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HORSES

 

YEAR: 1904

MABEL & NORICE

There have been few more colourful tales of our harness world than that of Norice, arguably the greatest broodmare in its history, and her owner Mabel Duncan.

In the World War One years Norice was the breeding queen of New Zealand and Duncan kept her in suitably palatial surroundings at the country's plushest trotting stud, Coldstream Lodge in Fendalton. The present homestead at the end of Chilcombe St - the property originally fronted Memorial Avenue when it was 59 Burnside Rd - remains the only memorial to what also was the first stud of any code in New Zealand and the place many harness fans angled to get an invite to visit during carnival week in Christchurch.

Coldstream had been established and named by Ernest Jerningham Wakefield on whose motion the Canterbury Jockey Club was formed in 1855. He stood The Peer there (Peer St is still close by) but Ronald and Mabel Duncan would enlarge and transform it at great expense into a showplace hosting four of the most famous standardbreds of their time.

Horse-mad Mabel Duncan, an accomplished show rider in her youth, was the youngest daughter of A J White whose furniture store was Christchurch's largest. Her Husband, an accountant, successful real estate agent and land speculator, was the sixth son of the former Mayor of Christchurch, Andrew Duncan (there were seven in all) and a dashing "man about town" in the land agency business. They had been married in Sydney in 1905, chiefly to avoid embarrassment to family. The Whites were the high profile Catholic family in the city and the Duncans leaders of the Presbyterian church - not a popular quinella at any religious ceremony in those far off times. The doomsayers would have the last laugh.

Ronald Duncan acted as judge, timekeeper and stipendiary steward at several Canterbury racing clubs and later on the executive of the NZ Trotting Association and King Cole (for a time) was the only horse he raced. He added 10 ha to Coldstream and built a luxurious stable complex and trainer's quarters which included, a reporter marvelled, a hot shower. Mabel was loosening the purse strings as well.

She bought Norice, the most famous racemare in the country, for a hefty sum from the popular Bower Hotel (New Brighton) owner, James Pettie, who had imported Norice from California (accompanied on the trip by Dave Price who brought back the first spreaders used here) but was now moving to the outskirts of Gisborne. Mabel also bought the promising King Cole from Nelson Price as well as his dam. Mabel's trainer, Dave Price, had already given her his half share in King Cole as a foal.

King Cole was one of only 17 foals left here by Price's champion, Ribbonwood. 15 raced and 12 won. Another notable and expensive purchase, before her marriage, had been the champion Sal Tasker, the fastest mare in Australasia, with a sensational official time at Addington in 2:20. She was named after Sarah Tasker the wife of her prominent breeder James Tasker - though Nelson Price first raced the mare and landed a betting plunge first up at Sockburn with her before selling.

At the outbreak of World War One Coldstream boasted both the fastest mare and stallion in Australasia (King Cole having broken his sire Ribbonwood's mile record in a special morning trial at Addington) as well as Norice, the most commercial broodmare. Mabel often used Sal Tasker when driving to town (Ronald played a big role in the tramway being extended to Clyde Road later) safe in the knowledge no challenger could possibly beat her down Fendalton Road.

Mabel also sent mares to be bred in Australia to Abbey Bells and horses to race there including Sal Tasker and her son Coldstream Bells, which was cruelly robbed of the biggest prize in Australasia, the Melbourne Thousand, when another driver deliberately crashed into him and Price at the start. Coldstream Bells still ran second and was later a sire of some note. Mabel Duncan seemed jinxed at times with her horses yet Norice was always there to give Coldstream its status. She also had a champion pony stallion which went years without defeat in Christchurch show rings.

Norice had six generations of recorded pedigree when most local mares, Sal Tasker included, rarely had more than two. She was by Charles Derby (ancester of Johnny Globe, Lordship etc) and after she was bought a half-brother became one of the fastest juveniles in America. Black, fast, sometimes erratic, Norice was the leading stake earner of 1904 winning six of her first seven starts here. She would have won the first NZ Cup that year too but she had problems which prevented Price from training her sufficiently for the race. Even so she led clearly most of the way and as she was eased when passed by Monte Carlo in the straight the big margin was misleading. The veteran never beat her in shorter races.

Norice made history again when disqualified from first in a Flying Handicap at Addington for galloping near the finish. In a landmark decision the race was restored to her because the committee had not taken evidence from her driver, Price, which would have established that a hopple had broken. From then on committees could not make decisions without hearing evidence from the drivers. Later in the day she won the Champion Free-For-All. Norice had also caused Pettie some grief because he had to lodge another cheque "under strong protest" with the NZTA before Norice could race here. Her previous owner was apparently in forfeit to the American Trotting Association and that body had just agreed to share it's rulings with this country.

