There seem to be quite a few Prendergasts in southern racing. How did you all get into it?
Dad had a garage in Hyde with a bit of land attached and there were six boys in the family. Four of them had a go with racehorses. Dad raced Wildwood Chief out of Wes Butt's stable and he won the Sapling Stakes and nearly won the Derby. He drowned in a pool after he was sold to Australia, or that is what they said. We always had horses around and got up teams for the picnic meeting circuit back in the 1940s and 50s. I had a horse with Wes for a while called Top Tally as a two-year-old. I still have the bills. Four pounds ($8) a week fees, two pounds for shoeing and two pounds to float a horse to Kaikoura.
Were there trotters at the picnics?
Gallopers too. I rode the gallopers as well and Tony also later took up training them. Every little town like Naseby and Dunstan had their picnic meetings and their Cup races. We won all of them at one time or another. I actually won the last raceday saddle trot run at Oamaru on Roman Scott, who was by Highland Fling. He was trained by Davey Todd who had Cardigan Bay - he had got beaten in his only saddle trot. I took out an amateur trainer licence in 1956 and won my first race with Tessa, a Direct Heir mare. I moved to Palmerston and had a farm there which I ran in combination with shearing.
You were pretty good on the board?
I could shear around 340 in an eight-hour day. That was right up with the guns then.
You used to get five pounds two and sixpence ($10.25) a 100 then. Now it is about $120 a 100 but of course everything has changed.
What made you give it up?
I got TB and had to. The trouble was the farm was not really viable without the shearing so I sold up and moved to Oamaru. I got more serious with the training then, though I had a lot of back trouble after a race accident.
There had been a smash on the first round and a couple of drivers were still on the track. When we came around again the ambulance went right across in front of us thinking it was protecting those two, but three or four horses ran into it. I ended up landing on the shaft of another cart. They told me it was bruised and I drove home sore, but it was a lot worse than that. I got used to it, like you get used to the wife, and I could still shoe horses. But it always gave me trouble. Not like the wife.
When did the bigger world get to take notice of your horses?
We ended up setting up next to the Oamaru track and built a house there. I got to know Colin Campbell who has that Moccasin breed which did so well (stars like One Over Kenny, Leighton Hest, Springbank Richard, and earlier Stylish Major and Le Chant). It was funny because Moccasin herself was a pacer by Indianapolis, who had won three New Zealand Cups pacing. Anyway, Colin and I worked in together for 28 years and while down there I had Robbie Hest for him among others. I drove him to win the Trotting Stakes and he had a lot of speed. But he was a hard pulling horse and it found him out over a distance.
Of course some of the stars from that family are now with Phil Williamson. He worked for you?
Yes, and one season when I was out with my back, he drove nine winners in a season, which was tops for a junior driver then. Phil was a real natural with horses. We were standing Depreez at stud then, though he didn't do much good, and some of the mares were a handful. Phil had a special way with them. He could catch them when nobody else could. Later on, I had some really good boys like Mike Heenan, Greg Tait, Graham Ward and Carl Markham. Terry Chmiel started off with me, too, when he was at school.
What other horses were going well then?
Hajano was a very good pacer and so was his half-brother Johnny Baslbo. We sold him to America for something like $50,000, which was good money them. Israel did a good job for us at Addington in the early 80s. He was unbeaten at the Cup meeting (three wins)which was a very rare thing in the intermediate trots.
Why shift to Chertsey?
Partly family reasons. There didn't seem to be a big future for kids in Oamaru. So we bought Slim Dykeman's place which had a new barn, built another house and lckily we got away to a great start there.
The first three horses that went out the gate all won. Light Foyle won about nine for us pacing in the end. We took a truckload to Nelson and had a great innings there. The Simon Katz came along.
Not the fastest but he won over $300,000 and took me a lot of places I hadn't been. He just never went a bad race. Our Eftpos card, I call him. You took him along and he got you some money.
Yes, but weak. I told the owners early on he would take a lot of time and thankfully they gave it to me. He had one start at four and maybe five of six at five. He won a Dominion and a Trotting Free-For-All and did what Israel had done, winning three at the Cup meeting. He ran second in a Rowe Cup and third in an Interdominion after getting skittled on the first lap.
