DUAL GAITED TRAINERS
There was standing room only om Monday at the funeral service for harness racing identity Henry Skinner who died in Invercargill on June 20, aged 78. He was described in the many tributes as a no fuss horseman with great judgement and practical skills. This was backed by his results.
In a driving career spanning 45 years, from his first drive in the 1956-57 season to his last in the 2000-01 term, Skinner reined the winners of 717 races. Among his major successes were the 1979 Auckland Cup with Sapling, the New Zealand Messenger Stakes in 1976 and 1978 with Forto Prontezza and Sapling, the 1989 New Zealand 2-Year-Old Championship with Honkin Vision and the 1989 Dominion Handicap with Tobago.
He also suffered some near misses suc as when Hi Foyle came up against Young Quinn in the 1975 Inter-Dominion Final, or when Sapling was nutted in both the 1978 New Zealand Cup and the Inter-Dominion Final, or when No Return got clear too late in the 1993 New Zealand Derby. In addition to those second placings in major races, he came close in another New Zealand Cup when Forto Prontezza, a pacer he also trained, came third.
Prior to his entry into harness racing, Skinner had been an apprentice jockey and won his first race at Tapanui in 1948 as a 15-year-old. Among his key wins were the 1949 Invercargill Gold Cup on Gunther, carrying seven stone seven pounds (47.75 kgs) and consecutive Great Western Steeplchases aboard The Denbigh in 1951 and 1952, the latest carrying 11 stone one pound (70.5 kgs). Not long after that, increasing weight led to him swapping saddles for sulkies.
Although it took him 12 seasons to reach his first 100 winners, those were in days when harness racing dates in the south were limited, as were the number of races each day. He topped 30 in a season for the first time with 38 wins in the 1973-74 term and another eight times later. His best tally, of 39, came in 1986-87.
Skinner's solo training career began in 1960 but he netted just the on win in his first term. By the time it ended in 2007, his tally was 327 wins. In addition, a successful five-term partnership with Allan Devery - from 1987 - yielded another 76 wins. Honkin Vision, who won both the 1989 2-year-old Sires' Stakes Final and the 3-year-old version six months later, was their biggest winner.
Skinner was carried into the service to the 1965 Herman's Hermits hit 'I'm Henery the Eigth, I Am' and his daughter Tracey Laker recalled the times he would ring and sing the song down the phone line to her to report on a successful day at the races. She also remembered going to races with him in the days when parking attendants were required, and spoke of the lack of success the white coated brigade had when trying to change her father's parking habits.
Peter Davis, who worked for him for about six years, spoke of the ongoing Skinner influence. Some of the routines he followed, such as when mouthing, Davis said, have stuck with him to this day.
Skinner's casket was draped with the red and white colours he wore so prominently for many years. He is survived by two daughters, Tracey, and Vicky Popham, and five grand-children Morgan, Nic, Georgia, Meg and Flynn.
Credit: Mac Henry writing in HRWeekly 29Jun11
Trail-blazing trainer Alex Milne, considered an expert with young horses, died in Gore, aged 90.
On Boxing Day, 1974, he produced Parlez Vous at Ashburton to beat the champion Noodlum, the first horse to do so. Six days later, at Addington on New Year's Day, he did it again. The race was the E F Mercer Flying Mile and he became the first three-year-old to clock a race winning time of 2.00 (in NZ). Race driver Alex Milne junior recalled it was Parlez Vous's fifth win in a row. Nine months earlier, Parlez Vous had won the New Zealand Kindergarten Stakes with Henry Skinner in the sulky.
In 1978, Matai Dreamer - driven by Milne junior - won the same race after breaking early and giving the field a massive start. Matai Dreamer and then Armbro Wings won Great Northern Derbies in 1979 and 1980. New Zealand 3YO of the Year, Matai Dreamer was named by Milne junior as probably the best of his late father's many winners.
In 1977, Milne had prepared Almac to win the Kindergarten Stakes, prior to selling him to Australia. According to Milne junior however, the Australians came early, paid for him and wanted their own driver, Eddie Sim, to take the reins. "The Australians brought their own hopples. It was the first time we'd seen shorteners, but when they measured them against the ones he had been wearing they couldn't get them long enough. They went ahead and used them, he ran third." Almac was renamed Black Irish in Australia and went on to have a distinguished career including victory in the Queensland Derby.
Milne junior said that when his father weaned, he kept the foals in all winter, mouthed them and drove then in a sulky as weanlings. "He said that if you get them doing work, they'll eat better. He didn't put them in a sulky very much, he seemed to know just how often to do it."
Milne also had then driven differently on raceday. "When I started driving, you used to sprint early, back off and then sprint home," Milne junior said. "When Dad took young horses to Canterbury his way was to make a mid-race move and at the 800m, put the pressure on to take the sprint out of them. They were conditioned to do that."
One of a family of nine, Milne's mother died when he was four and his father when he was 14. He was brought up by locals in the community and became a cheese maker at the local dairy factory. Another chapter in his life saw him take a team of horses to Walter Peak Station on the banks of Lake Wakatipu where he ploughed over 200 acres of land. It is believed the exercise took about two years and was instrumental in developing his equine expertise.
Married before the war, Milne returned from service in 1947 and immediately went sheep farming near Edendale. He had a family of four daughters and three sons. One of them, Ewen Milne, now of Christchurch, drove and trained for a time while Alex Milne junior continues to do both at Edendale. Grandson Nigel drives successfully in Australia. Such were the demands of farm and family that Milne was in his 40s before he took up training. Cover On was his first winner. He later took it to Wellington to race and then sell.
