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Original Issue


Kiwi harness horses are soon handicapped out of contention. These overage destroyers, sold to U.S. horsemen, have now won $3 million in purses here and more of them are on the way

Not long ago a San Francisco dentist and his wife were describing their travels to some fellow sightseers as their bus moved through the endless red dust of central Australia—the penchant of American tourists to visit places like Alice Springs being both inexplicable and unconquerable, LBJ notwithstanding. They were keen amateur anthropologists, the dentist explained, and were taking a year's vacation to study tribal peoples. They had just come from New Zealand. "No, dear," his wife interrupted. "That wasn't New Zealand. It was New Guinea."

It is just that kind of muddle that a lot of Americans are apt to make of South Pacific geography, or at least they used to. But, as it was pointed out when this story was told with some amusement at a Christchurch, New Zealand racetrack a few days later, the dentist was obviously no sportsman. American sportsmen know where New Zealand is because of such Kiwi prides as Edmund Hillary, Peter Snell, Denis Hulme and Bob Charles, to say nothing of its champion rowing team and famed All-Black Rugby stars. "And your horsemen," said a fine sheep-farming type standing there all in tweeds. "They seem to have found us in the last few years." If his voice and smile suggested that somebody was getting fleeced, it can be pardoned. The unloading onto rich Americans, who pay fancy prices, of what in the view of New Zealanders are useless nags, is one of the most interesting export operations in all the history of sport—and a profitable one for those concerned. What it comes down to is that numbers of New Zealand's sturdy harness horses have come off the country tracks and the $900-purse circuit to make small fortunes in the U.S. In the past three years they have won more than $3.5 million in American prize money and, as a result, last year alone $2.8 million worth of these horses were sold to American buyers.

The success of New Zealand racing stock can be attributed to the very nature of the country from which it comes. A rugged and beautiful island domain of 2½ million people, 1,200 miles to the east of Australia, New Zealand was charted by Captain James Cook in 1769. There is a couplet in a 19th-century poem about the captain that goes:

No virgin lands he left unknown,
Where future Englands might be sown.

The first settlers in New Zealand took their mission of sowing a future England literally, too literally, as things developed, for they planted gorse and bracken and blackberry bramble that they had brought from Gravesend, and these plants were so at home they became the plagues of New Zealand farmers—and still are today.

The country, because of its isolated position and its geological origins, had remarkably little fauna when the British arrived. The Polynesians who first discovered its two main islands found flightless birds, bats, lizards, frogs and a small blue mouse that still lives in New Zealand's forests. Captain Cook and his men introduced pigs. The Maori natives made slight distinction between the two new arrivals. They called the men "long pigs," and the long and the short of it was that they considered both species delectable. It was not until some time later that their tastes became more civilized.

The British settlers, who arrived in the 1840s, were hand-picked to establish a model colony. Their boat was a kind of Noah's Ark, carrying the butcher, the baker, the candlestickmaker, as well as an assortment of birds, animals and seeds—sheep, sparrows, gorse, broom. The English oaks and poplars that these early colonists planted still stand in careful lines across the country, giving New Zealand a strangely planned appearance. Later, Japanese deer, Himalayan mountain goats, Atlantic salmon and American rainbow trout were imported.

This careful selection and introduction of foreign species continues. A few years ago the New Zealand wildlife service conducted experiments on the eating habits of rainbow trout. When fed on imported smelts, the trout grew 1¼ inches each month, or three inches more a year than the rainbows eating the standard New Zealand river diet. So tons of smelts were brought in and released, and New Zealand trout are happier and healthier than ever.

Not all the country's best-laid plans have worked out in quite the manner they were conceived. For example, some of Captain Cook's pigs got loose in the hills, and their wild offspring now provide excellent boar hunting instead of ready pork chops.

The wealth of New Zealand is in its rich limestone land, its lush grass and mild climate. Camellia trees grow tall as oaks, and in the spring the country is a profusion of daffodils, wattle and calla lillies. A florist on Queen Street in Auckland will advise a tourist not to buy her carnations because they are "hothouse." The people, even in the cities, think in terms of the countryside. An urban and affluent housewife will explain that she keeps a "pig barrel," a large garbage can that is taken to her son's farm on the weekend to provide two days of food for his sows. New Zealand has, in sum, a history of careful design and self-sufficiency, a rural philosophy, a firm hold on the Protestant ethic that hard work is its own reward and no use for pampering, either of people or of horses.

