it was unbreakable really. He knew who I was and would always prick his ears up as he just loved people,” Wheeler said.

“All my horses have had a profound impact on my life in a lot of ways, but it was just a massive buzz having a horse like Rough Habit.”

Rough Habit
John Wheeler
Queensland winter carnival