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A little more than six years ago, Leicester Roper decided he was 'sick of horses' and thought sheep farming would make a pleasant change, so the Ropers moved from their 75 acre dairy farm/ training property at Greenpark to a 250 acre sheep farm at Sheffield.

In theory, the plan was fine, but in reality, Leicester now has more horses than ever. The Sheffield property was named Kia Ora when the Roper's purchased it and they have kept the Maori greeting as the official name for what has now become a busy standardbred stud - and current home for three stallions, Dryham Lea, Montini Bromac and Count Bay - as well as some sheep. Of the three stallions, last term, the newcomer, Montini Bromac, was bred to the most mares, 36, in what was a pleasing response to his first season at stud. The trotter Count Bay came next with 21 mares and Dryham Lea the longest serving of the trio, was bred with 20 mares.

Although Dryham Lea is currently in the limelight with his sons Beware and Logan Dryham, both winners at Addington last month, he has received only modest support from breeders during his ten years at stud, and Leicester estimated the horse had been bred with only about 150 mares during that time. Leicester said that Dryham Lea had been raced by a friend, Mr Lance Pearce, and that when the horse, who won five races during a brief track career, was retired from racing he was interested in getting some foals by him. Leicester and his wife Rona, a keen and efficient horsewoman, had often considered the possibility of running a standardbred stud, so when Lance Pearce offered them a long term lease on Dryham Lea for stud purposes, they were on their way. The possibility was transformed into reality.

Dryham Lea was their first encounter into the stud business and initiallly the support for him was not encouraging. In the early days, nobody paid much attention to the smart son of Lumber Dream and Meadow Jewel and most of Dryham Lea's mares came from 'just a few friends'. Leicester said that although the early negative comments and lack of support for Dryham Lea was disappointing, they always believed he would eventually make his mark as a stallion. He has now sired over 25 individual winners, and these include the tallented Australian performer Rough Lea, Classic Lea, Unaware, Logan Lea who reached c9 before being sold recently to a New York buyer, and the smart trotters Girl Lee (a sister to Rough Lea) and Senator Lea.

Leicester's interest in Dryham Lea stemmed from an earlier association with a filly named Golden Jewel, whom he trained and raced in partnership with Lance Pearce. Golden Jewel was by Garrison Hanover and was the first foal from Meadow Jewel. The partners won two races with Golden Jewel before selling her to North American interests as a 5-year-old. "She was a good little mare," Leicester recalled, and her ability created, for him, an interest in other foals from Meadow Jewel. But it was not until the early 1970s that Leicester had the opportunity to choose brtween two of Meadow Jewel's colts, False Idea and Dryham Lea, as stud propositions.

Both horses had proven themselves on the racetrack having won several races each in relatively brief race careers, so the decision was not easy. Leicester liked both stallions but Dryham Lea won over in the final analysis because he was 'such a lovely mannered, nice natured horse'. The Ropers felt if Dryham Lea could pass on his speed and ideal disposition to his stock, he would leave some fine racehorses - a theory which is now coming to fruition. "We always had faith in him," Rona said.

The road to success is not always an easy one for a NZ-bred stallion. Broodmare owners tended to "rush to American stallions", whereas the NZ stallion had to prove himself on the racetrack and then at stud before breeders took any notice, and even then often the support was not great. Leicester said support for Dryham Lea had always been best when one of his sons or daughters was racing well. That was particularly true when Leicester and Bob McArdle raced a smart 2-year-old, by Dryham Lea out of Winsome Queen, during the 1977-78 season. Named Even Chance, the youngster raced three times for for a third and a win, both at Addington, before being exported first to Australia and later to North America. Even Chance was trained in NZ by Reg Curtin who had also broken in his sire, Dryham Lea.

Leicester said he often attended racemeetings as a child with his father, and he won his first race with Merry Gold, a mare they raced in partnership. "I went to the races with my father to fill in time," he said. In those days, during the 1940s, the general public had unlimited access to the horse box area and this freedom of movement often encouraged children to ask trainers if they could have a ride on various horses before they raced. Leicester found a sympathetic trainer in the form of the late Cecil Donald. "I used to ride a big black horse Cecil trained, before his races. I would get sixpence for doing it and I thought I was made," Leicester said.

However, the chance to earn sixpence was not the only attraction at the races for small children in those days. Their sights were often set on richer prizes, and sugar bags were a standard part of raceday equipment, in pursuit of these. The children collected discarded totalisator tickets and, in defence of this seemingly futile exercise, Leicester indignantly claimed he found 'one or two' profitable tickets out of the many thousands he collected.

Leicester said the raceday outings with his father had probably given him the inspiration to own racehorses, but an uncle, the late Joe Washington, who raced the great mare Daphne d'Oro before Leicester was even born, had provided the "biggest influence" and the Ropers now use Joe's racing colours. Joe Washington trained and raced Daphne d'Oro on lease from her breeder, Mr J B Westerman, during the late 1920s and early 30s. During the 1927-28 season, Daphne d'Oro won six races and these included the Great Northern Derby and the New Zealand Derby. Leicester was given the winner's ribbons for both races, but unfortunately only the Great Northern Derby ribbon is recognisable and is almost like new. The NZ Derby ribbon is in tatters, literally, having succumbed to the rigours of time.

Leicester worked for Clarrie Rhodes, as private trainer, between 1954 and 1964. During this time and later, Peterson Lodge was considered to be one of the most modern and up to date training establishments in NZ. "The whole set-up was good," Leicester said. "It was a nice place to work and we had good horses to work with," he added. Leicester still considers Clarrie's 1957 NZ Cup winner, Lookaway, as the best horse he has handled. He broke in Lookaway, drove him in his first race win and travelled to America with the gelding later in his career.

Another of Clarrie's horses Leicester has vivid memories of is the smart trotter Mighty Brigade. He admitted he had "always had a fancy for a trotter", and "we thought he was a super little horse". But he recalled on day at the Banks Peninsula meeting in October, 1958, where he was subject to stipendiary disapproval after driving Mighty Brigade. Mighty Brigade raced twice that day for two close seconds. After the first race, Leicester was in trouble with the Stipendiary Stewards for alleged "undue use of the whip". He was subsequently warned, but after Mighty Brigade ran second again later in the day, Leicester was once more in trouble and this time he was fined £10 for undue use of the whip. Leicester maintained he had not hit Mighty Brigade, and was extremely unhappy with the stipendiary decision. His enthusiastic protestations were not received favourably, so he invited the stipendiary stewards to examine Mighty Brigade. Leicester felt an examination of the gelding would prove the injustice of the fine. An examination was later carried out by the club's veterinarian, and, although it did not have quite the desired effect, the fine was reduced and the charge changed from 'undue use of the whip' to 'the manner in which the whip was used'.

After ten years with Clarrie Rhodes, the Ropers moved to Greenpark where they ran a dairy farm, worked some horses and started Dryham Lea off at stud. From Greepark they moved to their present home at Sheffield. Life at Sheffield is busy, but the Ropers said they are fortunate to have an enthusiastic and capable worker in Stuart Thomas, who is also a neighbour, to help out. A professional junior reinsman, Stuart works for the Ropers and has done a lot of the work with Beware, a smart 3-year-old pacer by Dryham Lea out of Wairiri Leicester is currently traiing for Lance Pearce. Stuart has also driven Beware in two of his three wins.

Credit: Shelley Caldwell writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 10May83

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