In the 1964-65 season he ha five wins, four of them with Van Patch who was the first of a significant number of winners who secured four or winners for him. Inclded were Matai Chip, Matai Blue Chip, Matai Bret, Monarque, Maai Moon Beam, Matai Gogi, Matai Skipper and Arden Bay (runner up in the New Zealand Derby). Another was Watbro who started in the New Zealand Cup, led up but was run down.
Camsplace Alec, the winner of two as a juvenile (1996-97 season), five at three and four at four, was the last winner trained by Milne. Raced by him in partnership with Balfour studmaster Allen Jones, Camsplace Alec was then transfered to Brian Hancock in New South Wales and won another 33 times. Matai BBC (Nevele R Series heat winner, 17wins in Australia) and Matai Princess (Southland Oaks heat winner) were the last horses he raced. The 1978-79 season, with 23 wins, was Milne's best and he was Southland's leading trainer that year.
Credit: Mac Henry writing in HRWeekly 3Aud2011
Old habits die hard in the harness racing game so it is just as well that age is no barrier to success.
Ask former top trainer Jack Carmichael, of Templeton. He recently renewed his licence 71 years after he first went racing and soon revealed that old skills also die hard, producing his own Flaming Frieda, driven by Ian Cameron, to win at Timaru.
"It was just circumstances, really," says the modest veteran of well over 700 wins. "I retired a few years ago (2005) and handed in my licence so I wouldn't be tempted to take on a horse. I didn't believe in just going on for the sake of it. I was going to breed from a mare I had, Frieda Holmes, and sell the foals as yearlings." He first foal fetched $9000 and the next one $20,000. Then "Hoagy" as he is widely known (after the composer of the famous song Stardust) was unhappy with the $9000 offered for the third foal, Flaming Frieda, and took her home.
"I had her here and was working her along and, well, with the cost of training fees today I thought I might as well do it all myself. I was getting up at the same time and pottering around with them anyway. I never changed my routine really, everything was here and I didn't think I had forgotten how."
Carmichael's career is steeped in trotting tradition. He began by riding in saddle races on the West Coast in 1940, including the noted saddle pacer, Mankind, a minor legend of the era. Jack drove his first winner, Dawn Grattan, at Hokitika in 1942. "I was related to Wes Butt (whose property was known as Mankind Lodge) who had a big team then and worked with him. I was in the army at the time. We were sleeping under the public stand at Riccarton and training there. I managed to get weekend leave to go over and drive and it was hard to get in those days." Those were the days when it took 12 hours for the average equine rail trip to the West Coast, after which horses campaigned there for weeks at a time, giving rise to the quip "trained on the train". "You certainly didn't do much with them between races. They often raced twice on the same day and with the travelling that was about it."
Carmichael went on to star in much bigger arenas. He trained and drove the 1973 New Zealand Cup winner Globe Bay for Christchurch garage proprietor Stan Wheatley, who bought his dam after her half-sister, which he owned, was "nobbled" at a Hutt Park meeting. Coronet Lass started Jack off in the training ranks after years of working with Butt and farming. Chequer Board, Glen Moira, the erratic but brilliant Micron, and Astralight were among his many stars, but his record in Inter-Dominion trotting finals with Precocious(1975) and Yankee Loch(1989) were special highlights.
The aptly named Precocious had an unusual career. When she was a two-year-old, an unnamed colt jumped the fence and put her in foal. The resulting filly, appropriately named Over Fence, was not only a good winner but later left a high class trotter in Precocious Lad. "I only trained Precocious at odd times. Bob Mitchell had her at the 1973 Inter-Dominion and I went over to drive her. We were off the back mark and it wasn't going to be easy. An old bloke there took me aside and told me the locals would make things tough for me in the final but I should remember that stewards might give me a 'holiday' but they wouldn't take the race off me. Sure enough, one driver in particular tried to push me off the track for a whole round. I gave as good as I got, remembering that advice, and won the race. There was a long enquiry but the old bloke was right. They gave me a month's suspension but we kept the race. The other driver, Bert Alley, became a good mate of mine."
It was experience against the tough Australian drivers which paved the way for the second Inter-Dominion triumph with Yankee Loch in 1989, also held across the Tasman. "I had a good mare called Kate's Return. She frustrated me until I found out she loved going to the front. When I went over to Australia they just attacked me all the way and ruined her chance. So when Yankee Loch's turn came and I knew he would race best in front, I rang an Australian driver, Jim O'Sullivan, who had won big races at Addington at that time and asked him to drive him in the series. Jim went to the front and they didn't attack him like they would have if it had been a Kiwi driver. Yankee Loch beat the hot favourite, True Roman."
Jim Curtin drove Yankee Loch in New Zealand to win several major races. But Ian Cameron is the "stable driver" at the moment. "When you go to the trials, fellows like Jim are either away at the races or booked up. Ian has always driven quite well in my opinion and he helped me out when I went to workouts. He's done nothing wrong."
Jack bears no grudges against Australians, incidentally. His wife, Dorothy, comes from there and they have had a long and successful marriage. Besides his work with horses, Jack put in years of administration with the Owners and Trainers Association running trial meetings at Addington. He is one of the select few elected to Addington's Hall of Fame.
So are there any more champions in the pipeline? "No, I wouldn't say that. Flaming Frieda (by Courage Under Fire) is a little bit better than average. She went through a bad spell when I had to tie her up to do much with her but it was Jim Dalgety who reminded me that perseverance was the key to success. She can do more yet and I have some Badlands Hanover youngsters out of the mare. I have tried one of them (Harvest Boy) and when he lined up I even put a fiver on him because I think he will be alright, but he needs a bit of time."