U.S. horsemen, like U.S. dentists, did not know New Zealand from New Guinea until a lean-looking pacer named Cardigan Bay showed up at Yonkers Raceway four years ago and began feasting on U.S. champions. His achievements were prodigious, and the more horsemen considered his background, the more they began to think Cardigan Bay was no freak and that there might be others where he came from. That was when strangers with stopwatches began turning up at small New Zealand tracks. Since 1964 some 200 of these harness horses have been imported. Last year 65 of them were racing at New York tracks.

One irony of this import-export business is that these New Zealand pacers are the offspring of humdrum American stallions that were traded to the South Pacific for two bits and a bottle of rum. Cardigan Bay, for instance, is 93 and 75/100ths percent American. His sire, Hal Tryax, raced with little distinction on the U.S. Grand Circuit in the 1950s. He won 25 races, earned $36,000 and was sold to New Zealand for $7,000. For the past 20 years, the leading Standardbred stallion in New Zealand has been an American horse. There are 27 of them now at stud there, and it is doubtful that any of them cost their New Zealand owners more than $10,000. Several of these stallions never won a race, yet they are considered the country's prize bloodstock.

In this colonial world there is a mystique about imported things, whether they be bone china or the tired bones of an American pacer. And if, say, Hodgen's Surprise is not the household name that Royal Worcester is, no matter, for Hodgen's comes well related if not well recommended. His New Zealand owner advertises him proudly as "a brother to Ohio's Horse of the Year in 1961," and that alone seems sufficient to establish his prestige. The chances are he will flourish, for all horses seem to in New Zealand, be they Standardbreds or Thoroughbreds. Eighty percent of the richest races, flat and harness, that are contested in Australia are won by New Zealand-breds. The last seven Australian Derby winners and seven of the last nine Melbourne Cup winners came from New Zealand. Phar Lap, the legendary Australian horse, was actually raised in New Zealand, a fact that emotional Aussie horse-lovers prefer to forget. They stuffed Phar Lap when he died in 1932, and now he stands serenely in a Melbourne museum, not far from the Mo-nets. His heart is on display in Australia's Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. All New Zealand got back was Phar Lap's bones, which can be seen in a Wellington museum.

Horses in New Zealand receive tough, natural treatment and this explains their strength, stamina and success. They are stabled on farms, not at racetracks, and are turned out in pastures immediately after racing or training. A harness horseman may have a dirt course, two sulkies wide, carved through his barley or wheat fields (there are 30 of these private tracks in the vicinity of Christ-church). Or, if he has no track, like Lester Clark, who trains the country's best trotter, Mighty Chief, he works his horse on country roads. Clark is a dairy farmer, and after he finishes the morning's milking he hitches Mighty Chief to a cart and goes out for a two-or three-hour jog. How far he goes and how long he takes depends, his daughter Janice says, on the number of neighbors he meets along the way.

There are 133 days of harness racing each year and some 1,700 horses in training, which means that a good many New Zealand pacers get old waiting for opportunities to compete. But this means, in turn, that they get an opportunity to develop. Two things show astonishing durability in New Zealand: cars and horses. Because the country has no steel industry and there is a 133% tax on automobiles, a 1949 model Chevrolet will sell for $480. And that 1956 model horse, Cardigan Bay, cost his U.S. buyer, Stanley Dancer, $100,000, although the pacer was an 8-year-old gelding at the time of his purchase. It turned out that Cardigan Bay had a good many miles and $747,375 in winnings left in him. Part of the Cardigan Bay deal was that he would be returned to New Zealand "after his racing days are over or he has reached the age of 13, whichever shall come first." He is due to go back next year.

Cardigan Bay's continuing success has taught New Zealanders the value of their stock. They thought they were, to put it bluntly, sticking the Yanks. They say there are only so many two-minute miles in a horse, and after Cardy went a mile in 1:56[1/5] one night at Wellington in a cold wind on a 4½-furlong track, they reasoned, not without cause, that he could never be the same horse again. Perhaps he has not been, but from the American viewpoint, he has been a steal. The majority of horses exported to the States since then have been good bargains, too. Take, for example, Great Reveller, a horse that New Zealand's chief handicapper, Tim Morton, says "would have had a hard time winning another race here." Since his arrival in the U.S. in 1962, he has won 33 races and $81,000. Highland Glen was bought in New Zealand for $600 and has won $44,000. Oreti, a 9-year-old of which Morton says, "Only a very game man would have bought him for $2,500," was sold to the U.S. and has earned $97,000. The average winnings of New Zealand imports is $30,000.

