I suppose as your father was a trainer you were always going to go into the game?
The old man worked as a foreman for old Free Holmes for many years and took his stars like Trix Pointer when they went to Auckland. He was later a trainer and he also rode in saddle races. In fact, he fell off the famous saddle pacer Mankind when he was winning one day and I got sick of hearing about that. But no, I wasn't really interested in the horses and I went to the races one day when I was about 19 and I got hooked into it.
What was your next step?
My first job was with Cecil Devine, and I was there quite a while. We had our moments and at one stage parted on bad terms but it was the best thing which ever happened to me. I learned so much there. He was a master trainer.
Which era were you there?
False Step, Thunder and Teryman were there then. They were all good horses to handle. It was a bit of a breeze when you look back on it from the horses to handle viewpoint but it wasn't so good when the Van Diemans came into work.
Cecil stood Van Dieman (with which he won the 1951 New Zealand Cup) at stud on the property - we did the stud work as well - but they weren't nice horses. They were spooky and nervous and jumped out of their gear with any excuse. I remember I was working up a horse called Van Rush. He was a four-year-old before we got him to pace right. I used to drive him around behind in the hoppled work. One day Cecil told me I could pull him out and try him at the end. Well, he just ran past all of them. I never got to drive him again. I think he won his first four or five races.
Stablehands worked long hours in those days?
We worked 6½ days. We fed up at lunchtime on Sunday and had the rest of the day off. But I was living in a whare on the place and virtually had to stay round to keep an eye on the horses. We used to do the oats too. We'd get up at five and have the horses finished by nine and then we would spend all day harvesting and often go back after tea. Jack Smolenski was there then. I told him I'd worked out that the contractors were getting five bob an hour and knocking off at five and we went on and were getting a shilling an hour. But we really didn't mind that much. I didn't do much outside the horses anyway.
What about the work schedule with the horses?
You had to have your own stopwatch. Everything Cecil did was based on the watch. You would be told to run your first half in maybe 1:15, and given all the other sectionals to do in great detail, and there was a problem if you didn't get it right. It was down to a fine art.
Cecil had a reputation for being a bit of a character to work for?
He was very thorough down to the last detail and he was down on any of us drinking. In fact, we parted ways later on when he was told I had been drinking at the races. I hadn't been and I resented that. Cecil used to go to town every Friday and we had to do our usual full brushing down twice a day. He put double covers on his horses and we had to take both off and do it properly. Just in case we were tempted to cheat a bit when he was away he would put some straw between the covers. If they weren't disturbed when he checked after coming home, which meant you had only done half the job, you were in bother.
Did you have a better offer when you left?
Well, not really, but Cecil and I had a disagreement one time when I was mowing the lawn for him and he was on about drinking again. I sort of quipped that I had just got the mower out of the shed and there had been a few empty bottles of his in there. I was sacked on the spot. When I walked away Cecil wanted to know where I was going. I said: "Well, you sacked me." And he replied: "Yes, but not until you have finished the lawn." He was a character. I went back there for a while later and we got on alright.
Reg Curtin has always been a great mate of yours. Was it around then you met?
Yes, it was a bit unusual then. There was a lot of feeling between the Devine and Litten stables over False Step, and Reg worked for Jack Litten. Some people took it all pretty seriously but Reg and I didn't let it bother us. He has been a great friend. We have had a lot of fun over the years. Mind you I never resisted sorting him out on the track when it counted.
You then went to Ron Kerr. What was the reason for that?
Ron was a specialist at breaking in horses and curing problem horses, especially gallopers. I had not had that sort of experience. He was a great stockman and had a good pacer then, Mighty Loyal, but mostly he was educating them.
What sort of problems did the gallopers have?
We used to get the ones who were rebels and bad buckers who couldn't be controlled. Ron used to put a pack saddle on them, hook half a bag of chaff on both sides and let them go bucking in the yard. When they got tired of doing that we would get on them and after a while they got the message.
Did you go out on your own them?
No. I had just got married and was working night shifts and started helping Jim Dalgety when he was at Templeton opposite Don Nyhan's. After a year I went fulltime with Jim. We had quite a lot of success. I mean, I was the third driver in the stable but I drove five winners in that first season and I was the equal leading probationary driver. There were only 12 races for probationary drivers all over the South Island in those days.
How long were you there?
Quite a while. Later Jim moved out to West Melton and went into the breeding game. We were finding our way in the early days we didn't tag the mares which was fine if we were both there every day in the breeding season, but if you had been away and others had arrived, things could get tricky. Fortunately, we got it right virtually all the time. But I wanted to work more with racehorses and set up on my own.
Jack Parsons had a place in Yaldhurst just opposite where Allan Holmes trained. I worked the night shift and trained a horse for Jack for the rent. He had leased a horse called Local Star to Hec Jardin and I got that to train. It was my first winner (1965). I used to pre-train too and Derek Jones was a great supporter of me at that stage.
