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The death occurred last week of Mr Wm. Kerr, famous in earlier days of trotting as a trainer and studmaster at 'Wildwood Farm,' New Brighton.
Wildwood Junior, winner of the NZ Cup in 1909 and 1910, Admiral Wood, Thelma, Calm, President Wilson, Goldie and others won numerous races for Wm. Kerr and his brother, C Kerr. At one time Wm. Kerr was the outstanding trainer in Canterbury.
'Wildwood Farm' was named after the great imported trotter Wildwood, who was brought from America as a 2-year-old by Mr H Richardson in 1894 and was subsequently purchased by Wm. and C Kerr. Wildwood proved a great trotter in a limited racing career in this country and during his 10 or 11 seasons at the stud he sired some great horses, notably the champions Ribbonwood and Wildwood Junior.
Writing of 'Wildwood Farm' many years ago, Mr F C Thomas, now living in retirement at Riccarton had the following comments: "The writer well remembers his first introduction to Wildwood, soon after the black son of Good Gift arrived in Chistchurch. Though still showing traces of his journey from San Francisco to Christchurch, he filled the eye as quite the best looking young horse ever brought to these shores. He was then rising three, and after a few week's spell was put into light work at Kerr's track. It was two seasons later, however, that he first faced a racecourse crowd, and though of practically unknown quality, he was backed for the Record Reign Handicap at the Showgrounds as if the race was all over bar shouting. Despite his opponents including much better-performed horses such as General Tracey, Albert Victor, Little Willie, Sam Slick and Viking, he was required to give them starts ranging from 4 to 10 secs in two miles. In the field also was a little fancied candidate hailing from Ashburton, Prince Imperial, owned by Mr A G Holmes, and driven by Newton Price. After going a fine race Wildwood just failed to concede Prince Imperial the required 4sec start, though he managed to account for all the others.
"It was this race that led up to the famous match between Wildwood and Prince Imperial at New Brighton, over which big sums of money changed hands. Dave Price drove Prince Imperial, and Willie Kerr, through the indisposition of his brother, held the reins over the black trotter. Wildwood won in two straight heats. Subsequently he showed his worth in races at the Showgrounds, New Brighton and Plumpton Park.
"On retiring to the stud Wildwood was not long in establishing his speed-begetting ability, as a sire of both pacers and trotters. On of the earliest to bring him fame was Ribbonwood, who defeated the Australian champion Fritz in the greatest match ever held in NZ. Another of Wildwood's sons, Wildwood Junior, must take rank as among the greatest racehorses of modern times. In their home trials there was little to choose between Wildwood Junior and his son Admiral Wood. Whereas the latter gained Blue Ribbon distinction, the 'black demon,' who did his racing before Derbies were instituted, won the NZ Trotting Cup in 1909 and 1910.
"Before both these Cups Wildwood Junior had done everything asked of him at his home track, one of his trials being two miles in 4.31, coming home the last mile in 2.10½. He was also a success at stud, tieing for first place on the sires' list for the number of races won, with Logan Pointer, in the 1921-22 season."
Wildwood Junior mares and their innumerable descendants also made their mark, and his blood courses through the veins of such great horses as Highland Fling, Lucky Jack and a host of others. From Wildwood Junior's dam Thelma, Wm. Kerr bred a great line of additional winners, successful sires and producing mares, and this great foundation mare has become the most famous of all Colonial-bred matrons. Winners in NZ and Australia descended from her in the direct maternal line are now close to the century mark.
F C Thomas & 'Ribbonwood' writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 21Feb51
Long before light-harness racing had been established on recognised courses in the Dominion, meetings were held by a few enthusiasts on the New Brighton beach. They were rough-and-ready affairs. Few of the competitors had had any training outside their daily routine between the shafts of tradesmen's carts. Most of the races had small sweepstakes attached to them, while the prizes were frequently of the utility order, such as a set of harness, a saddle or even a whip.
