A World Away

New Zealand – the unlikely racing power

Author: Shane McNally Photo: Sharon Lee Chapman

Seen by much of the racing world as that curious island nation far away from everything, New Zealand defies all odds as one of the world’s great racing nations. With a thriving thoroughbred industry that’s been producing champions for more than a century.

New Zealand has been one of the world’s great breeding grounds for more than a century.
New Zealand has been one of the world’s great breeding grounds for more than a century.

Its list of championracehorses for more than a century surpasses all but a very few racing jurisdictions and its jockeys are amongst the world’s best.

New Zealand has been punching above its weight in most sports since it became an independent nation in the mid 1850s but it defies even those odds as one of the world’s great racing nations. From Ruakaka at the balmy top of the North Island to the chill winds of Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, 52 racecourses are spread along the country’s 1600 kilometres.

NZ racing, however, is a lot more than just impressive statistics. Witness championship racing at Hastings nestled between Hawkes Bay and the Ruahine Ranges, watch the riders bobbing along above the back straight vineyards at the Poverty Bay course of Makaraka or take in the time-honoured NZ Cup at Riccarton’s sweeping 2400m course in Christchurch and you can taste the racing.

Whether it’s the Group 1 Auckland Cup or NZ Derby at magnificent Ellerslie, where during winter the jumpers take on the steep hill three times for the Great Northern Steeplechase, or a picnic meeting at Hokitika on the South Island’s jagged west coast, people turn up to races in NZ.

In each of these precincts, there’s a stud farm nearby and a stable around every corner. Aotearoa or the Land of the Long White Cloud has the distinction of breeding more than a quarter of all Melbourne Cup winners.

This is the land that bred the immortal Phar Lap, who dominated Australian racing in the Depression era and then won the world’s richest race, the Agua Caliente in Mexico, in 1932.

It’s the country that puts its name to a Derby that can hold its own with any in the world. The NZ Derby has an honour roll featuring Desert Gold, Gloaming, Kindergarten, Beau Vite, Mainbrace, Fury’s Order, Piko, Balmerino, Uncle Remus and Bonecrusher – every one of them a great champion who would have made any top 10 list in the world in any given year.

Birthplace of champions
New Zealand has been one of the world’s great breeding grounds for more than a century. The nation’s stocks got a huge boost very early when legendary racehorse Carbine turned out to be every bit as good, if not better, as a sire.

Descendants of the 1890 Melbourne Cup winner include such champions as Phar Lap, Deep Impact, Rachel Alexandra, Sunline, Symboli Kris S, TM Opera O, Makybe Diva and Rising Fast as well as great sires Northern Dancer, Nijinsky II, Mr Prospector, Danzig and Nasrullah.

Building on the foundation set by Carbine, the NZ breeding barns have provided 42 winners of the Melbourne Cup. From 1950 to 1980, two in every three Cup winners were either trained or bred in NZ. These days, the North and South Islands are home to 70 commercial stud farms and hundreds of private breeders.

The North Island is home to the majority of NZ’s major studs. Cambridge Stud, home of world-class sires Sir Tristram and Zabeel, Windsor Park and Waikato Stud are located in the Waikato district of the North Island, while Rich Hill Stud is nearby and Haunaui Farm has become a major operation just outside of Auckland. In the South Island, Willow Glen operates on the lush grasslands of the Canterbury district south of Christchurch and White Robe Lodge is set within the rolling hills of the Otago region even further south. The Dominion produces around 3500 foals and exports more than 1500 horses every year. Sires such as Darci Brahma, O’Reilly and Cox Plate winners Savabeel and Ocean Park are the more recent sires continuing the tradition.

Thoroughbreds from NZ have made a massive impact when they’ve travelled overseas. Starcraft’s deeds at Longchamp and Newmarket, combined with what he had done in NZ and Australia, led him to be named the World Champion Older Turf Mile in 2005. Hong Kong has gained several of NZ’s best exports in recent years, including 2016 HK Horse of the Year Werther, 2011 and 2012 HK Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and champion HK sprinter Aerovelocity. Recently, another NZ export Debt Collector was named Singapore Horse of the Year.

Closer to home, NZ trained or bred horses to make an impact in Australia have included Cox Plate winners Ocean Park and So You Think, who went on to become an international superstar, Caulfield Cup winner Mongolian Khan and Australian Derby champion Dundeel. The past five Australian Derby winners, and the past four Australian Oaks winners, were either bred or trained in New Zealand.

NZ racing has thrived for more than a century since a 1911 Act of Parliament gave its racecourses a completely different look to the Australian and English models it most resembled in other ways. On-course bookmakers were banned, giving rise to a strong totalisator system and illegal bookmakers around just outside the tracks and the local hotels.

