Michele Hewitson interview: Tony Herlihy

Tony Herlihy is said to be so laid back he's almost horizontal - until his wife or daughters pinch 'his' TV remote. Photo / Richard Robinson
Tony Herlihy is said to be so laid back he's almost horizontal - until his wife or daughters pinch 'his' TV remote. Photo / Richard Robinson

A bloke from Ardmore, by the name of Anthony Grant Herlihy, got a very nice gong in the New Year's honours: he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to harness racing.

I'd put a tenner on him having last been called Anthony back in primary school when he was being ticked off for some mischief - which would be unlikely to have been talking too much. It is fair to say he's not a man who wastes words. He said, after about an hour: "What else, Michele? Have I answered anything yet?"

He does have a wide streak of mischief; you just have to give him a very small bit of stick and it emerges. He may not have answered at length any of my daft questions about horses, but he did enjoy them: It gave him a chance to laugh at me. Who could mind? He has a handsome, honest, cheeky face, weathered nicely by a life spent outdoors with horses, and a lovely grin. In other words, he looks exactly like the person he is.

He is of course mostly called Tony. He has plenty of other names. Gumpy, after Forrest Gump, because, my source in the world of harness racing told me, "he is so simple and down-to-earth yet has achieved so much".

Hmm. Simple? I think it's all an act. He seemed smart as a reinsman's whip to me. (A reinsman, or reinswoman, presumably, is harness racing's term for the driver and he is the top one: He has ridden a record 3000 winners.) He is also called racing's Mr Perfect, but usually he is called The Iceman because of his nerves of steel and for being cooler than a cucumber on the race track.

His wife, Suzanne, told me that family and friends prefer to call him Ice Block. This made us both giggle immoderately. The Ice Block sat in his armchair and gave us a look which was supposed to let us know that we were being very silly. But then he melted and grinned. He can take a bit of a tease.

We had been talking about harness racing, or I had, and about how it doesn't have the glamour of the gallops. But why doesn't it? He's buggered if he knows, really, except that it is cheaper to own, and have trained, a standard bred than it is a galloper, so it doesn't attract really rich people. But other than that, I remain clueless on the matter.

On that matter! There were a few others. The photographer asked if he could get a harness for the picture and then realised he didn't mean a harness at all; he meant the thing the reinsman sits on to drive the horse.

He realised this when Herlihy emerged from the tack room with what I think were bridles and reins, some sorts of horsey paraphernalia anyway. I said, "he's a ning nong. He meant a buggy." There was a longish silence.

Me: "Isn't it called a buggy?"

Him: "Not since the 1800s Michele."

It's called a sulky, I believe. It was a bit hard to hear over the sound of him laughing his head off.

He is used to ning nongs knowing nothing about harness racing. There is that lack of glamour, for one thing, which means that despite those 3000 wins, and being a successful trainer, he is hardly known outside the industry unlike, say, top gallops jockey Lance O'Sullivan.

I thought he might be a bit miffed at my banging on about the lack of razzle-dazzle so I said: "Not that I'm saying you're not glamorous!" He thought that was pretty funny. He was sitting in his armchair at the time and wearing the clothes he'd been driving in when we arrived; he had his socks on and they looked as though they didn't owe him anything. He was a bit dusty and he smelled of horses. I like the smell of horses and, as he does too, he'd take that as a compliment. I asked if you had to love horses to be a successful driver and trainer and he didn't think that was a silly question.

He said: "I think it's an asset. Because when I first came into it, there wasn't a lot of money, and you work long hours. You could be driving a truck and making twice as much as this.

"You have to love the animal." He started working with his uncle in a stables as a 10-year-old, already in love with the animals. His uncle worked at Suzanne's uncle's stables. Now they live in her father's old house at the stables they bought from him. He and Suzanne have known each other since they were 12. Goodness. Suzanne: "Don't ruin my reputation Tony!" They didn't actually get together until they were about 20, they were at pains to point out.

"She just kept running after me!" What a lot of rot. He pretends to be what used to be called a male chauvinist - he says cooking is "women's work" - but anyone can tell they have a strong and equal partnership, based around the family (three kids; all young adults now) and the horses. They get up early for the horses - he still rosters himself on for the five o'clock "feed" once every five weeks, the same as his staff - and go to bed around 9pm. When he told me this I thought he meant that he was rostered on to cook breakfast for the staff, who live in the house just over the paddock.