At one of the early meetings William Kerr made his first public appearance, and the finished manner in which he handled Queen B and Maud S was an augury of his later development into one of the greatest reinsmen ever associated with trotting in the Dominion. Some years later he and his brother Charles set up a training establishment at Wainoni, about half-way to New Brighton, which, in the course of time, became famous for the number of winners it turned out, besides being the foaling place of several champions. The establishment is still there, its homestead and tall macrocarpa hedges being a reminder of it's past glory.
When William and Charles Kerr set up as public trainers at Wainoni their abilty soon became recognised, and their stable was generally full. At every meeting, whether at New Brighton, Plumpton Park or Lower Heathcote, their colours were always to the fore, and frequently half the days programme came their way. When Lancaster Park Amateur Trotting Club was formed, much better stakes than usual were given on the opening day, and William Kerr won a £400 race with Blue Mountain. Up to this time the majority of horses passing through the Kerr Bros' hands were of the utility order. Those that showed more than average merit were gone on with, but the majority returned to their original sphere of usefulness.
As related in last week's issue, in 1894 Mr H S Richardson, of New Plymouth, imported two sires, Wildwood and Ha Ha; also two broodmares - Alice Azmoor and Norbell; a quartet that played a very important part in helping to build up the Dominion's light-harness industry. Mr Richardson had intended his collection as the nucleus of a North Island stud, but through the agency of the late Mr Joseph Chadwick, a well-known sporting journalist of his time, it was agreed to sell the lot to the brothers Kerr.
Wildwood was a handsome black son of Good Gift, by Electioneer, from Amlet, by Fallis (son of Electioneer; second dam Almeda, by Langford (thoroughbred); third dam Lady Bell by Williamson's Belmont; fourth dam Puss, by American Eclipse. It was an unusual pedigree, for Wildwood was a grandson of Electioneer on the sire's side, while his dam was a great grand-daughter of the same horse. Another feature of the pedigree was the unusally strong infusion of thoroughbred strains. There was four of these in Good Gift's veins, and a like number in those of Amlet.
Wildwood, as a 4-year-old, was put into work by William Kerr and soon showed form of an outstanding order. A number of races came his way, and his appearance at any meeting was an attraction, for most of the local 'sports' had as yet not seen a Yankee trotter in action. About this time Dave Price had in his stable a 4-year-old pacer known as Prince Imperial, a son of Hambletonian Bell Boy and his old favourite Princess, a champion pacing mare - a real sensation of her day. From his first appearance on the tracks Prince Imperial was hailed as a coming champion as he had carried all before him in his public trials. Discussion as to the merits of the two horses became general, the outcome being a match of £500 a side, best two of three one-mile heats.
Excitment reached fever heat when the two champions took the track at New Brighton. But, like so many contests of a similar nature, the match failed to live up to expectations. In the first heat Wildwood quickly raced past his opponent, and from this out the issue was never in doubt. Nor did Prince Imperial fare any better in the second heat. Again the American horse soon drew clear, and though Prince Imperial struggled on gamely, it was soon evident that he was outclassed. Wildwood soon afterwards was retired to the stud. He found a ready affinity with Thelma, who subsequently made good her claim to rank as the greatest producer and foundation mare of all Dominion-bred matrons.
Hearing that Mr John Todd, of Lincoln, had a useful sort of gelding for sale on his farm, William Kerr took a run out to inspect the juvenile. It did not come up to the would-be purchaser's expectations, but he was greatly taken with Thelma, who became his for the sum of £30. And what a great investment it turned out to be!
Thelma, who won several races, including the Champion's Plate, was seven when she retired. She produced 16 foals from 1902 to 1917 and died in 1922. He first foal was Willowwood (by Wildwood), who retired with an unbeaten record: he started only three times, once each season in 1907-08, 1908-09 and 1909-10 and led the field home on each occasion. He must have been a horse of some class, because in one case his winning margin was 10 lengths in a mile and a half race and in another it was 12 lengths in a mile race. His best time was 2.24.
