Stories of the Queen's links to New Zealand and Australian racing
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the TwinSpires writing team turned to their only regular writer from a country where the British monarch is still the head of state, looking for some perspective of what she meant to us “British” subjects.
Well, as a New Zealander from a generation that has questioned the value of a head of state based 12,000 miles from our country, it’s hard to make a definitive statement. Most people in the New Zealand racing industry know the Queen was a significant owner and breeder of racehorses. But given she is such a long way away from New Zealand, her impact and influence on regular racegoers and stable staff in our part of the world is limited.
However, there was enough prestige and mystique surrounding the Queen that any contact she had with people in the thoroughbred industry in former colonies would be fondly remembered. Many of us recall when the Queen came to see champion Australian sprinter Black Caviar soon after the unbeaten mare won the Diamond Jubilee (G1), taking time to pat the great mare’s head in the enclosure.
As the Newmarket journalist and trainer John Barry said, the Queen’s love of racing and horses was “a great way of reminding everyone that she’s a human being”.
The Queen visited New Zealand 10 times during her reign, Australia probably a similar number. On most occasions, she would take time to either attend the races or visit either a training or breeding establishment.
New Zealand’s premier breeder for most of the last 40 years, Patrick Hogan, had huge success with the stallions Sir Tristram and Zabeel and bred Melbourne Cup and Classic winners. But among his greatest memories were his meetings with the Queen, and especially her visit to Cambridge Stud in 1990, an event which wasn’t on the official agenda but which she insisted on. Hogan, later Sir Patrick, leased her a sister to three Group 1 winners at the end of the visit.
Not all the Queen’s equine-related visits to the former colonies were positive experiences. When she visited Ellerslie, the premier racecourse in New Zealand’s largest city of Auckland, in 1986, protesters threw eggs at her, one of which hit her coat and splattered her dress. She regained her composure and later told a banquet audience that “I prefer my New Zealand eggs for breakfast”.
One of the most interesting racing stories linked to the Queen surrounded her first visit to New Zealand in late 1953. Visits to the major New Zealand summer racedays were on the schedule, among them the richest race in the country, the Auckland Cup on December 26.
In the lead-up, an improving four-year-old named Rising Fast began looking like a Cup contender, winning at Te Rapa on November 22. But in early December he ran a shocking 13th in the Te Awamutu Cup, and both the jockey and trainer were suspended for a month for not allowing him to be run on his merits. At his next race, at Paeroa on December 19, Rising Fast won – and there was a hostile reception from racegoers over the form turnaround.
Within a couple of days, Rising Fast was disqualified for 12 months for inconsistent running, meaning he missed the Auckland Cup. His owner, Leicester Spring, was convinced this was because the authorities feared a similarly bad crowd reaction in front of the Queen if he won the Auckland Cup. The disqualification was lifted on appeal, but by that time the major races – and the Queen – had gone.
The Auckland Cup passed incident-free, no doubt pleasing the authorities. But as a result, the Queen never got to see Rising Fast, later to become one of the greatest racehorses ever to race in New Zealand or Australia. Nor did New Zealand racegoers, as Spring sent the horse to Australia and he never raced again in his homeland.
The following spring, Rising Fast won the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate, and Melbourne Cup – to date the only horse to complete that treble in the same year – and a string of other races. Some Aussie writers acclaimed him as the best horse seen in their country since Phar Lap. Chances are, if the Queen had the choice of witnessing a reaction-free race or watching one of the best horses ever to race in Australasia, she may have chosen the latter.
The Rising Fast incident happened well before my time. In my lifetime, my biggest racing memory surrounding the Queen came in May 1988. She had come to visit the Australian capital city of Canberra for that country’s bicentennial celebrations and to open a new Parliament building. To go with it, a one-off race named the Queen Elizabeth Stakes was held at Canberra racecourse, a track which usually never attracts the best horses.
But the Queen’s presence was enough to encourage the connections of New Zealand champion Bonecrusher to attend. Bonecrusher was a standout in Australia and New Zealand in 1986, and his victory in the 1986 Cox Plate in a stirring battle with compatriot Our Waverley Star is regarded by many in Australia and New Zealand as the Race of the 20th Century. But injury and age seemed to have caught up with him, and he’d been decisively beaten in his only Australian start in 1988.
The Queen’s presence also however attracted the star of the Sydney autumn carnival in the first half of 1988. The New Zealand-bred three-year-old Beau Zam had thrashed all his opponents in the top Sydney middle-distance races, though there was a feeling he hadn’t faced a really good horse. However, Princess Anne had ridden him in work in April, and told her mother to keep an eye on it.
Between them Bonecrusher and Beau Zam had earned more than A$3.5 million. Yet they were brought to Canberra for a very modest prize of A$65,000, just so their connections could race in front of the Queen and to hopefully meet her as a winner. Fortunately, they put on a thrilling display, with Bonecrusher leading for most of the stretch only to be collared in the last 50 yards by a brave Beau Zam.
As a New Zealander in my late teens I was disappointed at the time to see our hero Bonecrusher beaten. But looking back, my main feeling is gratitude. From my television set across the Tasman Sea, I got to watch an epic clash between two great horses on a relatively unimportant track – one that would never have happened but for the presence of Her Majesty.