Suzanne shrieked with laughter at the very idea. "Cooking! You've got to be joking!"

I asked if he had any superstitions, like a special pair of socks. That made her shriek some more. "He's lucky to get a matching pair!" He maintains she doesn't know how to turn on the vacuum cleaner. They have their tea at 6pm. He is, I'd heard, so laid back as to be almost horizontal. Is he? "No," he said, grinning and looking so laid back he was almost horizontal. Suzanne says he is pretty laid back, unless she or one of their two daughters pinches "his" TV remote.

He goes to the Clevedon pub once a week, unless he's got a race the next day, and has fish and chips and low alcohol beer and talks, mostly about horses, I wasn't amazed to hear, with other horsey blokes.

Neither of them could have married anyone who wasn't in harness racing. Suzanne: "I wouldn't even have dated anybody who was outside the trotting industry. They just wouldn't get it."

Tony: "Most of the people in the industry do sort of marry within the industry." Suzanne: "It's a sort of in-breeding!"

Suzanne is obviously the great love of his life (although he possibly wouldn't put it in such soppy terms), but a horse or two, you imagine has come close.

On their living room wall is one of those horse racing pictures that you only ever see in horse racing family homes: A faded photo of the horse with its vital statistics - wins, dates, stakes won. This horse is called Bella's Boy.

They had a half share in this horse which was sold to America for, he thinks, about $300,000. Did he love him? "Yeah, I probably did love him. But I didn't cry when I sold him!" Still, if he did love him, he might want to straighten the rather crooked picture frame, I said. He said, quick as a gallop, for a simple chap: "He always liked running downhill!"

He talks to horses, and makes kissing noises at them. Does he think horses understand English? He does and when they play up: "You talk to them in ... the language of camel drivers they call it! They recognise a stern voice from a comforting one." He maintains he's not sentimental about horses, but I think he might be, just a bit. If he goes away he gets homesick for the smell of horse poo.

This is what else he loves about horses: "I like their faces. And their noses? Have you ever rubbed a horse's nose with your hands? I don't think there's any other feeling like it. I remember when Suzanne's father went away for about a month and went back through New York and, do you know how the police walk their horses through the streets? He went up to a police horse and spent about five minutes patting the police horse." That's a very nice story and tells you exactly why horsey people marry other horsey people.

His parents weren't particularly horsey. Although his father "liked a bet." He likes an occasional bet too, and although he could, he never bets on himself. Well, why doesn't he? He might have made a bob or two, although the odds would, mostly, be rotten. Anyway, "I'm under enough pressure out there without my money being on me."

Is he a successful gambler? "Yeah, pretty good," he said, smugly. His wife said: "He's not! He's the worst gambler in the world."

I thought he might be a bit tight with money because my secret source told me to have him on about Suzanne cutting his hair. "How do you know that?" he said. I wouldn't usually say but oh all right, it was Mick Guerin, the Herald's racing editor.

"But I was a hairdresser!" Suzanne said. "He doesn't know that. He thinks I just whip the bowl out! Tell him I worked at Servilles!" (She didn't, but nobody tell Mick Guerin.) How cool is The Iceman? He claims he gets excited before a race, and during one, but I reckon you could hook him up to a heart monitor during a big race and not see a blip. I told him this and he said: "You get more excited as the money gets bigger!"

He was, of course, dead chuffed about his gong but he said he was mostly pleased because the recognition was good for the harness racing industry. He's not being falsely modest; he means it.

But he's obviously in the business of making a living from the industry, so the recognition should be good for business. I have no idea how good a businessman he is, although he did try to sell me a share in a horse the minute I arrived.

He doesn't live a flashy lifestyle, but I don't think he would even if he did make millions. But has he? "No. Well, I've got through it. Well, Suzanne has!" He'll wear a suit to his investiture. Has he got a suit? 'Yeah!" A nice suit? "It's done 10 or 12 years, so it's quite good."

I hope he has a lovely day getting his gong because it's lovely that the biggest sweetheart in the business has been given one. (I've never met anyone else in the harness racing business, but I'd put more than a tenner on him being the biggest sweetheart by more than a length.)

- NZ Herald

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