Time is something Jack Carmichael feels he still has plenty of. "I've been lucky but I notice a lot of horsemen seem to live to a good age. I think the early-to-rise and early-to-bed might have something to do with it."
Jack, 88, this year and the oldest professional trainer in the country, is still fascinated by horses after 75 years working with them. By any standards, the career of a genuine stayer.
Credit: David McCarthy writing in The Press 2 July 2011
Your father, Joe, had racehorses. Were you always going to make a career with them?
No way. I actually started working in town as an office boy but I got a bit sick of that.We had always had ponies to ride to school at East Eyreton where Dad had a farm. Anyway I was helping out at home. Dad went to the races at Ashburton one day and came home and said he had found a job for me. It was working for F J Smith in Auckland (Takanini), so I packed up and off I went.
F J Smith? He was the Englishman who had been in America and was a champion trainer always immaculately dressed?
Yes, he had a lot of success here. He was a top horseman and he knew all the latest things they were doing in America. I was there for about 18 months.
I suppose since he was one for appearances everything had to be spot on?
My word! We had two horses each to look after. There were 19 of us working twenty horses most of the time and we lived in a house there at Takanini. Each day you had to have all the gear hanging up outside the stable and he would inspect that and the horses.
A tough test?
He used to have a white silk handkerchief. He would rub it over the horse's rump and hold it up to the light. It had to be clean or you had to do it over again. He would do the same with the gear, giving it a dust test. The included the horse's covers. We had to wash and scrub them every day. He was a stickler for that. He also had a big collection of treatments he gave to the horses. If you ever went near there you were soon told to get back to work. He died not that long after I left there.
You came home?
Yes, I was training a couple at East Eyreton. Then Dad sold the farm and I moved out to Belfast. I was at George Ashby's for a while and then at Kent Smith's stables next to the Belfast hotel.
A tough start?
I started training for £2 10 shillings a week. But you could get a bag of chaff for five shillings and oats were cheap so it wasn't too bad. The top trainer charged up to £5.
I remember you had a good horse called Masterpiece soon after. How did that happen?
He was a Southland horse and Herbie Booth owned and trained him. I got to know him at Forbury when the meetings were spread over a week. At the end of it he offered me Masterpiece. He had won about four races then and that took him out of the Southland racing classes.
A good horse to work with?
A stallion but a lovely horse to do anything with. We won a lot of good races against the top horses an hell, they were good then. He won a free-for-all beating Vedette, but I never got him to the NZ Cup. He broke down in a suspensory ligament before the race. We bred mares to him. He later left Master Alan, which was a top wee horsepeople will remember.
What was it like for a young guy with a top horse then?
Well, it wasn't all easy. A leading trainer I wont name went all the way to Invercargill to try and get it off me. He told Herbie I didn't know what I was doing and h would do a better job. Herbie turned around at th end and said the horse was at Gavin Hampton's and he was staying there. In fact he sent me up other horses including a trotter called Ecosse which won a lot of races. Herbie died near the end of Masterpiece's career, but his son kept the horses with us.
Ecosse, another stallion. He was by U Scott? What was he like?
Yes, by U Scott, a little weed and a dirty little bugger. You just couldn't trust him. I remember I sent him over to Lyttelton one day to go to Wellington. In those days they used to hoist them onto the boat. When I go to the boat there was a hell of a scene. Horses bandaged everywhere. He was next to Johnny Globe who was a lovely quiet horse and had attacked him and everything else he could get at. I didn't have many mates on that ship.
What had been your first winner?
Rowan McCoy, which Dad bred and owned. A good trotter on her day.
What was the story behind Signal Light that you drove in the 1951 Inter-Dominion trotting final?
Dad had a rabbiting contract in Hakataramea and that required horse. He used to go to the Tattersalls Horse Bazaar in town to get them and that was where all our best racehorses came from when he decided to breed from a few of them. Suda Bay, the dam of Signal Light was one of them. She later left Court Matial for my father. He bought another one, Margaret Logan, which was to start a line for us. They were only going for hack prices.
Did Signal Light have his chance in the Inter-Dominion?
Yes, and I thought it had it won. Then Gay Belwin came along and took it off us in the last few strides. Signal Light won a Trotting Stakes and he was placed in a lot of the biggest races. There were terrific horses to race against then. I especially remember Dictation. He held all the records. He was one of the best trotters I have ever seen if not the best.
Court Martial. He made a big impression, especially as a sire?
He was a good stayer as a racehorse but he was a terrific stallion. He left horses like Moon Boy, lots of top liners. Dad stood him at stud in Riccarton on Hawthornden Road.
A big operation?
Not with old Court Martial. He was a dream. they'd walk him into a paddock of mares and he would just stand there while they tested the mares and palpated them. They'd call him over , he would do the job, then start eating grass. Nothing ever bothered that old horse. He was 35 when he died.
After Masterpiece, Signal Light etc, your next headliner was Radiant Globe. What can you tell us about him?
He was the best horse I trained. Right from the first time I put him in the cart he was special. He gave us a lot of thrills and the two biggest disappointments of my racing life.
How did you get him?
I really only had him to break in initially. Graham Holmes suggested they give it to me. Bob White, who was then a barman in Blenheim - he later had his own pubs - had bred him from a mare he bought from Westport for about $100. She didn't have a lot of breeding. John Hart had a share in him with Bob. As I said I liked him right from the start and they let me go on training him. He was better than anything else I handled.