Any of his top ones?
I broke Leading Light in for Derek and told him I thought it was well above average. Derek said: "All right, send him over." But he lined him up at Methven first up and broke up with the money on. Derek said to me: "Peter, even though he broke I think you overrated that horse." He sent it down south and didn't go to drive it himself. It won by 20 lengths and, of course, ended up winning an Auckland Cup (1969) for Derek and Jack Grant. Great speed horse. Jack Parsons had his sire, Local Light.
In those days three training wins seemed a good season, five a top one and anything else sensational for many trainers. How did you survive?
Local Jen was leased to me by Jack Parsons and she won five good stakes for us. Then I won quite a few races with Morris Pal which Mike and Colin De Filippi's father, Rod, raced with me. Yes, there weren't many racing opportunities then especially for the slower ones unless you went to the Coast and I used to take horses to Hawera to get starts and form for them. Some are back doing that now but it was real bad in the 1980s down here. You had to qualify and then win a trial to have a show of a start at popular meetings.
What sort of money did it cost to train a horse with you?
Five pounds ($10) a week when I started. Some were charging £7 but you had to give a discount to get any horses. Remember there were no driving fees paid then if you trained the horse as well. That is why when I was starting out there were no professional drivers outside Doug Watts. Even Maurice Holmes had to train as well. Most drove their own and if you didn't drive, it was hard to get any horses because of the extra expense for owners.
Kata Hoiho I remember as one of your best horses. Didn't he have thoroughbred blood in him?
Yes, his mother (Our Helen) was by a galloper (Prince Bobby) but I didn't know a lot about his breeding. He came from the Coast (bred by the Moynihan family of Hokitika) and Neil Edge got hold of him. He won what is now the West Coast bonus (Westport Cup, Westport second-day feature and Reefton Cup) as a three-year-old. Unfortunately, they didn't have it then. We had a bit of luck with galloping blood. Neil raced Te Aro Boy, which was out of a mare which Jim Dalgety had bred from a thoroughbred cross, and he went alright.
What happened to Kata Hoiho?
He ran second in the Hororata Cup at three then won the Methven Cup early in his four-year-old season. We sold him in America after that.
Funny thing, I took a flight of horses over to America later with Reg (Curtin) and met the top American men who trained and drove him, Billy O'Donnell and Jerry Silverman. They told me he was the best Kiwi horse they had handled up until then and he qualified in 1:57 with his head on his chest. But he broke down before he could race and never came back.
You seemed to do well in staying races. Any particular reason?
I think we won 11 provincial cups at 3200m on both sides of the Alps. The Methven and Hororata Cups on the grass, all those sort of races. I have never had more than 10 racehorses in work. I used to think the staying races were a bit easier to win than the sprints, especially down in the grades. A lot of the time they weren't run at a lot of speed which helped the lesser horse. In the shorter trips it tested just their speed. I remember taking Flying Home to Hawera and we won a 3200m from a mobile gate in 4:40 on a good track.
What was the secret of success on the West Coast tracks? You seemed to concentrate on that circuit.
Yes, we were always going over there, even to the gallops meetings where they had two trots. At that time you could get a lot of starts with an out-of-form horse because the fields were not usually full. You could end up having two starts on each of the two days at Westport, two more at Reefton and then there were three days at Greymouth to follow. Everything had it's chance to earn some money. You had to back them as well and you knew all the form. All you had to worry about was first starters, they could fool you. You could pinch an advantage at times, especially at the start. I had a horse called Pussy Foot which drew the second line 11 times in 14 starts in the trots at gallop meetings over there and never started from the second line once. You could usually find a space on the front if you timed it right.
And the driving?
That was another thing. The good horses didn't go over there so a lot of the top drivers didn't go either. You were driving against a lot of owner-trainers and amateurs and the professionals had a wee bit more in their favour. The front was still the safest place to be. And mind you, we could come unstuck too.
I started Colin McLauchlan off in the trotting game. He had had a horse with (Cecil) Devine which I got to work up, and then he started coming out and working the horses and he got into the game in a big way later. I leased Miss Frost for him and she won four races in 10 days. Colin was a fitness fanatic himself and it worked for him. He died just recently in his 80s and none of his immediate family had lived past 60. Anyway, I had a horse of his at Greymouth one day and it was paying about $60s. Colin liked a bet, I liked the horse and he went and put $100 on the nose.
You wouldn't believe it, I miscounted the rounds. I made my usual move at Greymouth which was down the back and I was cruising. Then I realised I had gone a round too soon. If there was a track that could fool you like that it was Victoria Park. Anyway, we ended up finishing fourth. Colin put another hundred on it the second day and it won. But it paid less than $2 and Colin actually lost money on the deal. He took it pretty well.
Did the stipes take any action?
