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ERIC RYAN: Horseman


Eric Ryan thought he would be driving next season. He told Jeff Rohloff on his last trip to Hutt Park that he had another year to go and he'd be back with a team of horses.

The way Eric knew it, he had been born in 1927, and didn't retire until the end of thw 1991-92 season. When the official word through that Eric was in fact a year older than he thought - that he was 65, not 64 - he bought a birth certificate to see just how old he was. "It flattened me when it hit me," he said in his raspy way. He was dead keen to do a few more laps on the track at Hutt Park, for one last trip down memory lane, because it was the scene of his first driving success. Francis John was between the shafts for his first win on November 5, 1969, his birthday, and he followed that up three races later winning with John Peel.

Eric could talk for hours on the grim and entertaining incidents that have made him such a huge personality in harness racing. The stories he tells are as big as himself, and note that Eric is 18 stone and 6'4". Like his size, the stories are tall, but real. He has been in the wars with officialdom, notably the long, costly and bitter battle with the Harness Racing Conference on a corrupt practice charge following the selection of a maiden field at an Akaroa meeting, and once he made banner headlines in a sports paper when he was buying up cheap horse and selling them for pet meat. He said at the time: "I reckon I'm doing the industry a good turn. There are so many horses around that can't get starts."

Nothing annoys him more in harness racing than inconsistent penalties from the stipendiary stewards, and he doesn't mind saying so: Eric has always been a straight talker. One episode he puts ahead of the rest was at Greymouth where he was racing Big Idea, not an easy horse to handle, off the unruly mark and 10 behind. "He flew off the mark and I got him into the one-one. It was the best run I have ever had in a race. The thing I'm following was hanging something bad, so I gave it plenty of room when I come out and we run a beautiful second. "And we lost put out...because they reckoned the horse in the open galloped and I'd interfered with it. Through that, I lost the horse; he won his next start and was sold to America. That really hurt me."

He was also disappointed in the months of hard work he put into the c2 pacer Pelorus Jack, and failed to get a start. Ellen, Eric's wife, then played a tape, showing the son of Byebye Bill in handsome form beating Charming George in a trial at Addington three years ago. "He won five trials," recalled Eric, "but didn't get a start for seven months, the whole time I had him." He was sold, and went to Australia. The next tape Ellen played showed Pelorus Jack in Sydney, where he took a record of "1:58.7. "I don't know what else I had to do with him here," he said.

Eric has always been a 'battler's' man. He has bred, trained and won with horses with no good commercial connections. He started as a shearer and later bought the butcher shop at Little River, where he was born. When the shop closed for the day, he would start working the horses, usually about 6pm. They would gallop four miles up the hill at the back of the shop and walk home. "We had no young ones. They were old horses and cast-offs."

Eric soon had a remarkable reputation of buying horses for the price of a ride in the float, and for standing at stud horses who otherwise would have been lucky to find a home. Few of his horses ever had much in the way of social standing. "I bought Eone Navarre at the 'Swamp' (hotel) one night for a shilling, and he won two for us at Greymouth."

Eric has a library of tales about horses he bought cheaply, horses he bred from obscure or unfashionable pedigrees to win races, and horses with little bent manners he straightened out. One of the first he bred and gaited, and perhaps his best horse, was Atlee. Driven mainly by Steve Edge, Atlee won seven races in seven months, including two in one day at Nelson and the Cheviot Cup when Jack Smolenski handled him. Eric said he was a great front runner. He was bred by Spring Jinks, who Eric stood at stud, from Synthetic, by Protector he bought from Bob Negus for £5. Spring Jinks sired only three foals - Atlee, Two Bob and Polly Jinks - and they all won. Synthetic served Eric well, leaving six winners. While Atlee was the best he raced, Eric always maintained he had a better one that didn't race. This was Yonder Chief, which he owned with Jim Dalgety and sold the day he qualified. He went to the US and took a record of 1:52.

He rarely brought a favourite home. Polly Creed once paid $111.80 and Limbala - "she loved to sit in the death" - returned $55.60 when second in a division race at Motukarara.

His best season was in 1980-81 when he drove 13 winners and trained 18. Expeditions away from home were part of the Ryan campaigns. "We'd go away for weeks at a time. On one trip up north we were away eight weeks and won 11 races," he said. "I really appreciated going to Auckland for the first time, and winning two races on the opening night with Avon Spark and Viva Remero. They won 11 races between them and Viva Remero beat Jenner in the Rosso Antico." Among his other winners have been Advanced Fibre, Always Smile, the tough mares Waitara and Sidi Rezegh, Haughty Choice, Big Idea (Taranaki Cup), Royal Delivery (Marlborough Cup), Commanche, Ungava, Leanne's Pride, Wish Me Luck, Up To You, and the most recent, Jerlin's Choice in the last Reefton Cup.

"I love driving, I train them, I know them. I took me 10 years to get a licence. I had a gutsful by the time I got it, but it came eventually, and I have had some good horses. A man of my size is not so good to a horse if a track is wet, but it's all right if a track is reasonable. I know Jerlin's Choice pulls me no trouble at all and he is only a little horse."

Off the track, Eric did what he could for harness racing. He was a foundation member of the Motukarara Trotting Association, served on the committee of the Standardbred Breeders Association, the NZ Owners, Trainers and Breeders Association, the Akaroa Trotting Club, and the Banks Peninsula Trotting Club. He has a paddock full of young horses, by rather unpopular sires such as Kiwi Kid, Worthy Del and Byebye Bill, to be tried, but it is a job he is just not up to at present. An operation last April to replace a hip joint has left him on a crutch and Ellen is doing most of the stable work. For Eric the driving days are over, even if he would like to think it's a year too soon.

Credit: Mike Grainger writing in HRWeekly 17Jul91

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