It seems odd that one honoured with such a long list of degrees and awards for outstanding work in several fields of equine medicine as Professor Cliff Irvine should rate his proudest thrill as winning the 1986 Dominion Handicap at Addington with Tussle. But it sums up the complxity of a rare personality - someone able to discuss the most involved aspects of equine reproduction at any university forum in the world, and yet just as happy chatting about training his horses with people who never went to secodary school.
Irvine died recently, soon after his 90th birthday. He was Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Science at Lincoln University, a Doctor of Science (Otago) - the highest award in his field in New Zealand - and had honorary doctorates from Massey and Sydney universities among a host of other national and international awards, including the Bledisloe Medal from Lincoln University. He had an insatiable appetite for research but he never lived in an ivory tower.
Born in Dunedin in 1920, Clifford Hugh Greenfield Irvine, never one to bow to authority, left Otago Boys' High School at 15 after a dispute over the justification for a punishment he received. He later had similar problems in a brief Army stint. He started several unlikely careers from journalist to night porter, before going to Otago University to qualify for a veterinary surgeon course then available only in Sydney. He played for the champion Otago senior rugby team, Southern, on the wing.
Irvine used proceeds from training horses both in Dunedin and Sydney to finance his university days and his first winner, Carnavon, was in 1940. He set up a veterinary practise in Invercargill, catering for large and small animals at seperate surgeries, a novelty then. The biggest challenges were operating on badly gored pig dogs. He used a novel operational technique to save the career of the subsequent Grand National Steeplechase winner, Capet, for Bill Hazlett.
He married Fay Curtis, whose father Ross, was a racing trainer. The couple had a son, Guy, later killed in a road accident, and a daughter, Penny. An illness he contracted from working with cows caused Irvine to be hospitalised for six months, during which he taught himself several new skills including knitting.
A highly competent practical 'vet', Irvine nonetheless always had an affinity for research and he was appointed as a lecturer to the then Lincoln College in 1966. He had already made his mark as a trainer and driver. Light Mood, for which he paid a substantial sum (over £500) as a youngster won nine races, two of them at New Zealand Cup meetings, but he had as much satisfaction with his success with 1957 New Zealand Cup winner Lookaway, which had not won for 16 months when Irvine took him over. At that time he was heavily involved in research into the effect of the thyroid gland on horses, research which was to lead to major advances in treating racehorses. Lookaway restored to form was one example.
Irvine's research into reproductive endocrinology was world class, though he liked to recall that his first boss at Lincoln, Dr Bob Burns, would not allow him to experiment with horses at Lincoln until after a visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1977. She discussed the problems of getting some mares in foal with Irvine and later at lunch with Burns mentioned his obvious need for horses to work with. They were soon permitted and he ended up with 25, including two stallions. One of the mares was Kimmer, by his former star, Light Mood.
In 1977 he was invited to lecture at Texas A and M University and returned with his second wife Sue Alexander, a student at the college at the time and who was to prove a close professional associate and devoted nurse. For many years Irvine was the consultant for both Harness Racing New Zealand and New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing. He defused the bicarbonate controversy which threatened to tear harness racing apart in thw 1990s as large doses of "milkshakes" turned mice into lions on the track.
After much trial and error, Irvine developed the world's first accurate bicarbonate test and set permissable levels of use. His approach in drug cases was always purely scientific. He allowed the use of heptaminol when it was banned elsewhere and held strong, and at times contrary, views on the effects of cattle steriods and EPO under race conditions. He was an international expert in several areas of drugs and their influence on racing horses. His research into reproduction, however, was a greater boon on the local industry front.
In the 1980s the Irvine name became famous in another arena. The trotting mare, Tussle, which he had bred from Kimmer and which showed little early promise, blossomed into one of the best mares produced in New Zealand and became the first to win the Rowe Cup, Dominion Handicap and the Interdominion Trotting Final, the three biggest trotting races in Australasia - a feat subsequently equalled only by Lyell Creek.