At stud Norice left a series of smart colts who were in strong demand in Australia as sire but her most famous son was Nelson Derby, a striking colt from birth bought from Mabel by George Craw of Palmerston North for a record 750. He won the Great Northern Derby and the Auckland Cup though not sound, according to trainer Bill Tomkinson, and sired Haughty the first mare outside America to break two minutes. Therein lay quite a story.

The racing dream which seemed to belong to Ronald and Mabel Duncan started to fall apart around 1916 when Duncan took the extraordinary step then of suing his wife for 325 through the courts, presumably for Coldstream costs. Coldstream was sold with Mabel retaining the home block. Ronald Duncan bought and moved to the famous homestead block in North Canterbury. He later moved to Australia where he died in 1942 having remarried after Mabel's death.

Mabel had to cut numbers and sell virtually all her young stock. Watching Nelson Derby, the horse she had been aiming to breed for so long walk out the gate must have been heartbreaking. Selling Norice and Sal Tasker (whose descendants are still competitive today) was never an option. She still clung to part of Coldstream when she died in 1936 the once wealthy heiress having been adjudged bankrupt the previous year. Her parents had a strong social conscience and spent much of their wealth on community projects including building and supporting the large St Joseph's orphanage in Halswell. Norice had her last foal in 1931.

Among the horses sold was Queen Cole (King Cole-Norice) to John Grice of Tinwald whose son Ben inherited her first foal Colene Pointer (Methven and Timaru Cups) a fine stayer and dam of Queen's Treasure and Kingcraft. Ben had another foundation mare, Logan Princess, dam of the high class Regal Voyage. When that mare retired, down the road at Walter Gudsell's Pluto Lodge Stud in Tinwald was a poorly patronised Nelson Derby and so history in the form of Haughty was made. Crossing the two families and doubling up on Norice blood through Nelson Derby by Ben Grice to reinforce the family speed factor has ensured the survival of the Norice character through every generation since. Native King was another Norice colt successful at stud. Kingcraft, by the obscure Quincey who also happened to stand locally (Colene Pointer had broken down so badly she could not travel far) was almost a great horse, competing in the NZ Cup after just eight starts, but like his granddam was erratic at times.

Norice's essential qualities of high speed and waywardness combined with soundness problems have suvived to a remarkable extent through almost a century of breeding. At crucial times her tribe produces fast fillies like herself, like Single Star, Riviera and Petro Star for Grice. Perhaps the best example of the potency of the mare was the amazing Mount Eden. He was the essence of her pacing power and like her highly strung yet his performances were so stunning no less a commentator than Ron Bisman claimed he was to him the fastest horse the world had seen.

The Norice line has actually thrived on the superior breeding performance of relatively few mares, and largely just three breeders - Mabel Duncan, Grice and the Cummings family of Tuapeka whose mare Sakuntala has been the springboard of much of the family's recent success. The New Zealand Cup winners Iraklis and Monkey King, both from this source, were noted for extreme acceleration. Their ancestress Hindu Star, dam of Sakuntala, carried a close up (3x3) Norice masterminded by Grice. Holmes D G came from a more obscure branch of the Norice tribe but still had the essential double cross of Nelson Derby.

In earlier eras stars like Nicotine Prince, Chief Command and Indecision; the speedy Maurice Holmes 2yos like Strauss, Violetta and company; Hardy Oak, Single Star, Ardstraw, Canis Minor, Tuapeka Star, Ruling Lobell etc, etc kept the Norice name to the fore. O Baby is her current Horse of the Year poll winner.

The Norice legacy can be character building for those seeking to extend it. Lightning does not strike as consistently as with some families - but when its stars align it sends an electric charge through the pacing world that no other family can match.

Mabel Duncan and Ben Grice knew what they had to work with. Their work was not in vain.

Credit: David McCarthy writing in HRWeekly 10Apr13

 

YEAR: 1982

BEN GRICE

Ben Grice, one of trotting's best-known personalities, died in a training accident on his property on New Year's Day. He was 96. Mr Grice fell from the sulky while jogging a young horse on the track at his Prebbleton property. It was the second horse the veteran owner/trainer/breeder had worked that morning.