What were the disappointments?
A New Zealand Cup and an Interdominion. You don't get many bigger disappointments than those two in our game.
Which Cup was that?
1971. He was second to True Averil whom he had beaten in the New Brighton Cup not long before. He was the favourite and he should have won it.
I was in front. He was happy there. He could start to pull if you tried to do too much with him. Anyway, we were going along sweet as a nut when Robalan came around. They wanted to lead and there was some noise going on and my horse started to pull. It cost him the race.
Still second though.
When Robalan wouldn't go away I let my horse run clear of the field. He was only going to pull his way into the ground otherwise. We had a big break on them at the turn and it was only in the last few strides True Averil got him.
What happened at the Inter-Dominion?
They wouldn't let him into the final because he had missed the first round of the heats. That was the year Mount Eden didn't make the final either. Radiant Globe was going terrific that year but he had a muscle problem just before the heats started and we couldn't risk him like that. He got enough points in two rounds to get into the finals but they wouldn't let him start. He won his consolation heat by half the straight and went faster than they went in the final. He'd have won that too if he had got a go.
A kind horse?
Just a lovely horse to do anything with. Kids could ride him no trouble. A bit of an actor too. His only bad habit was that he liked to pull battens out of fences. I got a long piece of polythene pipe about 20ft long and gave him that to distract him. He loved that. He would stand on his hind feet and swing it around like a circus pony. The papers came out and took photos of him in action.
You ended up taking him to America?
Yeah. It wasn't a great result. When I first got there I had him at a farm, riding him and doing pacework with him. They thought it was a novelty riding a free-for-all pacer, but I did a lot of it with him. He thrived out there but Del Insko, who had charge of him, wanted him in town to step up his work. He didn't take a lot of work and he didn't show his best up there. In the end he broke down.
Wendy Dawn was a good filly you raced?
Yes, I bred her by Johnny Globe, like Radiant Globe was. Her mother (Meadowbrook) was from Rose Logan which Dad had bred from. She showed me quite a bit early on but when it came to race time I just couldn't get a start with her anywhere. Not many trials then and a lot less races. So I entered her in the New Zealand Derby for her first race. A bit daring then.
How did she go?
She ran fourth, pretty good first up. It was Tactile's year. Her second start was in the NZ Oaks and she won that.
What a career start. What happened next?
Not a lot to be honest. She was smart but she never really got any better. She was also a bit disappointing at stud. She left Tilringer which was useful, but not a lot else.
You did a lot of freelance driving later?
Yes, I had some good clients. Swannee Smith gave me drives on Gay Lyric when he was going well earlier on and Starbeam was another I got a drive on. Jim Curragh had Kind Nature and others and I drove Sassenach and Stampede. Lucky Boy was another and Alandria which Jim Winter trained. I drove Philemon earlier on. Paul did very well in his own right as a driver. He was probably better than me.
How did you get on Stampede?
Mainly through Andrew Sellars. I had driven horses for his father earlier. Alan Devery was training him and said "who is Gavin Hampton?" Andrew said to him he would soon find out because I would be driving him. We did alright together.
What are the horses which live in your memory over the years?
Lordship, Johnny Globe, Cardigan Bay. I mentioned Dictation last time and there was a great trotter in the 1940s called Certissimus who was just beautiful to watch. He died young. Radiant Globe is the horse of my own I will always rate right up there.
Credit: Interview with David McCarthy in The Press 19Feb 2011
The funeral of Eric Ryan was held at Addington Raceway last Thursday, and it was clearly obvious from the hundreds of people in attendance that he was a much-loved and very well-respected man who touched many lives during his 84 years.
Eric was a unique character in every sence of the word. In his heyday he stood six foot four and weighed 18 stone, and anyone that ever met him for the first time would be greeted with a typical "gidday there, how are ya?" - his raspy voice sounding like it boomed down for a great height as he thrust forward one of his massive hands to shake yours.
Spend time around Eric and you'd soon learn that his language was 'colourful' to say the least, with some of the words he used on a regular basis being unprintable in a publication like this, but look past that and it was easy to find the heart and soul of a man who was a real 'people person' - one who would bend over backwards to help out a stranger without a second thought.
Born in Little River in the Summer of 1925, Eric was the eldest of seven children and went to live with his grandparents at the age of four. As he grew up, the saying 'Jack of many trades, master of none' was never one that befitted Eric - as he would try his hand at many an occupation over the years, and his attention to detail saw him successful at almost anything.
He was an extremely hard worker, a trait that he displayed right from the word go, and by the time he turned eight he was hand-milking a herd of cows before school and would take the milk to the factory by horse and cart. The jobs he held at various stages of his life are too many to list, but they include: working a draught horse team on a farm after he left school at the age of 14; employment on a cattle farm while he saved to buy his own horse; driving trucks for long periods at a time; shearing; carting timber; shovelling coal, and draining Lake Forsyth.
Eric bought his first farm in Puaha Valley at the age of 21, booking up 100 ewes and eight cows to Pyne Gould Guinness but paying the debt back within a year through nothing else but hard work. He also ran the Little River Butchery Shop for a couple of decades, slaughtering all his own meat, and his family soon acquired a taste for offal because Eric wasn't one to waste anything.
He brought up eight children and four stepchildren over the years, but he never got fully into horses later in life - an interest which grew from attending gymkhanas on Sundays. His first training and driving success came behind Francis John at Hutt Park on his 44th birthday in November 1969, and then saluted again three races later that night when driving John Peel.