The majority of these horses were virtually useless in New Zealand, because the country has a rigid handicapping system by which a horse moves up into the next class after winning a race, but never can drop back down. Maidens are classed as 2:20 horses. A winner of one race is in the 2:19 category, a winner of two in the 2:18, and so on. The cup horses, those in Cardigan Bay's class, are handicapped at 2:10 and have all won at least 10 races. By the time they earn this ranking, they are 6 or 7 years old. The strict handicapping system—upward or out—is necessary, Morton says, because of the limited number of races and opportunities for horses to start. "When they reach the end of their ability, we want to see something new." (There is a human parallel to this seemingly stern method of limiting a career. The Bank of New Zealand dismisses all female employees when they marry, because, a bank official explains, "In the country's present economic conditions we have a duty to provide employment for girls leaving school rather than for married women.")

There is always "something new," because the country has more horses—one trainer says 25 times too many—than it can support. Meetings are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays and on an occasional holiday. A horse has a chance to race perhaps once a month, and then he may find himself in a field with 18 other starters all racing flat out for the $900 winner's purse. Once, several years ago, 41 horses started in one $1,260 race at a country meeting.

To win five races in his career, a pacer must be considerably better than average. At the beginning of the current season, there were 71 pacers in New Zealand in the 2:15 class, that is to say, horses that had won five races. Of those, Handicapper Morton said five were certain to win more races; he thought 42 might win once, and the other 24, in his opinion, were not capable of winning again. It is this horse with no future that is exported. At home the horse is worth perhaps $1,500, but his owner can get three times that from an American horseman. So the New Zealander happily sells. Even at $5,000 the American has made a fine investment because of the numerous opportunities to race in the U.S., the larger purses and the less stringent handicapping categories. Past performance suggests that a horse in New Zealand which has won perhaps $12,000 and seven races but is unable to win an eighth has the potential to earn more than $100,000 in the U.S.

Ordinarily, a New Zealand pacer wins his first two races at country meetings, and only after he has shown considerable ability does he compete at city raceways, such as Addington in Christchurch. Country racing, however, is hardly minor league. The turf courses are carefully groomed—some are used for Thoroughbred meetings as well—and if there is a flock of sheep in the infield, or the outfield, well, there is a flock at times at Addington, too. The sheep are New Zealand's best greenkeepers—there are quite a few country golf courses laid out in sheep pastures. It is not unusual for a Kelso or Bret Hanover to appear at one of these country courses. Last August the favorite for the Melbourne Cup, the Southern Hemisphere's richest and most prestigious Thoroughbred race, made his final appearance before being shipped to Australia at a small meeting 60 miles outside of Auckland. A sample of the advertisements carried in the racing program at such tracks shows just how rural they are. One program listed in succession these one-line ads:


Because of their off-course betting clientele, daily newspapers carry racing reports in astounding detail. The extent to which racing is covered can be gauged by this item, which appeared in the New Zealand Herald: "Surely Not, one of the most consistent mares in the lower North Island with one win and 23 placings from 46 starts, is in foal to the imported sire, Thurber Frost. Placed 13 times before she cleared maiden class, Surely Not is a 7-year-old by Garrison Hanover from Sally Walla. She is a sister to Sally Boy...." Undoubtedly, a few horseplayers recognized the old mare and were pleased to read about her impending confinement, but such news would hardly merit publication anywhere else in the world.

God Save the Queen is played at the start of each racing program, and there is a decorous Old World formality to harness meetings, but it is spiced by a little stout colonial drinking. Tankers, similar to those that deliver gas, transport beer to the tracks, and their thick hoses remain hooked to the bar all day. Women dress in regalia fitting for a garden party. They usually sit in groups apart from the men, having their flutters in feminine privacy.

The variety of racing conditions makes New Zealand horses quick to adjust to unfamiliar circumstances. Some courses in the country are dirt, some grass, some right-handed, some left-handed, and they vary from four furlongs in circumference to 1½ miles. There is no standard distance, such as the mile in the U.S., and races may be contested from one mile to two miles. At certain tracks the horses seem to go round and round like an uncheckable carousel until officials ring a bell to signal the final lap. The crowded fields have produced what one driver calls a "gladiator style" of racing. "You can push a fellow out from the rail," Doug Watts from Christchurch explains, "as long as you do it in a very quiet manner." The horses learn to accelerate quickly, to take advantage of any opening, and during the course of a race they will be called upon to sprint several times. This quick-footed quality has made the New Zealand horse particularly adept in the shorter one-mile races in the U.S.