With his son Des, Mr Grice ran the well-known Kingcraft Farm, current home of World Skipper, Lopez Hanover and Keystone Mutiny. The stud has produced a host of classic winners over the years. Mr Grice has been active in trotting for more than sixty years, first in Mid-Canterbury and then, for the last thirty, at Prebbleton.

The most notable of the hundreds of winners the Grices have produced was the top racemre Haughty, winner of the NZ Cup two years in a row in 1942 and '43, the second time from 36 yards behind. Among the younger brigade, horses like Buccaneer, Jonboy Star, Glamour and Royal Lopez won the NZ Sapling Stakes, while Petro Star and Ruling Lobell made their mark by beating the fillies in the NZ Oaks for Mr Grice.

-o0o-

Report by Tony Williams writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 19Jan82

Last week, the NZ Trotting Calendar paid a brief tribute to the late Benjamin Thomas 'Grandad' Grice, whose death as a result of a training accident on New Year's Day brought to an end an era in NZ trotting.

But any lifetime spent in trotting as long as Ben's - he was 96 at the time of his death - can not be brushed over in a few paragraphs, particularly when the man in question has made a contribution to the industry which made him a legend in his own lifetime.

Possessed with a delightful sense of humour - particularly when it was sharpened with a few whiskies with his mates - Ben Grice had a host of stories to tell, especially about the early days. But a lot of those stories could never be repeated - they would turn a modern day administrator's hair white - and many of them died with Ben.

Raised in Ashburton, Ben's interest in trotting was stimulated by his father, and it was on his father's property at Willowby that Ben built his first set of loose boxes. Later, on his own property at Winslow, which was formerly part of the old Longbeach estate, Ben converted an old woolshed into boxes and a feed barn, and really set about making a name for himself.

An accomplished horseman who early in his career was not scared to invest a few bob on his horses, he quickly realised you could not train horses up to the stage where they were ready for a bet, then drive them yourself. So over the years some famous horsemen were to don the famous Grice colours, red with cream crossed sashes and cap. Men like Free Holmes, Albert Hendriksen, 'Drum' Withers, Ossie Hooper, Gladdy McKendry, Ron & Ces Donald, Maurice Holmes, Bob Young and, more lately, Jack Carmichael and Denis Nyhan. Ben always believed in employing the best available reinsmen, and that policy paid off as his stable sent forth a string of brilliant pacers.

One of the best of these was Kingcraft, by the little-known stallion Quincey from a fast racemare in Colene Pointer. Colene Pointer, a mare by Logan Pointer from Queen Cole, by King Cole out of the great Norice, was very unsound so Quincey, a locally-based stallion, was walked to the Grice property to serve her. The resulting foal, Kingcraft, was a top performer, and in his first season at three was unbeaten in two starts. The same season, his dam, Colene Pointer, had recovered sufficiently to resume her racing career and won four races, including the Timaru Cup.

Colene Pointer's dam, Queen Cole, was purchased by Ben from Mrs M Duncan of Coldstream Lodge, which stood on the present site of the Fendalton shopping centre in Christchurch. It was not until nearly 60 years later that Ben found out that his expensive mare nearly didn't make it to Ashburton. The late Dave Bennett was working for Mrs Duncan at the time and, along with a mate, was assigned the task of delivering Queen Cole to the shunting yards to be put on board the train to Ashburton. Unfortunately, the mare escaped in the shunting yards and Dave and his friend spent several anxious hours trying to catch the runaway mare. She was finally cornered, loaded aboard the train and delivered to Ben. But Dave Bennett kept the secret of that narrow escape for many years, and it wasn't until a couple of years before his own death that he confided what had happened to Ben.

Queen Cole, and a Prince Imperial mare of unknown history, were the two mares who paved the way for most of the Grice winners, many of them brilliant juveniles who measured up to the best in the two and three-year-old classics. Buccaneer, an outstanding 2-year-old who won three races at two and then went amiss, is rated probably the best of them by Ben's son Des, who, "Went to help dad for a year after the war and I'm still there."

The Grice stable transferred to Prebbleton in 1950 and, naturally enough, Ben Grice named the property Kingcraft Farm, in honour of his old champion. Kingcraft won a division of the 1929 NZ Cup but he was scratched from the final that year. He then finished unplaced in a division of the event in 1930, but in 1931 was beaten a length by Harold Logan in the final after finishing third in a heat on the first day.