There were many successful racehorses to come out of the Eric Ryan barn though, and after moving to Motukarara for 15 years he had a briefer stint living in Greenpark before settling into his last property at Waimate in 1996.
Some of the horses he enjoyed numerous victories with were Atlee, Jerlin's Choice, Vaguely Innocent, Shylock, Avon Spark, Viva Remero, Advanced Fibre, Always Smile, the tough mares Waitara and Sidi Rezegh, Haughty Choice, Big Idea, Royal Delivery, Commanche, Ungava, Leanne's Pride, Wish Me Luck, Up To You and Nuclear Byrd to name but a few - the latter being notable for the fact that at one stage he held the NZ Mile Record for a 4-year-old or older male pacer after winning in 1:54.1 at Winton in December 1997.
He stood stallions at various times when training out of Aran Lodge at Motukarara, the likes of Worthy Del, Kiwi Kid, Red John and Hunting Song, and he also developed a reputation for resurrecting the careers of horses that were considered 'lost causes'. His best results as a breeder came from the mare Synthetic, who left six winners. Eric could talk for hours about the grim and entertaining incidents that made him such a huge personality in harness racing, and the stories were as big as himself. He was a straight shooter though, and said it like he saw it; you always knew where you stood with Eric.
Eric was a foundation member of the Motukarara Trotting Association, served on the committees of the Standardbred Breeders Association, OTB Assn, Akaroa TC and Banks Peninsula TC, and even served a term as President with the latter for a time.
There was many a funny story or fond recollection being relived by those attending his funeral last week, but no account of the life of Eric Ryan could ever do him justice because memories of the great man stretch far and wide and will remain with people forever.
Eric outlived two of his sons, Norm and Graham. He is survived by another son Johnny, daughters Maree, Daphne, Rosalie, Vicki and Colleen, stepson Terry, stepdaughters Sandra, Sharon and Donna, 35 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and even some great-great-grandchildren.
Credit: John Robinson writing in HRWeekly 28Apr2010
Doug Mangos, who started life in Buller, became a prominent figure in Canterbury and New Zealand harness racing over many years, chiefly through his long association with the famous George Noble stable at Roydon Lodge, Yaldhurst. He talks to David McCarthy.
I suppose with a name like yours you must have spent some time in Lyell. That is where the Mangos name came from?
I was there until I was seven. There are actually about three main branches of the Mangos family in the country, one of them from Timaru and they are distant relations. My parents were storekeepers and moved to Inangahua when I was just a youngster.
Where did the horses start?
There was a fellow at Inanguhua, Plugger(W E) Taylor who had the butcher's shop and had a few horses. I remember Battle Flight was one. I used to do a bit with them, lead them into the birdcage and that sort of stuff. The local publican bought a horse called Elation for one and sixpence about that time and won four races with it. I was 14 when I came over to Christchurch. I wasn't doing a lot at school - I didn't go often enough for that - and in the end they thought I was better off out of it. I went to Roydon Lodge soon after that. (Wife) Eileen had a brother working there and he got me a job.
You stayed a long time?
Nearly 35 years. It was actually the only job I ever had, working for George Noble. I loved every day of it. Wouldn't swap a day.
But you must have thought of going out on your own for bigger rewards?
No, I didn't, at least not seriously. With the travelling we did to Auckland I looked at those trips as three paid holidays a year for a start. No, I was quite happy and George was such a great horseman and boss you never got tired of learning from listening to him. He liked good listeners and I think he thought I was one.
You seem to have finished up all right anyway?
After I left Noble's I used to race a few, usually of my own, and look to sell them. We've done alright over the years. One of the first was a nice trotter called Isa Rangi which we raced with Bill Prendeville. She was pretty good. We beat Ilsa Voss twice. Anyway we agreed her price was $15,000. Then Les Purdon rang up and wanted to buy her. I was a bit cheeky, because I knew Les well, and reckoned we couldn't sell under $25,000. "I don't know about that but I could do $20,000," Les said. Anyway we got the 25 which was a big bonus. We bought this house with what we got from Isa Rangi. It won a few in America.
Was it hard work at Roydon Lodge?
We started at 6 o'clock and got £3 a week. There were 15 horses in full work then but it wasn't as simple as that. The boss used to double heat them all the time so actually it was just like working 30.
Double heat. What was that?
We would work them, not fast, over 2000m, bring them back, take the carts off and rub them down, then later on go out and work another heat brushing home the last bit. It made for a long day.
Was it long before you got a raceday drive?
A couple or three years I suppose. It was good to get a drive. Every one was a week's wages so the competition was keen. I drove Highland Air to win at Forbury Park when he qualified for the New Zealand Cup. I had run a second in a probationary race with Wha' Hae. But my first drive at Addington was on Royal Minstrel which had dead-heated in the New Zealand Derby (with Single Medoro in 1954). He all but fell going into the back straight. It wasn't a great start but we made up for it over the years.
You must have been a very young bloke then when you had your first New Zealand Cup drive?
Yes, on La Mignon the year Lookaway won (1957). She ran third. I think the first three were all by Light Brigade. The boss drove Highland Air (it was the first year of Cup runners for Roy McKenzie after his father's death). There was quite a go after the race.
What can you tell?
We got a nice run and got home well. I was quite pleased with myself. The next thing the chief stipe, Fred Beer, was calling me into the room and there was talk about us being put out.
What was that about?
They reckoned I had checked Roy Butterick on Roy Grattan and Beer gave me a speech. He said to me,"This is a very good race with a big stake that people spend a long time getting ready for. Every horse should have an equal chance of winning this race. I don't think you gave Mr Butterick an equal chance."