Full relatives to Willowwood were Thelma's foals for the next three years - Wildwood Junior, 4.33, Marie Corelli, 2.17, and Authoress. Wildwood Junior was a champion stayer but unsound. Proof of his calibre is given by the fact that his two NZ Cup victories, in 1909 and 1910, were his only races during those seasons. Wildwood Junior became a very successful sire, and tied with Logan Pointer for first place for the number of races won in the 1921-22 season. Wildwood Junior sired more than 100 individual winners and his daughters bred on very successfully their progeny including Lucky Jack (dual NZ Cup winner), Olive Nelson (one of the best trotters of her day), Zincali (one-time mile and a half record holder), Bingen Palm, Zingarrie, Ronald Logan, Mute, Sure, Wild Guy, Midshipmaid, Probationer, Trenand, Belle Lorimer, Ambition, Real Girl and Dundas Boy. All told, Wildwood Junior mares produced more than 140 individual winners. Wildwood Junior also basked in great reflected glory when the claim was authenticated that the fourth dam of Highland Fling, 1.57 4/5, was an un-named mare by the Wildwood - Thelma horse.
Adonis, by Harold Dillon, as his name implies, was a handsome little chap. He was also a fine racehorse, winning in saddle and harness and was good on top of the ground or in the mud. He made a specialty of two-mile saddle races, and his numerous winning performances in harness included the Metropolitan Courtenay Handicap, Forbury Handicap, Metropolitan Parliamentary Handicap, Forbury Park Kitchener Handicap, all two-mile races, and the Metropolitan International Handicap, a leading mile and a quarter event in those days. Adonis also twice finished second in the National Cup. He had not been long at the stud in NZ when he was sold to the New South Wales studmaster Mr A R Tewksbury and became a very successful sire at the Delavan Stud. Adonis sired in the Dominion Queen's Own and Away, both Cup horses.
Waverley, by Galindo, was a good racehorse from three years of age. That season he won a mile harness event in his only start. At four years he made only two appearances and won over two miles in one of these by a wide margin. At five years he was again a decisive winner over two miles at Otahuhu. As a 6-year-old he finished second to Steel Bell in the Auckland Cup and won the President's Handicap, two miles, at the same meeting. At seven years he won a mile harness race in heavy going and the Australasian Handicap, two miles, in 4.35, both at Auckland. Waverley did most of his stud duty at the 'Willowbank' Stud, Southland, and got many winners, including Willow Wave (Auckland Cup), Master Roy, Lynwood, Play Wave, and Jolly Drive.
Of the other sons of Thelma, Neil Denis and The Pointer were the best racehorses. Neil Denis won three races and The Pointer six races. Azelzion also won races, and he and Neil Denis sired an odd winner or two. Aristos, another son of Thelma, did not race. The Pointer was gelded.
Daughters of Thelma who were excellent racehorses were Marie Corelli, 2.17, by Wildwood, Lady Sybil, 2.18 2/5, by Rothschild, and Cameos, 2.15 1/5, by Galindo. Lady Sybil as a 3-year-old was a winner over two miles in harness; at four she won three races, in saddle and harness; and at five she won twice, taking her best record of 2.18 3/5, a good effort in her day. In a restricted career Marie Corelli won two races and took a record of 2.17. She possessed great speed. Cameos, in her only start as a 3-year-old, won the Stewards Handicap, a mile and a half harness event at Forbury Park by half a dozen lengths. At four she won three races, including one over two miles in saddle by a dozen lengths. She won two more races the following season and also divided two great mares in Adelaide Direct and Emmeline in an important sprint at Forbury Park. Authoress did not race.
After Wildwood Junior, the next member of the tribe to carve a niche for himself on the rock of ages was a grandson of Thelma, Author Dillon, winner of the NZ Derby, NZ Cup - and the November Free-For-All three years in succession.