A string of grand pacers, dual NZ Cup winner Haughty, her son Brahman who held the 2-year-old mile record for 25 years, Riviera, Petro Star, Tradition, Regal Voyage, Village Guy, Jonboy Star, Courtier, Smokey Lopez, Ruling Lobell, Don Lopez and Avalon (world yearling record holder with a 2:06.8 effort at Washdyke a few seasons back) are but a few of the more famous names associated with Ben Grice.

It was one of Ben Grice's deepest regrets that one of his horses never won the NZ Derby, a classic the veteran horseman dearly wanted to win. He lined up some brilliant pacers in the event, but bad luck always seemed to dog him. He did, however, win the NZ Oaks with Petro Star and Ruling Lobell, the NZ Sapling Stakes four times with Buccaneer, Jonboy Star, Glamour and Royal Lopez and numerous other classics and semi-classics. The Grice horses were always aimed at classic and semi-classic races and, right up until the time of his death, Ben was working with a handful of likely youngsters, one of whom could yet fulfil, even after his death, Ben Grice's greatest ambition - a victory in the NZ Derby.


Credit: NZ Trotting Calendar 12Jan82

 

YEAR: 1957

J Bryce & R Morten after the 1925 NZ Cup
JAMES BRYCE

One of the greatest trainers of light-harness horses the Dominion has ever known, James Bryce has been retired from active participation in the profession in which he was such an outstanding success, for several years now; but his interest in the sport remains high and he still possesses a keen eye for a good horse.

Trainers of the calibre of James Bryce do not come along every day.

James Bryce is the head of a family of horsemen who have written their names, large and bold, on the pages of 40 years of the Dominion's light-harness history. Bryce trained the winners of six NZ Trotting Cups, an all-time record for the race, and twice as many as any other trainer before him or since.

The story was told in Glasgow that Bryce's father had a peculiar genius for a horse. James relates that even among Scottish horse-dealers his father was known as a 'hard man.' In all his long experience he has never seen his father's equal in doctoring up a horse. He would pick up a steed that looked as though it was ready for the 'boneyard' and after treating it for a couple of months or so, he would have it in condition that would make it unrecognisable by its original owner. He usually got four or five times what he paid for these horses, which were mostly draughts.

James Bryce rode his first winner in Glasgow when he was 18. By the time he was 20 he was established as a trainer in a modest way at Govan, just outside Glasgow. "In those days," he said with a reflective smile, "they used to start trotting races with a pistol, and I was getting left. So I made a study of the starter and the way he raised the pistol and fired it. In the end I got to know his ways so well that I could tell to a fraction of a second when the report was due. After that, I never got left," grinned Bryce.

Bryce was soon training some of the best horses in Scotland and England. Like NZ horses the ones in the Old Country were nearly all American-bred on one or both sides. Trotting did not make the progress Bryce had hoped for, however, and one day, after reading about trotting in NZ in 'The Referee,' and seeing some pictures of Addington in the 'Weekly Press,' he decided Maoriland was the place for him. And it was thus that the neat little man with the raw Gaelic accent came to be standing on the Wellington wharf on a dull, cheerless morning in 1913...friendless? Well, not quite. Gathered around him were his wife, his belongings and five children...A stranger approached. "Are you Mr Bryce?" - "Yes." "Well, I have some bad news for you. Your two horses have been shipwrecked, and are still in England." The day seemed even bleaker to the little man from Caledonia. Not a promising start in a new land. When he reached NZ after paying passages for himself and his family and freight for two horses, Bryce had 300 left. He did not know a soul in NZ.

He was waiting on the wharf, pondering the future, when he was told that the two mares, Our Aggie and Jenny Lind, both of whom he had seen safely shipped on the Westmeath, an old troop transport, a fortnight before he left England, were still in the Old Country. The vessel had gone aground in the Mersey, and had to put back to port, but they had been transhipped to the Nairnshire, and after a rough passage to the Dominion they arrived - strapped to the deck, after the mate had suggested putting them overboard.

Our Aggie and Jenny Lind arrived two months after the Bryce family, who had decided to go to Christchurch. When they arrived at Lyttleton and saw the hills there, 'Scotty's' first question to himself was: "Where could you race trotters?" The family was taken to a boarding-house in the city but left after his wife had discovered that the woman of the house drank 'phonic' which is the Gaelic for methylated spirits.