There is a stud in the South Island now experimenting with breeding horses solely for the American market. Forty of its mares will foal in February, March and April—which is springtime in the U.S. but autumn in New Zealand—in order to have a more advantageous birth date by American standards. The catch in the plan is that the young animals will be subjected to winter weather four months after their birth, instead of growing naturally in the summer warmth. As things are, U.S. buyers have no complaints with New Zealand's present method of developing horses. True, they are not ready for the American market until they are 6 years old, but it is older horses that our trainers lack. Peter Wolfenden, who handled Cardigan Bay in New Zealand, says, "America is running out of horses. They are mass-produced there and quickly burned out. We are not concerned with making speed horses, and because of this our pacers are clean gaited. They don't have to wear head poles, boots, straps or any of that gear that you have to put all over your animals."

Stanley Dancer, who has bought 12 New Zealand-breds since Cardigan Bay, explains, "Young American horses have so much to go for—in purses and prestige—that trainers can't pass these things up. Take Nevele Pride, my trotter who was Horse of the Year last season at 2. If he hadn't raced, he might never have earned that $222,923 or have established his stud value. But an American horse is finished at 3, 4 or 5 years old. The New Zealand horses last until they are 8 or 9 or older, because the horsemen down there don't do much with horses while they are young and their legs have a chance to set."

The growth rate of New Zealand's horse-export industry has been phenomenal. In 1965, the year after Cardigan Bay began racing in the U.S., there were 1,150 New Zealand foals born. In 1966 there were 1,350 and in 1967 some 1,600. John Rowley, secretary of the New Zealand Trotting Conference, attributes the increase entirely to Cardigan Bay and the resulting surge of American buying.

There is no indication that American interest in New Zealand horses is slackening. If anything, the opposite is true. At least three and possibly more of the horses entered in this month's Inter-Dominion Championships—the biggest event for Australian and New Zealand pacers—will come to the U.S. There is one horse in that field, however, that the Americans have not been able to beg, borrow, buy or steal. His name is Lordship. Five years ago he was Cardigan Bay's chief rival, and he is still going strong. Yonkers Raceway has not even been able to lure Lordship to the U.S. for its flashy International series, and after years of trying has given up hope. It was in 1964 that Yonkers President Martin Tananbaum first approached Mrs. Doris Nyhan, the horse's owner. "We're not interested," Mrs. Nyhan told him. Lordship kept racing in $3,500 events and kept winning. Tananbaum came back the next year with a better deal. No success. Then the track's publicity man, Irving Rudd, heard there was a policeman at Yonkers who was a nephew of an Irish priest who just happened to be in Mrs. Nyhan's parish in Christchurch. "These people don't care about money; it doesn't impress them," Rudd says. "So we talked to the policeman, and he put us in touch with the priest." On their next trip to New Zealand, Tananbaum and Rudd found themselves invited to the Nyhan house. "There was tea and the scones," Rudd recalls, "but still she said no." The fourth year that Tananbaum and Rudd went to New Zealand, they found Mrs. Nyhan cooling out Lordship after he had raced at a small town in the south. "There she was, all done up in a smart print dress, hot-walking the horse," Rudd recalls. "So I said to Marty, 'Look, we've got connections. Why don't we offer her a round-the-world trip? We know people—I think we can swing an audience with the Pope.' So Marty says to me, 'O.K., go take a shot at her.' Well, I walk three miles with her and her Lordship. Up the lane, down the lane. Me and her and the horse. Finally I say to her, 'Look, Doris, you can go to Paris and buy 16 gallons of perfume, and then you go to Rome, and that's no small potatoes.' You know, she got a real apple in her throat, and she was down on one knee for the count. She thinks about it for a while, and she looks at the horse and she looks back at me, and you know what she said? 'But, Irving, after we left New York and we went to Paris, who would look after my wee one?' "

So Lordship will not even visit the U.S., and that fellow who started it all, Cardigan Bay, will be going home at the end of next year. But the men with the stopwatches and the cash are still flying down to New Zealand and snapping up those sturdy leftovers that are not good enough for Auckland, but look fine coming down the stretch at Roosevelt or Liberty Bell.