Sir James Fletcher, a gentleman of racing and breeding

One of the true gentlemen of the thoroughbred world is to be honoured with induction to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame.

Sir James Fletcher, industrialist, philanthropist, thoroughbred breeder, owner and administrator, has been acknowledged for the foresight that transcended his business career into the world of the horse.  As the son of a Scottish immigrant father of the same name who founded one of New Zealand’s iconic commercial entities in the first decade of the 20th Century, it might have been said that his destiny was pre-ordained, but anyone of that mindset can’t have known James Muir Cameron Fletcher.

Born in Dunedin on Christmas Day, 1914, his early schooling took place in Otago and Wellington before the family’s relocation to Auckland as Fletcher Construction expanded meant completing his secondary education at Auckland Grammar.  “That was when his passion for the horse first became evident,” says son Hugh. “He took riding lessons then became a member of the Pakuranga Hunt, so that’s where it all started and it just grew from there.”

Known by the name Jim to those he grew up with, he was described as “an intrepid huntsman, a fearless rider and a frequent faller”. It was soon recognised that a Monday following a weekend hunt was never a good time to try and win an argument.

Fletcher had cut his teeth with the South British Insurance Company at the same time as gaining his qualifications with night classes in accountancy. He then joined the family firm in 1938 as a junior accountant, rising quickly through the ranks before taking the reins in 1942 when his father was seconded to the wartime government. Also in the early 1940s father and son established their place in the thoroughbred world by founding a stud farm at Te Kauwhata in north Waikato that would quickly become renowned as Alton Lodge.

Their foundation sire was the English-bred Balloch, a younger sibling to the champion sire Beau Pere, who was purchased as an unraced two-year-old and took up duties at Alton Lodge in 1943. Just as Beau Pere had been replaced in the late 1930s by the new champion Foxbridge, Balloch broke the Trelawney Stud stallion’s 11-year reign with back-to-back premierships in the early 1950s when his Melbourne Cup-winning son Dalray dominated on both sides of the Tasman.   

Balloch was followed by another influential stallion, Gold Nib, while others to stand at Alton Lodge included the English Derby winner Mid-Day Sun (sire of the champion sprinter Yahabeebe), Fair’s Fair, Revelation and Chatsworth II. Alton Lodge was the showplace stud of its era, which led to it being included in the 1953 itinerary of newly crowned monarch Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Just as his innovative approach, influenced by extensive overseas travel, was shaping his commercial interests, Fletcher introduced game-changing policies at the stud, most notably the American practice of providing broodmare owners who patronised Alton Lodge stallions with a live foal guarantee. He lent further weight as a foundation councillor of the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and president of that organisation’s Auckland branch.

Success as an owner had dated as far back as his early twenties when Fletcher’s horse King Rod won the 1936 Waikato Hunt Cup, and in partnership with his father during the Alton Lodge era he raced a number of decent performers, mostly trained at Ellerslie by Merv Ritchie and including the talented fillies Blyton and Ganymede. The Auckland Racing Club was special to him, becoming a steward in 1958 and ultimately president from 1969 to 1972.

“It was a case of my father taking his father along for the ride with the horses,” says his son Hugh, “he was the driving force in that pursuit. His interest in horses was as broad as the canvas.

“He also raced horses in Australia – anything to increase interest in New Zealand-bred horses.  In the early 1950s one of the best was the Balloch gelding Taressa, who won the Tattersall’s Cup at Randwick and was one of the favourites for the Caulfield Cup, but he was killed during trackwork when he collided with a riderless horse in the fog.”

A highlight was to come two decades later when the Fletcher tartan colours were carried to victory in the 1973 Wellington Cup by the handsome Sobig colt Rustler, also trained by Ritchie. Hall of Fame trainer Dave O’Sullivan became acquainted with the Fletchers in the 1980s, and to this day he recalls the loyalty that was shown to people like Ritchie with whom they had formed long-standing relationships.