Your son in law, Anthony Butt, took over the driving?
I did all the driving for a while, but the horse got a bit blase about it and used to have me on a bit. Someone fresh made the difference.
Did he take a lot of work?
No, he was good winded. We did a lot of road work with him. He was a lovely natural trotter, sound as a bell. He was by a pacer, Noble Lord, and from an Eagle Armbro mare and they weren't much. Just shows you. We used three-ounce galloping plates on him all round. Kerry O'Reilly did a lot of our shoeing. He was a legend at it. We never found out if Simon Katz could pace because he never had the hopples on him.
What became of him?
Funny, he died of cancer not long after he retired. He had what was diagnosed as a virus and we turned him out in the back of Hawarden. My son picked him up on Christmas Eve and as soon as he got him home told me he was a sick horse. He was gone in no time.
Yet not the fastest trotter you trained. Who was that?
Hickory Stick. He was a nine-year-old when we got him and he had been up in the hills for two years after breaking down in the tendon. Stuart Sutherland had had him and I was actually in the chapel at Stuart's funeral when I remembered he had told me it was the fastest horse he had had. When I got home I rang up the owner, Bruce McIlraith, to see what had happened to him and he was just about to go into work. We won five with him and some top races like the Banks Peninsula and Canterbury Park Cups.
Any horses which you rated highly we didn't get to see?
There was one called Skipper Dean. He was a trotter by Master Dean but was too unsound to go far with. He could have been anything.
You spent a lot of time in administration?
I was one of the founding members of the Oamaru Owners Trainers and Breeders back in the 1950s, which is still going, and it went from there. It could be tough in those days. If you had a licence you couldn't be a member of a club. When I first got a driving licence I was only allowed to drive in Central Otago and south of the Clutha. Waikouaiti was about half an hour away and I couldn't drive there! I put a lot of years into the Horseman's Association and am pleased to say it has a much greater standing with officialdom than it had when I started.
What was the best horse you have seen?
Highland Fling. They used to bring him down to Forbury when we were kids going to the races with Dad. If there had been hopple shorteners and ear plugs around in those days he could have been anything. I was a big Noodlum fan possibly because I bred one from him we sold on for $30,000. That helps your regard for any horse.
You trained mainly trotters. Was that by choice?
It didn't really matter to me. You do get identified as a trotting specialist when you have a few of them, bu we had some top pacers too.
Did good owners make the difference to you as a trainer?
I always say one third paid by return mail, one third paid on the 20th and one third didn't. It is tough on a professional trainer who has to carry that last third with his own money for another month.
Possibly only that I never worked in a professional stable.It would have made things easier when I was picking it up. I was 42 before I had my first drive at Addington. That doesn't make it easy. But overall I would do nearly all the same things over again.
Credit: David McCarthy writing in The Press 16 June 09
Now he's 76. He has two artificial knees. He has three vertebrae fused together in his spine. He has a stent in his heart. He says the rest of his body is nearly "knackered." So his decision the other week to retire from training "was easily made."
For me, I had the good fortune to deal with a mind that was in better shape than the body. When Dick said he would make a few notes, I did not expect a neatly handwritten script that would save countless hours of research. So many good horses would have gone without mention had his memory not been as sharp as it is.
His official start is 1956 when he became licenced, but historically its earlier than that because his father, Bill, who had a carrying business, won the Sapling Stakes with Wildwood Chief for Wes Butt. Dick was 28 when he trained and drove his first winner. From Hyde, he took his Direct Heir mare Tessa to the Cromwell meeting in March 1959, where she beat Spree, driven by his brother, Mick.
In 1963, he moved to Palmerston, where he worked as shearer, truck driver, contract fencer and farmer, and held an amateur trainer's and driver's licence. When health problems became an issue, he sold the farm, brought 60 acres opposite the Oamaru Racecourse, built a house and stables and started breaking-in horses.
The next step was to a racing team, and he soon had one, with Israel an early star. By Crockett, and owned by Dave Cuttance, Israel won seven races, went through the 1981 NZ Cup meeting unbeaten in the intermediate grade, and won a prize for doing that. At the same time, he had the good pacer Hajano, by Jersey Hanover, who won eight, and his half-brother Johnny Balbo, who won four. "Johnny Balbo was sold to the US for $50,000 - big money thirty years ago," he said.