Ascot, So You Think with Joseph O’Brien up after winning the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes. Photo:Frank Sorge

Last year, a total of 4864 individual horses started in NZ races. From the 800m of the early two-year-old races to the gruelling 6400m of the Great Northern Steeplechase, the NZ galloper is bred and trained for all distances and types of racing.

10 of the Best
New Zealand’s greatest racehorses would be champions anywhere in the world. This list is not definitive, it’s open to debate and it doesn’t include the immortal NZ-bred Phar Lap, who never raced in his homeland.

Gloaming

One of the most remarkable horses in world racing history, he won 57 of 67 in Australia and NZ between 1918 and 1924, including 19 straight. He won the Australian Derby at just his second start and won at distances from 800m to 2400m. The legendary galloper made the crossing between NZ and Australia 15 times and only missed a place once – when he fell early in his career.

Kindergarten

Won 25 of 35 in the early 1940s, including the Auckland Cup with 64kg in record time. He was allocated a higher handicap than Phar Lap in several Melbourne Cups but never ran.

Carbine

Unbeaten in NZ, he won 33 of 43 starts including the 1890 Melbourne Cup before becoming one of the greatest colonial sires of all time. Balmerino: 1975 NZ Derby winner and an unlucky 2nd to Alleged in the 1977 Arc De Triomphe. He had a highest Timeform rating of 138. Desert Gold: Won 36 races from 1914 to 1919, including 19 in a row.

Mainbrace

Freakish galloper who won 23 of 25 including 17 straight in the early 1950s.

Sunline

Champion mare who won two Cox Plates and a HK Mile. She was named NZ Horse of the Year an unprecedented four times from 1999-2002.

Rising Fast

1950s champion stayer and the only horse to win Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate, Melbourne Cup treble in the same year (1954). He won the Caulfield Cup the following year and was a desperately unlucky 2nd in the Melbourne Cup.

Bonecrusher

10-time G1 winner in NZ & Australia in the 1980s. Beat fellow NZer Waverley Star in what is regarded as the greatest Cox Plate ever run.

Rough Habit

Won 11 G1 races in Australia & NZ from 1990 to 1995, at distances ranging from 1400m to 2400m, and was a dual NZ Horse of the Year.

Formerly one of Australia’s top administrators, Racing NZ chief executive Bernard Saundry has the ability to look at the New Zealand racing scene with fresh eyes – and he’s excited by the possibilities.

Saundry says that while the country has some catching up to do in prizemoney and funds need to be set aside for some track upgrades, he has been surprised at the scope of NZ racing.

”I think NZ is a great destination for racing enthusiasts, with the landscape providing a stunning backdrop at so many racetracks across the country,” he says. ”The experience you can have at the races in NZ is just fantastic.

”We have 15,000 owners of racehorses in this country and what I discovered when we sent out our regular updates on what’s happening in New Zealand racing was that those emails were being opened in 37 countries. That’s how widespread interest has become in our racing.

”The quality of the NZ thoroughbred is recognised around the world. NZ horses perform very well not just in Australia but in Hong Kong and Singapore. Over a third of our horses bred here every year end up exported into those markets. Our trainers don’t just train horses for our racing, they pre-train for international destinations.”

Saundry says the distance from the rest of the racing world and within the country itself are challenges NZ racing people have embraced and overcome for years.

”It’s a long narrow country and the tyranny of distance is obvious between the top of the North Island and the bottom of the South,” he says. ”That presents a challenge during carnival times for those who live on the other island but NZ trainers and jockeys and stable workers are a resilient lot and they travel long distances during the peak periods.

”We’re renowned for our great horses and great climate to rear fantastic thoroughbreds. Our riding ranks are very strong, notwithstanding that some have found their way to Australia for more lucrative offers. Four of the top six jockeys in NZ are women and 45 per cent of the riding ranks are female. In time, I see more females riding in NZ than males.”

Samantha Collett is the runaway leader for the NZ Jockeys Premiership.

NZ is recognised for its outstanding and competitive jockeys so having so many women high on the list is a great reflection of the country’s forward thinking. Samantha Collett is the runaway leader for the NZ Jockeys Premiership, 20 wins clear of legendary rider Chris Johnson and cousin Alysha Collett. Danielle Johnson and Rosie Myers are close behind.

”There’s great value in the courses that are generally owned right across the country by the clubs themselves,” Saunders adds. ”One of the main items on the agenda is to improve prizemoney but NZ has a great many positives.”

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