Yes, I copped a fine from Len Butterfield and it had a follow up. A short time later John Bennett did the same thing with David Frost at Timaru but he held on to win. Butterfield told him he had fined a bloke the other day for it and he was going to have to fine him too even though he won. I think he got $150. John always blamed me for him getting a big hit in the pocket.
Reverting to Kata Hoiho, I suppose the export market growth became your main focus?
Yes, it was a great boon. but horses can surprise you sometimes.
I had a horse once for the connections of Holy Hal. Arthur Idiens was in it too. It could only run 2400m in 3:38 when I got it going, but I thought it had a bit of potential. Anyway, they wanted to finish with it. I said I would train it for a month for nothing and pay all the disposal costs if it didn't get any better. It fell over the next day and hurt itself a bit, but by the end of the month I felt it was worth going on with. However they had had enough. I bought him for $50 and sold him later to America for $5000, which was good money then. I didn't feel all that good about it but I had done all I could for them. I made sure I never sold duds to America.
Montini Royal was a good winner for you. Did Reg Curtin talk you into breeding to Montini Bromac?
Yes, he went on about it. Reg trained Martini Bromac and he always thought the world of him. Anyway, I sent a mare to him and Martini Royal won the Timaru Nursery Stakes and the Stan Andrews Stakes when that was a big two-year-old race at Addington. I handed the reins over to Jimmy Curtin then. He won over 3200m more than once as a three-year-old, including the Hororata Cup and later won the Methven Cup. He could run 4:08 but as a four-year-old he just had trouble being quite up with the ones he could beat at three.
Anything wrong with him?
No. To be honest, that blue magic stuff was around then. A lot of publicity was about the big stables, but there were quite a few smaller trainers using it. You could work out who. I always had a suspicion that was a cause. He worked as good as ever at home.
Pauls Express was another good performer?
A remarkably consistent horse. I remember they used to hold up the record of Rupee who was in the money in 23 of his first 25 starts. Well, Pauls Express did that too but didn't win as many. He wasn't top class but very honest.
Have you raced a horse with Reg Curtin?
No. We raced a dog together trained bu Ray Adcock who started off in trotting and it won ten races. Genuine Ace it was called. And I did Reg and Les Lisle a favour with a mare called Redundant.
It wasn't going much and I think Jimmy (Curtin)thought she was shooting material. Reg and Les had bred her. Anyway, I won a couple of races with her and she has been a gun broodmare. She has left at least seven winners and we have had Muscle Machine and Rosie J out of her ourselves. My son Robert (who races Les Lisle with Roddy Curtin)has been breeding from her.
You had some fun on the road at times?
There was the time Reg reckoned I killed a lady at Addington.
I was driving Brase for Allan Holmes there one day and it won a good age-group race and paid over $100. A lady in the stand who had backed it got so excited she dropped dead from a heart attack. Reg said it was obviously my fault.
Best horse you have seen?
Close finish between Cardigan Bay and Christian Cullen. They were the best of my era.
How do you view harness racing today?
They have got most things right, especially the handicapping system and the free starts. It is far better. Pat O'Brien (Chairman Harness Racing New Zealand) is a friend of mine but I think he is doing the right things
Credit: David McCarthy writing in The Press 12May2009
JACK SMOLENSKI - HORSEMAN
Gillum was a Templeton trainer whose notable horses were Kiltie Boy and Harvey Wilson, both as young trotters. By Scotch Abbe, and owned by Gillum, Harvey Wilson did not race beyond his 3-year-old career, when he raced 10 times and won six races in succession. He won twice at Hutt Park, followed by the NZ Trotting Stakes in which he was driven by Jack Smolenski to beat Isa Rangi by seven and a half lengths, and then the Rosso Antico Stakes when Gillum handled him to beat Pompano Prince and Gold Horizon.
Kilty Boy, a chestnut entire by Gerry Mir, arrived four years later and raced from two to five, racing 41 times for eight wins and 17 placings. He won three times at three, and three from only seven starts at five. His major wins were over Twinkle and Viva Remero at Addington in 1981, and an open class one from Regal Flyer and Game Pointer the same year. Kiltie Boy went to stud where he sired three winners, notably Happy Highlander, who became the dam of star trotters Glenbogle and Whatsundermykilt.
Gillum was part-owner of the handy First Lord mare Looking Forward, who won her first two races out of Reg Curtin's stable, and four after Gillum took her over himself. He was co-breeder of the good Jamie Hanover mare Bridget O'Flyn, and possibly his last winner was Two Shillelagh.
After leaving Templeton, Gillum trained for some years at Omakau before settling in Rakaia about six years ago. As an administrator, Gillum was a willing worker for licenceholders, serving on the committee of the NZ Trainers' and Drivers' Association and for some years as National President.
Credit: Mike Grainger writing in HRWeekly 14Feb07
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