By this stage, Prendergast was in the game for keeps and, deciding there was too much travelling from Oamaru and aware of work opportunities needed for the family, moved to Chertsey where he bought Slim Dykman's stable. "We did so with some trepidation about breaking into the ranks of Canterbury trainers, but our first three out of the gate - Bay Sun, Major Hest and Johnny Balbo - all won."
This, he said, was the start of a "golden era". He worked 25, and had three on the staff. The pin-up boy was undoubtedly Simon Katz, a handsome son of Noble Lord and the Eagle Armbro mare, Carly Tryax, who rose above his pedigree. Prendergast drove him to win the first 12 of his 18 wins, then son-in-law Anthony Butt took over and won the NZ Trotting Free-For-All and the Domnion Handicap in 1987, and Simon Katz won the same prize Israel did six years earlier. His placings included a second in the Rowe Cup, third in the Inter-Dominion Grand Final at Moonee Valley, and his stakes topped $300,000. Within a year Simon Katz was dead from cancer.
Good trotters followed a top one, among them Zola's Pride(8 wins), Robbie Hest(8, including the NZ Trotting Stakes), Springfield Yankee(8), Whizzing By(8, including the NZ Trotting Stakes and Dunedin Cup), and Worthy Adios. Double Stitch won six, and he says Hickory Stick was the fastest he had. "This horse came from Stuart Sutherland as an open class trotter who had broken down and had not raced in eighteen months. In the space of twelve months for me, he won five races, including the Banks Peninsula Cup, the Ordeal Cup and the Canterbury Park Trotting Cup."
Although trotters were always the stable flavour, smart pacers were there, too. Light Foyle won nine before being sold to the US where he won another 30, General McArthur won four before breaking down, free-legged Bay Loch won four, and Eddie Ray won four. A special project was The Coaster, a son of Soky's Atom who was a good pacer for Brian Kerr and won six. Starting off as a maiden trotter, The Coaster won another six at that gait. Others of note were Weston Gee, Weston Bo, Light Buffy and Geena Hest.
"I made a profession from a hobby, and because I got a lot of trotters, it was a brand that stuck. There will always be horses that disappoint you, but others will give you great memories. I think I drove alright. If it was spasmodic, it was not so much me driving a bad race but driving a bad horse." As a driver, he especially treasures winning the Ordeal Cup and the Canterbury Park Cup with Simon Katz, the Trotting Stakes with Robbie Hest and Whizzing By, finishing second in the Dullard Cup with Simon Katz, and winning one of the last saddle races in NZ on Roman Scot for Davey Todd.
He had an excellent strike-rate with developing young horsemen, with Phil Williamson, Graham Ward, Michael Heenan, Greg Tait, and Carl Markham training under his wing, and Kerry O'Reilly, Anthony Butt and his wife Leonie invaluable in other areas. He was a keen and able administrator, serving more than 40 years on various OTB committees, and horsemen's associations.
With no more feed-ups to do, yards to clean and boxes to muck out, 'noms' to think of, track to grade and truck to run, Prendergast has time to do things a man of his vintage should happily retire to. "It's time to watch progress of our many friends, and particularly of my grandson Chris Butt" - who is working for Tim Butt and Phil Anderson - "who will soon have his trials licence, and his sister Kimberley who is doing very well in the pony club."
Hard knocks are part of being a driver, and Prendergast had his share.
The worst was at Invercargill about 30 years ago when he was driving Kimrock. There was trouble at the start and a couple of drivers were tipped out. The rest set off. In the meantime, the ambulance went to th rescue and was parked in the middle of the track. It was there when Kimrock came round and hit it. Prendergast was tossed into the air, and landed heavily.
He drove his float home afterwards, and Leonie recalls she had to carry him inside. That was in January, but it was not until November that he had surgery on his back, and it was another six months before he was near right again. "It had an affect on his life," she said. "He's never really been a hundred percent free of pain since."
Credit: Mike Grainger writing in HRWeekly 31Oct07