Bryce's first home in NZ was Woolston, where he received a horse called Little Arthur, owned by Mr Wm Hayward, to train. Bryce relates that Little Arthur was a poor, dejected animal, and that he turned over in his mind that if this was a fair sample of the horses he was going to get, the future looked pretty bleak. "But I misjudged him," he continued. "I discovered he was asthmatical. I then included in his feed cod-liver oil, beaten-up eggs and sweet milk, and this helped his lungs. He did well and won at the Met. He was my first winner in this country."

A few months after arriving in the Dominion, Our Aggie struck form and won several races. Years later she became the dam of Red Shadow, considered by 'Scotty' to be the best-performed horse he ever drove. Red Shadow won the Great Northern Derby in 1930, and the NZ Cup and Metropolitan Free-For-All in 1933, taking all four principal races at the Cup meeting. Red Shadow sired Golden Shadow, winner of the Great Northern Derby Stakes in 1943, and Shadow Maid who won the Auckland Cup in the same year.

After a short time at 'Coldstream Lodge,' Fendalton, Bryce shifted to 'Oakhampton Lodge,' Hornby, then an 'unkept, dirty place.' Hard work promptly put that right, and soon the stables - 20 stalls to begin with - were built. The amenities included hot and cold water, a swimming pool for the horses, shelter sheds, railed yards, etc; so grew up the most modern trotting establishment seen up to that time in this country. And from this faithfully-harnessed source came an ever- swelling stream of fast pacers and trotters. Out of 'Oakhampton's' stalls were led superbly-conditioned horses that put Bryce at the head of his field only two short years after his arrival from Scotland. For seven consecutive seasons, from 1915-16 until 1921-22 and again in 1923-24, Bryce was leading trainer - eight times in all. He was also leading horseman in the 1915-16, 1918-19, 1921-22, 1922-23 and 1923-24 seasons and his son James, Jnr headed the horseman's list in the 1935-36 season.

Bryce trained and drove the winner of almost every important handicap and classic event in NZ. His sons Andrew and James carried on the family traditions. Andrew drove the 1927 NZ Cup winner Kohara; in 1921 he drove Man o' War to victory in the Auckland Cup, and in 1928 and 1929 he won the same race with Gold Jacket. James, Jnr, has driven two NZ Derby winners in Double Great and Twos Loose, four Auckland Cup winners in Shadow Maid, Sea Born and Captain Sandy twice, a November Free-for-all winner in Plutus, a National Cup behind De Soto, a Dominion Handicap on Waikato Prince, two Timaru Nursery Stakes on Highland Scott and Shadow Maid, a NZ Champion Stakes and a Wellington Stakes on Gallant Chief, a Great Northern Stakes on Highland Scott, a Great Northern Derby on Golden Shadow, and hosts of other good races; he still brings home the odd winner.

Few very big dividends were paid by horses driven by 'Scotty' Bryce. That speaks for itself. "They soon tumbled to me," he explained naively. Way back in 1923, horses driven by the old master had earned more than 100,000 in stakes for their owners; his full total must be nearer 250,000. When verging on three score and ten he was still a skilled reinsman. Much of this skill was in Bryce's hands. Only as a last resort did the whip come into play on a good horse 'Scotty' was driving.

Bryce considers Cathedral Chimes the gamest horse he ever drove. Catherdal Chimes won the Auckland and NZ Cups in successive years. Taurekareka was the first horse in the Dominion to win the trotting (or pacing, as you will)'triple crown,' the NZ Sapling Stakes, NZ Derby and Great Northern Derby. Bryce still affirms that he was unlucky not win a second Cup with Great Hope and a third with Ahuriri. Ahuriri was interfered with by Padlock or, in Bryce's opinion he would have won instead of going down to Peter Bingen and Great Bingen in a blanket finish in 1928.

He also thinks Matchlight, with an ounce of luck, would have won the NZ Cup. "I had a lot of time for Matchlight," said Bryce. "He won the President's Handicap at Forbury Park giving Trix Pointer 60 yards start, and then won both the big handicaps at the Canterbury Park June meeting when that club raced at Sockburn. He won those three races on end. Author Dillon was a bit lucky to beat Matchlight in the NZ Cup," declared Bryce. "Hendriksen, who drove Matchlight for me that year - I broke a leg and was in hospital - admitted he made a mistake in the way he drove him. Next day Matchlight won the Courtenay Handicap easily from the backmark," said Bryce.

"I always feel I had two horses that could have beaten two minutes," continued Bryce. "Red Shadow, from a standing start went 2.04 4/5 for third. Ahuriri was the other. As a 2-year-old before the 1922 Sapling Stakes he worked a mile in 2.10, his last half in 62sec. That was good work for any 2-year-old," remarked Bryce, who went on to say that he did not like the idea of sending his horses against time because there was so little inducement to do so.