Typically, Irvine gave a lot of the creditfor identifying an emerging star to one of his laboratory assistants, Leone Gason, who later married Tussle's regular driver, Peter Jones. It was a remarkable story. Tussle, small, weedy and testy, was bound for a career in the Lincoln experimental band until Gason, then her only fan, got her going as a five-year-old. Various trainers had success with her when her owner was otherwise engaged but she won most of her big races for the Irvine stable, Sally Marks succeeding Gason as the mare's minder. Tussle won 38 races.
When she won the Rowe Cup she was the first horseIrvine had raced in Auckland since Lookaway had won there in 1960. As a 12-year-old Tussle beat Tyrone Scotty and other stars in the Quinns Fashion Free-For-All at Addington on Cup Day in national record time. Tussle died in 2007 aged 34. In 2002 her daughter, Bristle, becam Irvine's 100th winner as an owner.
Cliff Irvine was dcritically injured in a car accident in 2000, suffering a broken pelvis, serious head injuries and a fractured breast bone and knee. He was little more than semi-conscious for three months and in hospital for five. He set himself the seemingly impossible goal of getting back in the sulky with one of his trotters and just managed to achieve it. But the days of the highly competitive tennis matches at his Halswell home (opponents claimed cracks in the court surface were never repaired because the host knew exactly how to hit into them in tight situations) and some aspects of his work were ended.
However, he developed a strong interest in the effect of heavy use of soy bean preparations in infants which had been promoted as preventing later illness. When his contrary view caused a severe international reaction among proponents his conclusions were unaffected.
The ONZM award in 2000 for services to veterinary science was a thrill which came close to equalling the Dominion Handicap and also served as a stimulus to recover sufficiently from his injuries to travel for the presentation.
Irvine never believed in wasting time and urged a similar attitude to family members and his many successful students, some of whom, notably Margaret Evans, have gained international prominence of their own in the veterinary research field. "Television and some other things we like doing were wasting time. But he was never an angry person. I cannot remember ever seeing him lose his temper even in the most difficult situation," Panny Irvine recalled.
Sue Irvine remembers a man of great determination who "never gave up", even when recovering from his critical injuries, but accepted reverses with aplomb. "He set very high standards in his research, as you would expect, and you worked hard with him. But he was never flustered when things went wrong or one of us did something wrong. He had the true scientific gifts of concentrating on the main focus."
Credit: David McCarthy writing in The Press July 2010
After winning the Rowe in 1985 and Dominion in 1986, Tussle's crowning glory came in 1987 when she swept unbeaten through the Inter-Dominions at Addington. That was as a 10-year-old and Tussle would win three races in her last season of racing as a 12-year-old, the penultimate one being a 15 to one upset of Tyron Scottie and a top field in a FFA on NZ Cup day in 1988 where she set a 2000m standing start national record of 2:33.8. She would finish second to Landora's Pride in the Dominion and then win her last race at Alexandra Park the following month in the Rhodes Memorial Flying Mile when odds on.
A year later she would produce her first foal in the Game Pride colt Wrestle, who qualified but went unraced. After starting stallion life as the teaser at Nevele R Stud, the diminutive Wrestle has been lightly patronised at stud over the years and sired seven winners (from 30-odd foals of racing age) including the good sorts Down For The Count, Monaro Miss and Jack The Capricorn. Minor winners in Throttle and Topple followed before Tussle produced Bristle, a Britewell colt who won eight races in NZ and another in Australia.
Tussle's sixth and last foal and her only filly was Scuffle in 1998, a daughter of Sundon who was unraced and whose first foal is De Gaulle, a Continentalman colt sold at the Premier Sale of $20,000. Bill Bishop has Scuffle's next foal in a colt by Armbro Invasion, while Tussle's 'lifetime caretaker' Sally Marks has just broken in a yearling filly by Continentalman called Mamselle for Irvine.
By Tuft, Tussle was one of 12 foals and six winners Irvine bred from the unraced Kimmer, whose sire Light Mood was a good pacer for Irvine winning nine races in the late 50s.
Credit: Frank Marrion writing in HR Weekly 15Nov07
The theory of wind resistance played an important part in Tussle's courageous Dominion Handicap win. Moments before "Shorty" moved away from the shelter of the birdcage and into the uncompromising 14 knot easterly on the track, her owner-trainer Dr Cliff Irvine untied the dust sheet on the sulky and tucked it under his arm.