How did you get out of that?
I just said,"Well, I don't think Mr Butterick has done too badly out of it". Beer, an arrogant bloke, said pretty sharply,"What do you mean by that Mangos?" So I told him.
Soon after the start General Sandy shot away to the front and Lookaway, which could be tricky at the start - Maurice Holmes could be a genius at getting them away - came up but Bob Young on General Sandy wasn't giving it away. Roy Butterick was in the trail and I heard Maurice call to him, "There's £500 for you to pull back". Butterick did and Lookaway got the run of the race. They just walked around and sprinted home and you couldn't have beaten him. The Cup was worth £7500 but £500 was a good payday in those days. I said that nobody was doing anything about that, while I didn't even know what I was supposed to have done.
What did Beer say to that?
"You can go now, Mangos," was all he said.
The Press 23Jan10
Roydon Lodge had some great horses over the years and you got the chance to drive a lot of them. Which ones do you remember most?
We had some terrific seasons, but we had some bad ones, too. I remember one season we only won one race with 15 horses, which was right out of character. It is hard to remember all the good ones. Sounds silly, but there were a lot of them. Roydon Roux was one I had a bit of luck with in Australia.
Roydon Roux? She was a champion young horse which had a sad end.
I think she won seven as a two-year-old and, at three, she won the Great Northern Derby for me, beating Bachelor Star and Van Glory. It was then that we took her to Autralia. She was out of La Mignon and so was Garcon Roux.
What happened there?
She won the Wraith Memorial Series, which was a big go then in Sydney. She was hot favourite in a leadup, but knuckled over at the start and I had to drive her back. She ran second. When the final came around, the winner of the leadup had drawn in and was the favourite. Before the race, I was taken into the stipes' room. They wanted to know how I was going to drive her.
"The best I can." I said, but they wanteed to know more than that, so I said I would try to get to the lead and, if I couldn't, I would sit outside the leader and I'd beat him anyway. They seemed happy with that. I sat her out and she just bolted in and broke a record. I wasn't too popular on the lap of honour. A few empty cans came my way and they booed. Funny thing was that though she had won all those races, they dodn't count for handicapping and she wasn't actually eligible to run at Harold Park in the classes.
The news was not so good after that?
She broke a pastern bone; just shattered it, running around that little showgrounds track in Melbourne. She couldn't be saved.
Garcon Roux had a big reputation?
The old boss (Noble)thought he was one of the very best. I drove him in a time trial at Bankstown in Sydney and there was a bit of drama. When we started off, there was some bloke crouched under the inside rail taking a photo and the horse balked. He went his furlong(200m) in 16 seconds and ran the mile in 2:01.2. That was some performance.
Jay Ar was one of your favourites, I suppose?
He won a trial at Ashburton one day and even the old boss was amazed at the time. "He couldn't have done that," he kept saying. I can't remember now just what the time was, because the trial was over six furlongs(1200m), which was very unusual, even then. Whatever it was, it was a record.
He dead-heated in an InterDominion Final, of course.
I didn't drive him in that series - the boss did - but I won a lot of races with him, especially in Auckland. He just got beaten in the Auckland Cup by Lordship just before the Interdominion. He was a bit of a nervy horse whe he got out on the track...he wasn't quite as good from a stand because of that. But, gee, he was good. He was in a 3200m free-for-all one day and Garcon D'or had drawn out and we had drawn in. The boss said to me,"You might as well lead till the other one comes around." Jar Ar was off and gone. We haven't seen the other horse yet.
Wasn't there a story over his low heart score?
Taking heart scores had just come in here and a few were very keen on them. The experts seemed to think a horse had to have a high heart score to produce top runs in the best company and Jay Ar was a bit below average. But there's a few stories about those early scores.
A lot of the top trainers were sceptical of them. The boss was one of them. Allen McKay came down from Wellington and did the heart scores over quite a few years. When he first came, we were under instructions not to identify the horses, and we mixed them up a bit in the queue. One horse came out at 123 and they were all excited about it. The next time he came, he kept asking when Jay Ar was coming, and when we told him, he couldn't believe his read, which was about 100 then. I think he thought he was the 123 one, originally. Jay Ar won about $100,000 and the horse which was 123 won a small race somewhere in the Central Districts. It was all quite experimental here then and scores could vary a lot. This one showed that judging a horse just on its heart score was a ticket to trouble.
Samantha was another good one you drove?
Yes, I won a Wellington Cup with her - she won two of them - and beat Lordship just. I learnt a big lesson from George over that.
Well, I won the race and when I got home everyone was very happy and the boss congratulated me on my drive. A couple of days later, though, I got a call to go up to the house. When I got there, George, who had a special way of telling you things, started talking about the Wellington Cup and how Samantha was the best-gaited horse in the race. It was just as well, he said, otherwise she wouldn't have beaten Lordship.
What was that about?
Well, there was no video or anything in those days. But during the week, in the paper, they published a photo of the finish. I had my left hand high in the air holding the reins and I was weilding the whip with the other one. George wasn't impressed. He didn't think he could go on putting me on top horses if I was going to throw everything at them like that. I knew without him actually saying it that I was getting a good dressing down. I never forgot it. There was no more of that.
You didn't do so much driving later on, but it wasn't because of things like that?
The main reason was that John(George Noble's son) decided to work full time with the horses. In those earlier years, John was a mechanic in town and wasn't able to drive them much of the time. When he came into it, naturally, I was going to miss out, but it didn't persuade me to leave. I was quite happy.