“I was introduced to Sir James but several years went by before there was any talk of me training for him,” O’Sullivan said. “It was only after Merv had retired that the subject was broached, and I appreciated that; it was a mark of the man that he should be loyal to someone who had trained successfully for him for so many years.

“I found Sir James and Lady Fletcher very easy to deal with, they were the most natural people you’d ever want to meet. Early on Sir James said ‘Call me Jim’, but I and everyone else at Wexford couldn’t; it was always Sir James.

“One of the first horses we bought together was at a sale at Te Rapa racecourse, it was a horse we liked but when the bidding got to $34,000 I suggested it had reached its value. Lady Fletcher chipped in and said ‘Just buy it’, so I did. It won two or three races and that was fine with them.

“Then Sir James said he wanted me to buy a nice yearling, so we went to the Trentham sales and there was this Australian-bred colt by Bletchingly that I really liked. I wasn’t alone in that respect and I knew he wasn’t going to be cheap, but Sir James said he would back me on it.

“The bidding got to $100,000 and I ended up getting him for $110,000, which back then (in 1986) was a fair bit of money. Well of course it was money well spent. That horse was Mr Tiz and Sir James and Lady Fletcher had a half-share in him.”

The big bay became a champion sprinter, gaining his own entry to the Hall of Fame after a career of 17 wins that included three editions of the Railway at Ellerslie and two Telegraphs – extraordinarily with a dead-heat in each – and the one that truly stamped his status, victory in the Galaxy at Randwick.

“Of all the horses I trained, I rated Mr Tiz alongside Horlicks as the best,” says O’Sullivan. “There were others like O’Reilly who was untapped, but of those that stood the test of time, Mr Tiz was a champion. He won all those big sprints here and then the Galaxy in Sydney, which is a performance that still amazes me whenever I watch the replay.”

One of O’Sullivan’s favourite memories of Sir James and Lady Fletcher is the 1989 Karaka Ready to Run Sale, when he was commissioned to find a likely sort. “I went through the catalogue and there was a colt by Famous Star that I really liked, so that was the horse we would target. While we were waiting for him to come through we went to the bar by the outside ring and as they liked to do at lunchtime, Sir James and Lady Fletcher ordered a whisky. I settled on a beer and while we were there filling in time this bay filly came through and she caught our attention.

“Sir James said to me ‘There’s a nice horse, perhaps we should have it too’, so we went through to the ring and bought her; she was a filly by Otehi Bay and she cost $50,000. Then the Famous Star colt came through and we got him for $40,000. Those two horses were Morar and Javelin; I can’t remember how many they won between them but I do know there were three Group Ones.

“I was well aware that Sir James was a busy man, but when I needed to phone him he was always available, something along the lines of ‘If my trainer rings, make sure you put him through.’ They loved their horses, they loved coming down to the stables and just spending time enjoying them.

“For everything he put into racing and the wonderful person he was, I believe Sir James is thoroughly deserving of his Hall of Fame honour.”

John Hart, best known to New Zealanders for his exploits as All Blacks coach through the 1980s and ’90s, also had a close association with Sir James dating back to the mid-1960s in his human resources role at Fletcher Challenge. Sir James remained deeply involved in the business well into his 80s and died at age 92 in 2007.

“He was a wonderful man and a fantastic businessman,” says Hart. “I witnessed what he created at Fletchers, a great culture, one that was based on family values and integrity. As a person and his relationship with everyone who worked for the company he was very caring; he didn’t have a hard streak in him, but when it came to business dealings, he was tough and uncompromising.

“He had many interests but horses were his great passion, something he truly enjoyed. As well as the pleasure he got from racehorse ownership, he brought that same business acumen to industry governance, at the Auckland Racing Club and racing in general. He bridged that gap and was a significant contributor in bringing racing into the modern world.”


Pic - Sir James Fletcher with fellow NZ Racing Hall of Fame Inductee Mr Tiz