I had a horse in Koiterangi twenty miles east of Hokitika, resting sleepily beneath the dough boy and the Southern Alps. The Hokitika river runs across these fertile grasslands, and a hundred miles to the south the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers tumble to the sea from a height of 10,000 feet. In the day time the morning dew sits on the pasture like jewels strewn from a forlorn crown, and during the evening sandflies as big as gophers and voracious as starving teenage boys stalk and menace uncovered arms and legs.
That was my best Baroness Karen Von Blixen-Finecke impersonation. I know, I know; it was pretty pathetic. Apologies. Even when I read it aloud in my best South African cross Danish accent it still sounded tragic. Robert Redford I am not – but Meryl Streep? C’mon Roly what were you thinking?
But it is true – I did have a horse in Koiterangi.
Her stable name was Nan and she she stood 15.5 hands high. She was a four year old seal brown thoroughbred Mare, very stroppy in nature. I only knew Nan for a few years and she always struck me as being a sad mean horse (no long face jokes please). She certainly wasn’t very friendly. ‘Hello,’ I would call out to Nan, when I called around to the farm where she lived. She would respond by stamping her feet. Occasionally I would approach and try and feed her lovely lush long grass plucked from the driveway. She would turn and run away whenever I got close.
When I say ‘had’ a horse, I should add, that it was really only a quarter of the horse (no quarter horse jokes please). After a drinking session at the Club Hotel one night, my mates, Fish, Al and Keatsy and I decided to lease Nan from Al’s father who owned a Dairy Farm in Koiterangi. The idea was we would race her.
Horse racing was huge in NZ at that time and our national sporting hero was a horse called ‘Bone Crusher.’
Being a West Coast horse you would expect Nan to have been born with gumboots on, but she was no mud lark. She liked the ground hard and fast. So we sent her over to Leithfield in Canterbury to be trained by an up and coming trainer Neil Coulbeck.
Photcredit: National Geographic
West Coast horses tend to mature a little later so although she was 4 years old, Nan had the temperament of a filly. But she settled in stable life well. Our trainer believed that despite having no real racing pedigree Nan had a few wins in her. So we registered her as a Race Horse. Choosing her racing name was easy. My 3 partners and I all played rugby for the Excelsior Rugby Club, so almost instantly without debate Nan became ‘Excelsior Belle.’
Excelsior Belle, Excelsior Belle, the name just rolls off the tongue. It slips out of the mouth as easily as the twenty dollar bills slipped out of our wallets to cover her training fee’s, stable and feed fee’s, vet bills, racing registrations etc. Still, we had a race horse!
We were pretty excited the first time she trialed.
She looked as pretty as a picture, the conditioning work Caulbeck had done had transformed her from unkempt farm hack to a beautifully physiqued handsome race horse. I went over to her as she stood in her paddock, I told her how beautiful she looked. She responded by trying to head butt and bite me (no stroppy mare jokes please).
‘Racing this time….racing Belle, c’mon Belle you have to move your feet! Belle, see those other horses running around the track 100 metres in front of you – well you should be running with them!’
Photocredit: Racing Victoria – luv luv luv this photo
She sauntered off the start line about thirty seconds after every other horse. My mates and I consulted, nodding our heads and agreeing, ‘first time nerves, stage fright, never done it before, next time she will be better.’
And next time she was, she came last, although at least she took off from the start with everyone else. Promising, we thought in complete delusion.
At her next trial she came 4th! We thought we we were on the gravy train. High fives, ecstatic woop’s and dreams of cups, champagne and well dressed beautiful women wearing hats filled our heads (well mine anyway). Caulbeck came over, he must be coming over to congratulate us we thought, to tell us when Belle would have her first real race!
But he wasn’t.
‘Sorry lad’s,’ he said. ‘Belle doesn’t have it, she’s a follower, a horse who likes to run amongst the pack. She has no fight or desire to lead. Now, I’m very happy to take your money every week. And one of these day’s she will probably win a race or two. But lad’s, in my best judgement you’re better to cut your loses and take her back to the Coast.’
So that was that. Our racing career was over and Belle returned to being called Nan and being a farm hack. My mates and I were disappointed, but Nan was delighted and she used to neigh and whinny at me every time I called around to see Al and his family.
I speak horse worse than I speak South African cross Danish, but I am sure she was telling me how handsome I looked, then she would break into prolonging whinnying obviously cracking herself up at the hilarity of it all.
Kia Ora Roly
Ps: Here’s a couple of my favourite horse racing tunes!