Onyx, who for some years held the NZ mile and a half record of 3.13 against time, and won numerous races before finally finishing second in the NZ Cup, was a famous grand-daughter of Thelma. She won £10,747 in stakes at a time when prize-money was less than half of what it is today. Onyx did not live long at the stud and her only foals were Princess Onyx, whose 3.39 1/5 for a mile and a half still stands as the 2-year-old trotting record, and Baron Chenault.
Free Advice, a great-grand-daughter of Thelma, was a splendid all-rounder who at one time held the mile and a quarter record for a mare. Her crowning achievement in an era of giants - Harold Logan, Wrackler, Kingcraft, Roi l'Or, Logan Park, Logan Chief, Peter Bingen and Lindbergh were among her contemporaries - was to win the second qualifying division of the 1931 NZ Cup from Wrackler, Kingcraft and Harold Logan and finish third to Harold Logan and Kingcraft in the final. A celebrity of the trotting gait who came through the Lady Sybil branch of the Thelma family was Pilot Peter, winner of the Dominion Handicap, 1938.
Classic winners of more recent years tracing to Thelma are Moana Tama (NZ Sapling Stakes); Nelson Eddy (NZ Champion Stakes); Horsepower (Great Northern Stakes, NZ Champion Stakes, NZ Futurity Stakes and Great Northern Derby); Pacing Power (Timaru Nursery Stakes, NZ Sapling Stakes, Oamaru Juvenile Stakes, NZ Derby and NZ Futurity Stakes); Free Again (Great Northern Stakes), and Perpetua (NZ Sapling Stakes and New Brighton Oaks).
Another mare that proved very prolific to the Wildwood strain was Gertie, a daughter of Knight Errant. She was imported from America to Sydney in 1890 by Messrs Trestrail and Burns, who subsequently passed her on to William Kerr. At the Wainoni establishment her first foal by Wildwood was the speedy Storm, followed by Stormlet and Stormless. In 1907 she was mated with Wildwood Junior, and the result was a bay colt called Calm, who did his breeder good service on the tracks. On one occasion Calm ran third in the NZ Trotting Cup, a race that Kerr always maintained should have been his. In his trials, Calm was the equal of Wildwood Junior, but was not nearly as genuine. Gertie's later foals, all by Wildwood Junior, were Gertiewood, Breeze, Calmly, Peaceful, Leewood and Taunekaha; a truly notable collection.
No mention of Wildwood would be complete without reference to his greatest son, the sensational Ribbonwood. This speed merchant was bred by Mr G H McHaffie, of New Brighton. Though he never had his name inscribed on the list of NZ Cup winners, he won many important events and made history by his easy defeat of Fritz in the never-to-be-forgotten match at Addington. Ribbonwood was phenominal for his day, he was the first horse in the Southern Hemisphere to break 2.10 for a mile.
Credit: NZ Trotting Calendar 14Feb51
For any top horseman it was a cruel fate. In May, 1914 leading driver, Charlie Kerr, posted a career highlight driving the unbeaten rising star Admiral Wood to win the first New Zealand Derby, then held at New Brighton. It was owned and trained by his brother, Willie, who would soon sell the colt for a staggering price in those days of £1,000. Within hours of the Derby triumph Charlie was on his deathbed aged just 54.
He had driven into the city in what was virtually a road sulky at 6:30pm to celebrate, leaving the city at 10:30pm. Witnesses saw the travelling very fast on Regent Street in Woolston an hour later and soon afterward they collided with a telegragh pole, Charlie was thrown on the road. He suffered a "laceration of the brain" which affected his behaviour in hospital. He refused food until his death a few days later. There were many tributes to the cheerful horseman from Wainoni.
