When you get Noel Harris and Murray Baker in the same room you know there is always going to be plenty of laughter reminiscing their entwined moments in racing.
That was the case at this year’s NZ Racing Hall Of Fame (NZRHOF) function at SkyCity Hamilton when the two greats of the New Zealand turf were among the latest nine inductees, which also included champion Sydney trainer Chris Waller.
Internationally successful jockey Tod Hewitt and Ra Ora’s Sir Woolf Fisher were also inducted, as were champion sire O’Reilly, the weight-carrying jumps legend Brookby Song, the mighty Wanganui galloper Veandercross and one of the greatest pacemaking stayers, Might And Power.
Urged on by co-MC Steve Davis, Baker set the scene for some light-heartedness when first cab off the rank and Harris completed it as last man standing (on stage).
When asked why he had decided to shift north from Woodville to Cambridge in 2000, Baker shot back with the witty reply: “I knew I had to make the move otherwise I might have ended up working for the Pahiatua Rabbit Board or something.”
Truth is Baker was already established as a Group One-winning trainer but felt he needed to go the heart of New Zealand racing, the Waikato, to continue in his role.
The former first-class cricketer for Central Districts initially enjoyed success as the part-owner of the Noel Eales-trained stakeswinner Varnamo (16 wins). He then began training in 1978-79 and his first major wins came in 1985 with the Harris-ridden Sir Vigilant in the Gr.1 NZ St Leger and Gr.2 Wellington Derby.
Since then Baker’s role of major success has flowed with a multitude of stars, including Horse of The Year award winners Dundeel, Mongolian Khan and Bonneval, the current star for his training partnership with Andrew Forsman.
And within 24 hours of receiving his award, Baker landed another Group One, Te Rapa’s Herbie Dyke Stakes, with Lizzie L’Amour to go with his Gr.1 Thorndon Mile win by Stolen Dance a few weeks earlier.
Baker (71) is nearing 1500 wins in New Zealand and also has the record for the most Group One wins by a New Zealand-based trainer (21).
Harris rode many top horses for Baker, including Palliser, his first significant winner in Australia, Bayer Classic winner Eagle Eye and the top fillies Let’s Sgor, Kate’s Myth and Staring (the grandam of Dundeel).
Twice leading apprentice jockey, Harris won both the NZ and Singapore Jockeys’ Premierships. His riding career spanned 45 years with 34 Group One wins and he is in the top four of all-time jockeys with 2163 New Zealand wins.
He rode a host of great gallopers including Castletown (a Hall of Famer), Poetic Prince and Kingdom Bay and since his retirement from the saddle in April 2015 he has excelled as an apprentice jockey mentor.
“It’s such an honour to be among so many greats,” said Harris, who recalled riding the first winner for Waller, a son of a Foxton dairy farmer who went from foreman for Paddy Busuttin to becoming Sydney’s premier trainer.
Harris ended the evening with one of the standout comments directed at Waller.
“Chris, if you’re stuck for a rider for Winx, give me a call and I’ll make a comeback, “he quipped.
While there were so many light-hearted moments during the NZRHOF dinner, the magnificent deeds of such greats of the turf weren’t taken lightly.
Waller had the crowd enthralled, particularly when discussing the deeds and expectations of his champion mare Winx, unbeaten in her last 22 starts.
“Everything you ask her to do, she does. I don’t know where the bar is, she keeps rising to it,” he said.
Known for his emotion, Waller was holding back his tears when accepting his induction: “It’s a huge privilege to be here tonight. It doesn’t come much better than this.”
Leslie (Tod) Hewitt’s induction has enlightened the modern day race fans to his amazing career as a jockey. He was the first jockey in this part of the world to adopt the “Tod Sloan” crouch riding style, which was at first sneered at by his contemporaries, but eventually used worldwide.
His first ride was a winning one, on Sparrow in the 1897 Winton Guineas, and he won the 1903-04 NZ Jockeys Premiership, then rode successfully in Europe, winning major races in England (including the 1912 English 1000 Guineas on Tagalie), Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Italy. Receiving Hewitt’s award, former leading racing journalist Dave McCarthy pointed out “he rode in nine different countries and never got on an aeroplane.”
Hewitt later rode in India and kept a scrapbook documenting his amazing international record of 765 wins, 767 placings from a total of 3251 rides.
Sir Woolf Fisher was a highly respected racing administrator and industrialist who co-founded Fisher and Paykel and in 1950 established Ra Ora Stud, the home of the multiple champion sire Sovereign Edition. He served 17 years on the board of the Auckland Racing Club, including two as President, and revived the Auckland Polo Club.
He was knighted in 1964 and was an inaugural inductee into the NZ Business Hall Of Fame in 1974, a year before his sudden death at the age of 62.
Brookby Song, a jumps debut winner by 10 lengths, won successive Great Northern Steeplechases, the first in 1947 by 12 lengths. In 1948 he became only the third horse to win the Great Northern, Wellington and Grand National Steeplechases in one year and carried record weights of 12 stone (76.2kg) in that Great Northern and 12 stone 7lb (79.4kg) in the Grand National.
Trained by Bob Hall for Harry Whitford, Brookby Song retired with a record of 39 starts for 12 wins, five seconds and three thirds and prizemoney of 17,000 pounds, a record back then for a jumper in Australasia. He died aged 34 on the Whitford family farm.
Veandercross was bought by schoolteacher Chris Turner for a mere $1400 in a three-way package as a foal at foot and went on to become the 1992-93 Australian Champion Racehorse of the Year and winner of 15 races (eight Group Ones) and $3.5 million in prizemoney.
The son of Crossways was the first horse trained by Turner, who learnt the skill from books and handed him over to John Wheeler when campaigning in Australia.
All bar one of his 40 races were in Group or Listed events and at three he won three Group Ones – the NZ 2000 Guineas, Bayer Classic and Canterbury Guineas. The next season he won the Gr.1 MacKinnon Stakes and was runner-up in both the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups before winning four more Group Ones.
He was put down on Caulfield Cup day, 2014 less than three weeks before his old Wheeler stablemate Rough Habit, another Hall of Famer.
Whereas Veandercross was a noted powerful finisher, Might And Power is best remembered for his power in front which earned him the title of the World’s Champion Stayer of 1998.
Bred by Cambridge’s Windsor Park Stud, Might And Power won seven Group One races and over $A4.5 million in 12 months, including the Caulfield – Melbourne Cup double.
As a five-year-old, he won four of his six starts, including the W.S. Cox Plate, and retired with a record of 33 starts for 15 wins (seven Group Ones) and prizemoney of more than $A5.2 million.
O’Reilly had a brief but spectacular racing career, winning four of his six starts, including the Gr.1 Bayer Classic and Gr.1 Telegraph Handicap before a second in the Gr.1 Australian Guineas.
Named after the world-class Irish rugby winger Tony O’Reilly, he was Champion Sprinter-Miler in 1996-97 and went on to be a champion sire at Waikato Stud. He has won four NZ General Sires Premierships and is third on the all-time sire of stakes winners list behind Hall of Fame sires Sir Tristram and Zabeel with 87 stakes winners, including 12 Group Ones.
A couple of inaugural members of the NZRHOF, Marie Leicester and Don Hancock, were surprised with presentations for their lengthy input into the organisation, while Guy Heveldt, from TVNZ Sports News, was presented with the Phillip Leishman Media Racing Awareness Award.
Thank you to The Informant – for allowing NZRHF to publish this article
By Wally O’Hearn