Irvine successfully tried the tactic at Addington 25 years ago when Light Mood took third in the President's Hadicap at long odds. "It was blowing a gale that day, and Doug Watts said to me in the birdcage 'why don't you pull the mud sheet off?'," Irvine recalled.
the 65-year-old Lincoln College veterinary professor "hasn't had occasion" to use the ploy in the last quarter of a century, but after consulting Tussle's driver Peter Jones, and his old cobber Derek Jones, he had no hesitation. "Derek told me he had done it when Soangetaha won one of his Auckland Cups, and Peter said he didn't mind getting gravel in his face, so we took it off as quickly as we could in the birdcage. On a very windy day it acts like a sail and it would have a retarding effect - it is tough enough for her with Peter in the cart, being a little horse, let alone having a spinnaker out there."
And Irvine's snap decision was vindicated when Tussle, after her familiar beginning to land in fourth place, was left straining into the wind with still 1800 of the 3200m heartbreaker left. By then comeback hero and 1984 Dominion winner Basil Dean had his rivals struggling to stay in touch with his eager front-running, which reminded some of his awesome 2600m world record two years ago. "When he was attacked by Admiral Soanai down the back he got fired up and on the bit, so I thought it best to let him bowl along," driver Kerry O'Reilly said. "I could see Basil Dean was serious," Jones said, "and she's just as good parked as anywhere else in the field...but she was struggling to keep up with him."
Sally Marks, Tussle's faithful companion and strapper, watched dejectedly as the pack bounced down the stretch with a lap to travel. "She's hanging badly - I think she's had enough," Marks said, pulling in another lungful of Pall Mall and walking aimlessly towards the outside rail. Tussle did look beaten as the 800m peg came and went, her trotting action unusually scratchy and her head bobbing from side to side.
With a fierce tail wind down the back straight for the final time, Basil Dean punched three lengths clear and the murmurings of the crowd sensed an emotional upset. "But he wasn't quite up to it," O'Reilly said. "I knew half-way down the back he was struggling. He's still got the speed, and he's sound, but he didn't quite have the race fitness." Basil Dean's ground-devouring stride began to shorten on the last bend, and tiny Tussle quickly gathered him in and scooted two lengths ahead. And as first the sturdy warrior Jenner, who had followed Tussle throughout, and handsome favourite Melvander (who had tracked Jenner) balanced themselves before attacking, she lowered her head, flattened her ears and cut through the wind to the post. With 100m left, both Jenner and Melvander seemed poised to gun down 'Shorty', but with her new found strength this season she determinedly held the pair outto score by a long neck.
Veteran Christchurch horseman Jack Carmichael could not quite cap his successful Cup carnival, settling for second and $20,000 with Jenner. "I thought half-way down the straight he might get to her, but she was just too good," he said. Melvander finished a further long neck behind after almost exploding into a gallop 50m off the line. "I was smiling around the corner, but then he started to trot roughly and I had to take hold of him," driver Jack Smolenski said. South Auckland mare Landora's Pride rattled into fourth ahead of Simon Katz, while the others struggled home victims of a punishing last 2400m of around 3.04. "She simply outstayed them all," Jones said of Tussle later. "She can really fight them off now, and had them covered all the way down the straight."
When asked if he considered removing Tussle's dust sheet made the vital difference between winning and losing, he replied: "It was blowing quite hard and I suppose it's got to make a difference. She was battling into the wind from the 1800m, she had the worst run of all the horses that figured in the finish, but she kept going right to the line."
Irvine described Tussle's Dominion Handicap win as one of her two greatest performances, the other being her dazzling 2:31.9 national record for a flying 2000m which she set fresh-up in September. "She always surprises me how well she goes and how she keeps on improving, even this year as a ten-year-old," he said.
There are few mountains now left for the champion daughter of Tuft to climb. She has captured the two most prized trotting crowns in New Zealand: the Dominion Handicap and the Rowe Cup (1985). Her 3200m time, despite the ravaging gale, was 4:13.81, which lowered Indette's national record for a trotting mare. And the $65,000 winner's cheque bumped Tussle's earnings to $268,055 in New Zealand, making her the greatest stakewinning trotter in history.
Credit: Matt Conway writing in HR Weekly