The Kerr family, prominent in the New Brighton area (Kerrs Reach is named after them), had already suffered a tragedy involving horses, when Peter Kerr, who farmed the Sandhills Run (Christchurch only went to the end of Gloucester Street in those days) was also killed in an accident with a horse. Charles and William established a training and breeding property operating seperate training stables at Wainoni, which was eventually called Wildwood Farm. Willie was the senior partner but also a farmer. The brothers had first made their mark at New Brighton beach meetings in the 1880's and came up with horses like Nilreb (his sire Berlin backwards) which won at Springfield from 400m behind and three races in aday at Westport.
Two decisions by Willie Kerr then took them into the big time.He bought the American horse, Wildwood, in the North Island in 1894. Wildwood, an impressive black, was a wild success but also proved there are no certainties in racing. Winner of the first Sires Stakes run in this country and then lightly used as a stallion, he was constantly in training for nearly two years before he returned in 1897 and was regarded as an unbeatable certainty against the best in the land.
Wildwood had been handicapped four seconds however and in the field was a little known pacer from Ashburton called Prince Imperial, who upset the American trotter in sensational circumstances. That led to a famous £1000 match race at New Brighton, by far the biggest stake ever raced for by harness horses in this country. Driven by Willie because his brother was ill, Wildwood norrowly won the first heat (best of three) with something in reserve. He then slaughtered his classy rival in a new Australasian mile record time. He would become a landmark stallion here but died in 1905 when just 12 and at the peak of his powers. Prince Imperial was also an influential stallion.
Willie drove out to Lincoln one day to check out a gelding breeder John Tod had for sale. Instead he was very taken with a filly on the Tod property and bought he for £30. Named Thelma, she was the fifth and last filly from Pride Of Lincoln whose No 1 family has produced champions from Wildwood Junior to Christian Cullen and beyond. A black like his dad Wildwood Junior, a pacer, was the first colonial horse to win a sires premiership here, but was only one of Thelma's outstanding foals. He famously won two NZ Cups in his only starts in those seasons, one in world record time.
Thelma, a fine racehorse, had 16 foals in as many years. Two died, one was unraced and all the rest won at least once. Willowood, brother of Wildwood Junior was never beaten over three seasons (though only one start in each) and like Waverley (a half-brother based later in Southland) was an outstanding stallion. Marie Corelli was a track star and a breeding gem while Authoress, injured before racing and dead at eight, left the champion Author Dillon. Willie sold him as a youngster for £500 to a wealthy local, James Knight, a short time before he also won a Derby.
Willie owned several mares who still hold an influence in sales catalogues and would break in up to 15 yearlings of his own a year, big numbers then. Most were for sale - a sort of pioneer Ready to Run concept. No other New Zealand mare has matched the extraordinary lagacy of Thelma as the Akaroa Trotting Club has noted for many years now.
Like many trainers then the Kerr brothers, though popular figures, had their moments with authorities. One notorious case involved Wildwood at Plumpton Park. On the first day when hot favourite he was well beaten and stablemate Sing Sing (ancestress of the Moose family) won at nice odds. On the second day Wildwood, driven by Charlie, had a special light cart attached and won easily. The public and authorities were not amused especially as the brothers made no secret that they backed the champion heavily on the second day as he had only been in work for eight weeks. Administrators found changes justified but moaned about the "public image of the sport with these sort of incidents."
Charlie's death seemed to turn the tide against Wildwood Farm. Santa Rosa, the first fully Commercial standardbred stud and Coldstream became the industry leaders. Willie may also have lost some interest though he lived until 1951. In 1921 he sold up all his horses except Wildwood Junior who was passed in. He got over £2000 for the others. In 1924 he sold the farm to Harry Aker who had the champion mare Waitaki Girl and the ill fated fated Peter Chenault. Later the Bussell family trained there.
The Kerr name remained a force in harness racing for decades after Willie and Charlie but never like the dramatic years of Wildwood and Thelma.
Credit: David McCarthy writing in HRWeekly 29May13