The Press 6Feb2010
General Frost was a brilliant young horse you drove?
Gee, he was good. He won the first Juvenile Championship in Auckland. It was a great effort because he was hopeless right-handed. We had a problem about what to do going into the race.
What did you do?
The old boss (George Noble) gave me unusual instructions. He said not to drive the horse around final bends no matter where he was. He wanted me to just let him find his own way; that even if he lost a lot of ground he would still be too good. Well, he lost a good bit of ground on the bends all right but he picked them up and dropped them in the straight. Won easy. He had incredible speed, General Frost. It was a shame he went in the wind. They couldn't do anything about it.
You had a lot of big moments at Alexandra Park?
I won my biggest trophy there - the one I value the most. it is the only one I have really kept. I was the leading driver at the 1968 Interdominion Championship at Auckland. I actually tied with Peter Wolfenden and Kevin Newnam(Sydney) so I was in pretty good company. They decided there would be a toss and George stood in for me. I reckoned I had always had a bit of luck with the toss and George did the right thing. It was an odd man out toss. The first two came up heads all round and then one head and two tails. It was quite an honour when you consider the opposition.
Julie Hanover. I think Andrew Cunningham and their wives raced her. Did you handle her much?
I should have won an Auckland Cup with her. A really top mare. She was usually foolproof but that night she missed away. She ran fourth to Allakasam. John (Noble) usually drove he but he was on a holiday. However, I still blamed myself. It was a terrific effort. She raced for Martin Tannenbaum who organised all the international races at Yonkers at the time when she went up to America. She raced well there and left some good stock. Vista Abbey was another one and I won with Arania (New Zealand's first mare to beat two minutes in a race) off 36 yards up in Auckland on day. She was phenomenal when she was right.
You drove quite a few outside horses at that time too. I hadn't realised you handled Holy Hal. He had been a terrific young horse?
He was older when I first came across him. They had brought him up from Southland for the Auckland Cup. They said he could break down at any time and Kenny Balloch wanted to come up and drive him in the cup so,"Would I be happy to drive him in the lead-ups under those conditions?" I knew he was a smart horse and leapt at the chance. They were hard-case blokes those Southlanders.
They came to me after we'd done the final feeds one night and asked if I minded giving him an extra feed before I left. I said,"why, you have given him his tea? Yes, they said but they wanted to give him a bit of his breakfast in case they were late in the morning! I think they were going out for a big night. Anyway, the horse dodn't mind.
He had had problems as I remember it. What was his form like then?
Sensational. He was a moral beaten in the Auckland Cup. I couldn't believe it. He won both nights I drove him and I thought he was a good thing in the cup.
They had reintroduced lap times. Every time they came round Holy Hal was not just in front but well clear. He was six lengths in front one round. He still ran third. I could have cried.
Did you get another chance with him?
Yes, and we proved a point. We had a chat about the Cambridge Flying Mile and I was to drive him in that. They didn't like it when he drew out but I told them he would still win. Sure enough, outside draw and all, he bolted in. Many people never realised how good Haly Hal was.
Did your success at Alexandra Park bring many extra drives?
Yes, quite a few. One of the more unusual was Merv Dean whose wife, Audrey, owned Cardigan Bay. Merv ran a billiard saloon. He was a big guy and y the standards of those days a huge punter but a really top bloke with it. He started flying me up to Auckland just to drive one horse and it was a lucrative operation for a while there. One time I drove down here during the day and caught the plane to Auckland to drive one for him. Merv met me at the airport and gave me five hundred and he had the colours for me to put on on the way. The horse won. It was Great Return which won a few down here. He gave me another five hundred after that and paid all the expenses. We had a great strike rate for a while there.
You probably liked a bet youself. Any huge collects?
I learned after a while it was quite hard. A lot of people have learned that. I did put 100 each way on La Mignan as a four year old. She had been working so well and she won. I remember going to Forbury one night with Ohio which George trained. It was pouring early in the night and Jimmy Walsh had a horse in earlier in the nightthat we knew loved it like that and it won. The rain stopped and the track improved so it wouldn't bother Ohio with his problem, and he won.
Ohio. He was a top horse?
He would had been but he was tubed. Horses that couldn't breathe properly then, they opened up a breathing passage through the chest - they called it tubing - and put a stopper in it which they took out for the race. It was not uncommon then though I think he might have been one of the last allowed to race. The trouble was you had to be very careful on the wet grit and sand tracks because of the danger of the tube getting blocked and the poor buggers would run out of breath. The boss tried ever sort of gauze over the tube to make sure it was kept clear but we weren't going to risk any tragedies and he had to be retired because of it.
Credit: David McCarthy writing in The Press 16Jan2010
It seems odd that one honoured with such a long list of degrees and awards for outstanding work in several fields of equine medicine as Professor Cliff Irvine should rate his proudest thrill as winning the 1986 Dominion Handicap at Addington with Tussle. But it sums up the complxity of a rare personality - someone able to discuss the most involved aspects of equine reproduction at any university forum in the world, and yet just as happy chatting about training his horses with people who never went to secodary school.
Irvine died recently, soon after his 90th birthday. He was Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Science at Lincoln University, a Doctor of Science (Otago) - the highest award in his field in New Zealand - and had honorary doctorates from Massey and Sydney universities among a host of other national and international awards, including the Bledisloe Medal from Lincoln University. He had an insatiable appetite for research but he never lived in an ivory tower.
