H Stafford's 'Santa Anita' training establishment at New Brighton is one of the most up-to-date of its kind in NZ. Everything is provided for the well-being of the horse, from balanced diet schedules to diothermy and infra-red lamp treatments. Many prominent trainers have taken advantage of the modern equipment this popular horseman has on hand, and none has been other than pleased with the results achieved. Stafford (Bert as he is known to his associates) has been connected with trotting for more than 35 years; and the story behind the owner-trainer-driver and his establishment is colourful, to say the least.
Starting as a youth, Stafford worked for the late Newton Price at Sockburn, and while there gained his first knowledge of light-harness horses. He gained further experience under the late R J Humphreys at Templeton, before starting out on his own. Establishing himself at Papanui, Stafford experienced hard times. He decided to finish with the sport and entered the hotel business. However the 'call of the wild' soon reached his ears again, and it was not long before he was buying horses, educating them in his spare time, and passing them on to full-time trainers to race for him.
While at the Carlton Hotel, Christchurch, Stafford made one of the most fortunate transactions in his career. He bought Pot Luck for £400 from the late Mr J D Smith, who bred the son of Jack Potts and Hope Dillon at New Brighton in 1934. Pot Luck changed hands after finishing second in the Riccarton Stakes for Mr Smith as a 3-year-old in the 1935-36 season. Stafford placed the gelding with M Holmes, and his first form for this combination was a second to Frisco Lady in the NZ Champion Stakes. From his last eight starts as a 3-year-old, he won six races, including the first contest for the All-Aged Stakes, and was once placed. His earnings for the season were £1072.
At four years Pot Luck started 28 times for six wins and eight minor placings, finishing third on the list of leading stake-earners with £1645. The following term he again finished third on the list with £2850, the result of three wins and seven minor placings. During that season he won the Grand Final of the 1938 Inter-Dominion Championship by two lengths from Parisienne. However, under the points system which was followed then, Parisienne was awarded the Championship.
Pot Luck won three further races, including the Wellington Gold Cup and was 16 times in the minor money, during his following four seasons on the tracks, and he ended his career as a 9-year-old, with 18 wins, 33 placings and £8092 in stakes to his credit. "The old boy is still alive and still my property," Stafford said during an interview. "He is spending his twilight years in the Ellesmere district."
The trotters, Flotsam and Isabel Patch, were other good winners trained by Holmes for Stafford during the 1930s. Stafford paid 100 guineas for Flotsam in an aution sale at Tattersalls in Christchurch on a Wednesday evening in August, 1935. At Addington the following Friday he won his first start for his new owner.
Transferring to Leeston, Stafford found more time for the preparing of horses, and while carrying on the business he trained eight or nine pacers and trotters. He had his track and horse float, and he won his way into the limelight with Flying Chips, Tokalon, Gold Finder, Swift Lady and others.
However, in 1947 he was involved in an accident in a race at Ashburton and suffered serious injuries. After spending three months in hospitals in NZ, he travelled to Australia for further treatment. Before crossing the Tasman he sold up his horses. Top price at his dispersal sale was 1200gns, paid by the late Mr R H Kennedy for the 2-year-old, Likely. This youngster, a half-sister to First Victory and Good Time, developed good winning form. Flying Chips, and Dryham Lee, a place-getter for Stafford, were both purchased by Mr J R Handerson, of Hamilton.
While in Australia Stafford was given Diothermy treatment, and this had a remarkable healing effect. He then returned to the Dominion, where the treament was continued. Stafford was greatly impressed by the curative powers of diothermy, and reading in an American magazine where similar treatment had been given in the United States to horses suffering with rheumatism and other ailments, he decided to buy the equipment and re-enter the world of trotting after a lapse of two years.
He bought the Palmers Road property whic was first owned by the late J Messervy (trainer of the fine mare Onyx) and gave it the name of 'Santa Anita.' Results came quickly. One of the first horses to have the treatment was Worthy Ace, who towards the end of his career was unsound and a difficult horse to train. "The treatment kept him on his feet with success for quite a time," said Stafford. Stafford derived much satisfaction from the successes of Worthy Ace. This Jack Potts gelding was a nervous type when first put into work, and to make matters worse, he tipped his driver out one day and bolted with the sulky. It took some time for him to regain his confidence, and in his first few races he was easily upset, especially in a large field. Patience and care, and later on, the diothermy treatment, all helped him to become a good winner.
The trotter Conceit won further distinctions for Stafford. This Desmond's Pride gelding was first educated by J J Brophy, Pleasant Point. He had shown great promise, and Brophy was so dissappointed at losing him that Stafford, on buying Conceit, told him that he would give him a horse to take the trotter's place. He gave him Bull's Eye, who had been prepared at 'Santa Anita' and was trotting at the time. Raced by Stafford in partnership with a brother, Mr C W Stafford, Conceit was trained practically throughout his career by M Holmes, and for the combination he won six races. Early in his career Bull's Eye changed hands again at what was reported to be a four-figure sum, and he eventually did well both as a pacer and trotter.
Over the years Stafford has added to his clinic with other modern equipment for treating horses with various ailments and stimulating health. Being handy to the beach he is also able to take advantage regularly of work under these valuable conditions. In recent seasons he has raced a handily-sized string of useful performers, training them himself, with his share of success.
The best-performed member of his present team is Mighty Fine, who beat the brilliant General Sandy in the last Wyndham Cup. Marshal Foi is another promising pacer, and these two, along with Dress Ring and a filly by Light Brigade from Sea Gift, who has good trotting ability, are being worked by their owner at the moment.
'Santa Anita' is ideally laid out. Ten loose-boxes, feed and harness rooms, a hay loft, a large tin-lined oats container, accommodation for the horse float and sulkies are all under one roof, and there is ample space in which to dress horses. "I don't work a big team...they must have ability for me to persevere with them," he said.
Stafford has been on the executive of the Canterbury Owners' and Breeders' Association for a good many years, and has been anything but an idle member. He has a wide knowledge of all aspects of the sport.
Credit: Ron Bisman writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 13July55