(Photo : HP Horses)
“Sir Tristram, the stallion which transformed
New Zealand breeding singlehandedly.”
Summerhill CEOA couple of years ago, I received an unusual phonecall. It was a lady by the name of Jan McMillan, organiser supreme and convenor of judges of the equestrian division of the Royal Queensland Show. She was inviting me to judge the thoroughbred section, the best endowed competition in the Southern Hemisphere, at what was still, in showing terms, the pride of Australia. Now, I’ve grown up with horses, cattle and sheep, and I like to think I was gifted with a fair eye. It has stood me in good stead in my life, and it was probably a good day for the legal profession (of which I was a fully paid-up member), as well as for my future career, that I decided to give up the law for the horses.
But apart from the odd flirtation on the fringes of agricultural shows, I’d never been in a show ring with horses, let alone judge them. It was a daunting thought, but a challenge nonetheless, and I took it up. My preparations included a couple of rushed lessons in judging with a few local experts, yet I have to confess to climbing aboard the Qantas flight with some trepidation. Uppermost in my thoughts was not only the fear at how the whole thing would turn out, but who could’ve got me into this jam. My first enquiry when I arrived at the showgrounds was to establish who was behind it. The culprit was Patrick Hogan, fabled New Zealand breeder, raconteur and sportsmen, whose contributions to horse breeding had conferred upon him the only knighthood of the realm outside of Britain.
I remember well my first visit to Cambridge Stud. I was reciprocating the visits of numbers of Kiwi breeders, in the company of Rodney Thorpe and Roger Zeeman of Harry’s Charm, Imperial Despatch and Amphitheatre fame. You might remember my companions gained further lustre in their ownership with us of the Horse Of The Year, Igugu. Some of us think we’re lucky to have owned one such beast in our lifetimes, let alone four.
The highlight of any trip to New Zealand is not only the renewal of old friendships, but in those days we were going to see the stallion which had transformed New Zealand breeding singlehandedly, Sir Tristram. By then, he was so hot that breeders were paying up to $200,000 to send a mare to him, and that didn’t include foreplay or candlelight dinners, just the basic rustic encounter. Warren Beatty was rumoured to be sulking.
Behind us, Sir Tristram’s yearlings were being tizzied up for auction in the Karaka ring later in the year. It was the high summer of 1988, not a recession in sight. They would smash all records. One of them, a bay colt, about as right mechanically as a yearling can be, would make $650,000 and leave for Colin Hayes’ training grounds at Lindsay Park in Australia. As Zabeel, he would win $1.1 million on the track, and afterwards, in the breeding shed, he would sire the immortal Octagonal. Also in that draft, a brown colt, a touch backward but with the hard eye of a contender, would make $210,000 to the bid of Dr. Geoff Chapman, the Sydney trainer. As Dr Grace, he would win the Derby at Randwick. There were other good ones in that crop. Sir Tristram got champs the way other stallions got duds. Later in the year, his daughter Empire Rose would win the Melbourne Cup, a second Cup after Gurner’s Lane for Sir Tristram, as well as the Derby heroes Sovereign Red and Grosvenor, and the Golden Slipper winner Marauding. He was the true freak: it doesn’t get any better than this. His stock could stay, they could sprint and they could jump. Inevitably, one of them would throw the javelin. At the time we visited, he must have been worth close to $50 million, but it didn’t matter, because the stallion wasn’t for sale.
Yes, he’d be something to see, and like other famous stallions, you’d expect him to stand like a statue on the lead rein, ears pricked, near foreleg forward, just where the photographers like him to be. And you’d expect his groom would tell you how smart he was, that he liked to read The Wall Street Journal and help old ladies across pedestrian crossings. While he was talking, the stallion wouldn’t acknowledge you, even if you laid a soft hand on his neck. He’d just look out above and beyond. All the good ones are like this, they seem to know they’re a form of royalty.
You arrive at Cambridge Stud, near the town of the same name. It’s some place this. With its portico and walled garden, the long white building in front of you has to be the main house. It turns out to be the stable block. Despite the heat, the clover in the nearby paddocks stands up in lush paddocks, as though Hogan, a perfectionist, has ordered it not to wilt. Stallions are usually brought out of their boxes only after they’ve being groomed and fussed over, after the handlers are assured the forelock is lying flat and that no wisps of straw are caught in the tail. Straight away, you know that this experience is going to be different. “Stand back”, is the first instruction.
The horse is loose in the yard. He comes to you not so much walking, as prowling. There’s a hint of menace as he eyes us off. He holds his head low, like a feral stallion about to enter a harem, so the crest of his neck is exaggerated. Just as well too: without the crest he wouldn’t look like a stallion at all. He’s tall, long, very long and slabby, more like a big gelding whose turned sour after a lifetime’s encounters with whips, tongue ties and blinkers. He’s a bay with a little star on his forehead, his legs are faultless in front, and terrible behind. Dust dulls his coat and his mane is straggly.
And he’s wearing this crummy old halter. Not some leather job that’s triple stitched with wax thread and mounted with brass buckles, the sort you’d expect to see on one of the world’s greatest stallions. This is just plain brown webbing; a 15-buck special, frayed and curling, the sort you’d see on kid’s horses around the city fringes.
Must be his “lucky head stall”, we enquire. “No, we can’t get the bloody thing off”. Now it’s all starting to make sense. The stallion is a man-eater: always has been. Likes to stomp on people, cars and tractors, anything that’s around really. He likes to pick his handlers up by the shoulders and shake them. The only animal he tolerates is a black cat. That’s why he’s seldom led around and groomed. That’s why he’s only caught when he has to be, that’s why the staff when he serves mares, wear helmets and deep padded vests, so that they look like baseball umpires moonlighting at some backwoods mating contest. You just get Sir Tristram to the mare, get him away, and then cross yourself.
When Sir Tristram was finally put down at age 26 after breaking his shoulder, they gave him a proper Christian burial. The priest reportedly said: “If there’s a heaven for horses, he’ll be there”. Quite. For all that, maybe one should tell God that if He’s thinking of leading the old bloke, it might be as well to carry a piece of polypipe.
There’s one curious thing about Sir Tristram. He didn’t pass on his bad temper. And here’s another: most great stallions (and there are only a half dozen or so each century) throw a type, hundreds of look-alikes. Sir Tristram didn’t. His stock came in all shapes, colours and sizes. He did however, have the most important trademark of the modern stallion. He got horses better than he was. Sir Tristram won two ordinary races in France over two seasons. Though he was by the Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor, he hadn’t done enough at the races, nor was he handsome enough, to stand as a stallion at the studs of Europe or England. New Zealand made Sir Tristram. Banished there, he would sire 42 Group One Stakes winners, a world record at the time.