Born in Dunedin in 1920, Clifford Hugh Greenfield Irvine, never one to bow to authority, left Otago Boys' High School at 15 after a dispute over the justification for a punishment he received. He later had similar problems in a brief Army stint. He started several unlikely careers from journalist to night porter, before going to Otago University to qualify for a veterinary surgeon course then available only in Sydney. He played for the champion Otago senior rugby team, Southern, on the wing.
Irvine used proceeds from training horses both in Dunedin and Sydney to finance his university days and his first winner, Carnavon, was in 1940. He set up a veterinary practise in Invercargill, catering for large and small animals at seperate surgeries, a novelty then. The biggest challenges were operating on badly gored pig dogs. He used a novel operational technique to save the career of the subsequent Grand National Steeplechase winner, Capet, for Bill Hazlett.
He married Fay Curtis, whose father Ross, was a racing trainer. The couple had a son, Guy, later killed in a road accident, and a daughter, Penny. An illness he contracted from working with cows caused Irvine to be hospitalised for six months, during which he taught himself several new skills including knitting.
A highly competent practical 'vet', Irvine nonetheless always had an affinity for research and he was appointed as a lecturer to the then Lincoln College in 1966. He had already made his mark as a trainer and driver. Light Mood, for which he paid a substantial sum (over £500) as a youngster won nine races, two of them at New Zealand Cup meetings, but he had as much satisfaction with his success with 1957 New Zealand Cup winner Lookaway, which had not won for 16 months when Irvine took him over. At that time he was heavily involved in research into the effect of the thyroid gland on horses, research which was to lead to major advances in treating racehorses. Lookaway restored to form was one example.
Irvine's research into reproductive endocrinology was world class, though he liked to recall that his first boss at Lincoln, Dr Bob Burns, would not allow him to experiment with horses at Lincoln until after a visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1977. She discussed the problems of getting some mares in foal with Irvine and later at lunch with Burns mentioned his obvious need for horses to work with. They were soon permitted and he ended up with 25, including two stallions. One of the mares was Kimmer, by his former star, Light Mood.
In 1977 he was invited to lecture at Texas A and M University and returned with his second wife Sue Alexander, a student at the college at the time and who was to prove a close professional associate and devoted nurse. For many years Irvine was the consultant for both Harness Racing New Zealand and New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing. He defused the bicarbonate controversy which threatened to tear harness racing apart in thw 1990s as large doses of "milkshakes" turned mice into lions on the track.
After much trial and error, Irvine developed the world's first accurate bicarbonate test and set permissable levels of use. His approach in drug cases was always purely scientific. He allowed the use of heptaminol when it was banned elsewhere and held strong, and at times contrary, views on the effects of cattle steriods and EPO under race conditions. He was an international expert in several areas of drugs and their influence on racing horses. His research into reproduction, however, was a greater boon on the local industry front.
In the 1980s the Irvine name became famous in another arena. The trotting mare, Tussle, which he had bred from Kimmer and which showed little early promise, blossomed into one of the best mares produced in New Zealand and became the first to win the Rowe Cup, Dominion Handicap and the Interdominion Trotting Final, the three biggest trotting races in Australasia - a feat subsequently equalled only by Lyell Creek.
Typically, Irvine gave a lot of the creditfor identifying an emerging star to one of his laboratory assistants, Leone Gason, who later married Tussle's regular driver, Peter Jones. It was a remarkable story. Tussle, small, weedy and testy, was bound for a career in the Lincoln experimental band until Gason, then her only fan, got her going as a five-year-old. Various trainers had success with her when her owner was otherwise engaged but she won most of her big races for the Irvine stable, Sally Marks succeeding Gason as the mare's minder. Tussle won 38 races.
When she won the Rowe Cup she was the first horseIrvine had raced in Auckland since Lookaway had won there in 1960. As a 12-year-old Tussle beat Tyrone Scotty and other stars in the Quinns Fashion Free-For-All at Addington on Cup Day in national record time. Tussle died in 2007 aged 34. In 2002 her daughter, Bristle, becam Irvine's 100th winner as an owner.
Cliff Irvine was dcritically injured in a car accident in 2000, suffering a broken pelvis, serious head injuries and a fractured breast bone and knee. He was little more than semi-conscious for three months and in hospital for five. He set himself the seemingly impossible goal of getting back in the sulky with one of his trotters and just managed to achieve it. But the days of the highly competitive tennis matches at his Halswell home (opponents claimed cracks in the court surface were never repaired because the host knew exactly how to hit into them in tight situations) and some aspects of his work were ended.
However, he developed a strong interest in the effect of heavy use of soy bean preparations in infants which had been promoted as preventing later illness. When his contrary view caused a severe international reaction among proponents his conclusions were unaffected.
The ONZM award in 2000 for services to veterinary science was a thrill which came close to equalling the Dominion Handicap and also served as a stimulus to recover sufficiently from his injuries to travel for the presentation.
Irvine never believed in wasting time and urged a similar attitude to family members and his many successful students, some of whom, notably Margaret Evans, have gained international prominence of their own in the veterinary research field. "Television and some other things we like doing were wasting time. But he was never an angry person. I cannot remember ever seeing him lose his temper even in the most difficult situation," Panny Irvine recalled.
Sue Irvine remembers a man of great determination who "never gave up", even when recovering from his critical injuries, but accepted reverses with aplomb. "He set very high standards in his research, as you would expect, and you worked hard with him. But he was never flustered when things went wrong or one of us did something wrong. He had the true scientific gifts of concentrating on the main focus."
Credit: David McCarthy writing in The Press July 2010