J Bryce's principal training successes were in the NZ Cup (Cathedral Chimes 1916; Great Hope 1923; Ahuriri 1925 and 1926; Kohara 1927 and Red Shadow 1933); Auckland Cup (Cathedral Chimes 1915; Admiral Wood 1916; Man o' War 1920 and 1921; Ahuriri 1927 and Shadow Maid 1943; NZ Sapling Stakes (Ahuriri 1922; Taurekereka 1923 and Kohara 1924); NZ Derby (Great Hope 1922; Taurekereka 1923 and Kohara 1925); Great Northern Derby (Chid 1916; Tuarekareka 1923, Red Shadow 1930 and Golden Shadow 1943); NZ Champion Stakes - Metropolitan (Queen Chimes 1918; Great Hope 1922; Taurekareka 1924 and Kohara 1925); Taranaki Futurity Stakes (Queen Chimes 1918; Lochnagar 1919 and Ratana 1922); NZ Trotting Stakes - Forbury Park (Katute 1926); November Free-For-All (Admiral Wood 1916; Cathedral Chimes 1917 and Red Shadow 1933); Dominion Trotting Handicap (Whispering Willie 1916; Whist 1919; Moneyspider 1928 and Waikato Prince 1937); National Handicap (Matchlight 1918; Man o' War 1921 and Alto Chimes 1923); Timaru Nursery Stakes (Shadow Son 1938; Shadow Maid, division 1940); New Brighton Challenge Stakes (Shadow Son 1938); NZ Trotting Gold Cup - Wellington (Taraire 1923); Canterbury Handicap (Cathedral Chimes 1918 and 1919); and Rowe Cup - Auckland (Bluewood 1919), a record unapproached by any other trainer, past or present.

James Bryce tells some good stories against himself. Can you imagine the worthy Scot trying to get over the fence at Addington? Bryce will tell you how he was caught in the act, and how he came to be on the outside looking in. Two days of the Addington Cup meeting had passed - this was in August, 1928 - and between the second and third days the Trotting Association fonally made a decision on Bryce's appeal against a term of suspension in connection with the much-fought Free Advice case. Bryce had to take his medicine. Thinking that all the suspension did was to prevent him from driving, he went on the third day with his team only to be told he was not allowed on the track according to the rules.

After being graciously allowed to pay his acceptance fees and to see that the stable boys knew how to gear the team, Bryce left. On an upturned bucket in Bill Tomkinson's yard, just across the road, 'Scotty' indulged in a little self-pity and sympathy for himself. "After a' the years a mon's been in the game, nae tae be alooed on the coorse," he soliloquised. Telling Claude Dunlevey, Tomkinson's head man, how anxious he was to see if Native Chief would stand on the mark for the umpteenth time, Claude told him that if he went through the motor paddock he could see the start over the gate. Away went Bryce, and before he reached the gate he saw a "mon wi' a bit o' timber" leaning against the tin fence having a free view, so Bryce joined him. But not for long. Soon appeared authority in the form of a gateman, who ordered the pair down, waxing sarcastic as he escorted Bryce through the motor paddock, at the same time delivering a homily about getting through the proper channels and paying his bob like a man. And once again Native Chief stood on the mark.

Bryce made a notable contribution towards placing training on a higher plane here. A fellow trainer of his pays him the compliment of saying that Bryce was years ahead of most NZ trainers in the conditioning and driving of horses in those days. "We must never lose sight of the fact," said this admirer of Bryce's methods, "that it took men like 'Scotty' to improve the spit and polish part of our training methods. He was as meticulous, clean and thorough as any trainer I've ever known. Detail was his second name. The horse had to be fit and healthy, inside and outside, and he was kind to his horses, was proud of the 'guid yins.' Those of us with any savy tried to copy him."

Bryce was a great believer in swimming exercise for his horses, especially unsound ones, and at "Oakhampton Lodge" he built a luxurious swimming pool, 18ft at its deep end, as part of his comprehensive training routine. Many a lame horse was kept fit or saved from early racing oblivion by this pool, which was availed of by other trainers in the district, men who continue to acknowledge the debt they owe to the many refinements of conditioning and gaiting, and to the profound horsesense that took James Bryce to the top of the ladder and kept him there year after year.


Credit: NZ Trotting Calendar 14Aug57

 

YEAR: 1914

CHARLES KERR

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



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