Here’s a question for regular readers – what was it that first drew you to racing? What planted the seed which has obviously (if you’re reading a blog this obscure!) blossomed into a continuing interest?
I was thinking about this the other day, when I decided I needed – for my own sanity – to remember what first drew me into an industry which has now become a passion. I guess hanging out with a range of academics daily has led to me not just accepting this as something which just “happened” but searching for an underlying reason.
Why is it that I care so much about the future of this industry? That I, like other friends who have despaired at the Racing Minister’s ponderous approach to its protection and return to prosperity, currently feel deflated and defeated.
Since the launch of the Messara report all I have read, viewed and heard in the general media and on the industry’s “own” channel are negatives and reasons why it shouldn’t be adopted in toto. Missing have been the voices of our thoroughbred industry leaders – I exclude those associated with the NZRB from that fold, the only place they have led us is into the abyss. Obviously, working behind the scenes has been taken to the extreme?
So, feeling glum and borderline wanting to just chuck it all in and put my energy into something more rewarding, I got to questioning how a passion for thoroughbreds became so embedded.
I’m going to be self-indulgent, but its my blog and I can do what I want, however I’d love to hear your stories too so feel free to leave a comment or some feedback.
According to family lore, I sat on my first horse at 18 months old. It was a racehorse, it was at Trentham and said horse – whose name has been forgotten in the mists of time – was trained by my grandfather and had just won a race. Perhaps that was what set my course?
While that is what I was told, my own earliest memories stem from Tauherenikau where my grandfather was training. We lived over the road and my father would occasionally let me accompany him to the track in the morning.
At the time he had entrusted my grandfather with the training of a filly by Red Marlin (it was a VERY long time ago), her stable name was Poppy, and she wasn’t very fast, but she did like to eat. A usual part of the stable routine back then used to be that the boys took a few of horses out for a walk around the nearby roads in the afternoon but one day they were rather late returning. So late that my father was sent out in the car to look for them.
Nothing was awry, Poppy’s appetite had got away on her and, no matter what was tried, the poor apprentice was unable to prise her head up from the lush grass on the side of the road. Poppy’s racing career was neither lucrative nor lengthy. My grandfather, recognising her innate lack of ability, sacked her early. My father, though, in the manner of most young men, believed he knew better. He continued to train her himself – from my grandfather’s stables, using his gear, his staff and his feed. My grandfather was proven right though, and it was off to the broodmare paddock for Poppy.
While Poppy may not have reached great heights on the racetrack she may have indirectly affected my career choice. A story I wrote about her when I was around 10 was published in the children’s pages of a Sunday paper and was my first ever paid contribution. A friend of my father’s who raced many of Poppy’s offspring told me many decades later that he had kept a clipping of the story.
Poppy’s banishment to the broodmare paddock and the subsequent need for stallion selection was responsible for my interest in breeding. I had school exercise books full of pedigrees of every horse in my grandfather’s stable and found the differences between the many full and half-siblings which came through his care intriguing.
My visits to the track also became more regular as I grew older and around the age of eight I became a real pest. I was usually thrown up on something quiet that my father could lead but my favourite was always Roodyvoo. Not the more recent jumping version, this one was a half-brother to the Melbourne Cup runner-up Howsie and had fashioned an impressive record himself before breaking down prior to the Easter.
Sent to the paddock, Roody had been enjoying the life of Riley for 18 months before my grandfather decided to have the affected leg x-rayed again. With no sign of the original injury and full of his usual vim and vigour it was back into training for Roody. He never reached the heights for which he may have originally been destined but he did amass a great record racing up until he was around 10.
Once retired finally, he took up residence in the back paddock – which opened on to the course proper – here he would stand intently listening to Jack O’Donnell’s commentaries on race day. It was on that gate in the back paddock where my grandmother and I were positioned one day watching what was Roody’s last race. The field jumped and my grandmother, binoculars focussed on the gates said, “Something’s dropped the rider…. it’s ours.” By the time she’d got that out Roody was lining up at the gate waiting for us to let him in. It was as though he decided, blow this for a joke, I’m done and took himself off to retirement.
We let him back in the paddock, took his saddle off and gave it to the clerk of the course who had come looking for the missing horse. Other than our morning trips to the track, that was the last time Roody set foot on a racecourse.
In retirement Roody’s role was to socialise the new additions to the stable, but he also set himself up as quality controller. Every afternoon my grandfather would add freshly cut grass to the hay in each box and one day he heard rustling coming from the box he had just completed, wandering back to check he found Roody undertaking a taste test. Installed in a yard at the end of the stable block Roody had managed to open the gate and had followed behind my grandfather ensuring all was up to par for his stablemates.
We left the Wairarapa when I was 11 so my future hands-on horse experiences came via school holiday visits to my grandparents or when I could go to Trentham.
The champagne turf wasn’t exactly welcoming to kids back in the day. You could go in the Leger area if you were under 12, but that was miles away from the horses. Instead I used to try and tag along with my aunt (on the dam’s side, this one) who was regularly the on-course nurse. Her office for the day was a tiny hut situated close to the back-parade ring.
Once I hit college age and was officially “allowed” to go racing I was at Trentham every opportunity I got, even if it meant wagging school to get to the mid-week Winter race day. While I might have been old enough to be in that part of the course the Wellington Racing Club officialdom now had a problem with the fact I was female.
While waiting for the running of the Wellington Guineas where my grandfather had a live chance I was approached by a white coat and informed I couldn’t be where I was. Where I was, with one of my grandfather’s mates, was on the wrong side of the white line which determined where the men would be and where the women would be banished. It’s amazing there is anyone left with a passion for racing such was the determination of some administrators to crush our enthusiasm.
That enthusiasm is still taking a beating but despite, in fact more likely in spite, of our very average administrators and their flaccid leadership, I’m still here.
And it’s all because of the horses. Oddly, I appear to have lucked into a couple of horses which are providing moments of great excitement at present. I like to think it might be reward for perseverance!
Hopefully, by the time next week’s blog rolls along we will have an inkling of good news around the Messara report and those of us left standing will be rewarded further with some positive action.