Twelve questions

Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Ross Coles

Ross Coles, 65, has been a steward at Ellerslie Racecourse since age 14, was a champion show jumper, has managed Olympic eventing teams and is head of the Pakuranga Hunt, as was his father. He has watched the encroaching houses from his property at Karaka since he was a child.

Ross Coles has no plans to stop riding horses. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Ross Coles has no plans to stop riding horses. Photo / Jason Oxenham

1. You look about the right build to be a jockey - did that career never tempt you?

I had 11 rides as an amateur but decided I could make more money doing other things, which was probably the case back then. We're talking 1963, when race meetings were Saturday and Wednesday, eight races a meet, and that's all there was. Now it's seven days a week and you can make a very comfortable living. I went to the freezing works instead - in the office. Started at the bottom and worked my way up for 17 years. Left there and became a huntsman. My father was still [heading the Pakuranga Hunt] and my brother had been going to succeed him. But then he was killed in a car crash and they asked me if I'd do it. It's a salaried job and I was 25 years there. It was a great lifestyle. You're your own boss, ride a horse for a living and hunt your hounds. It's like any job, though - good days and bad days. Some days it's teeming and you still have to head out.

2. Are the racecourse stewards always from the hunt?

Traditionally the hunt supplied those who did it. My father decided on the red coats and grey horses.

The Herald would always run a page of photographs from the races - we're talking 1949 to 1952 - and Dad thought the grey horse with the red coat looked better in the pictures than the chestnut did.

So he insisted that it be done like that at Ellerslie. Australia has them now too and Singapore and other countries have started having stewards and a lot of them are greys. It's started to become a tradition.

I think it helps that there are not a lot of grey racehorses, too. It sets them apart.

3. You've got four greys in the paddock down there: do you think they know what they're doing on course?

Yeah, I think they do. They have to have the right attitude. They have to be quiet and kind. They have to do what they're asked to do, even if there's a [race] horse kicking off. The important part is making sure they don't get hurt if something's happening, that they don't get kicked, or they won't want to go back there.

4. Are you the people who get called when a horse has to be put down on course?

We're almost always the first ones there. It's not nice and we hate it. We're horsemen and we love horses. But racehorses break. There's no guns any more - it's a tranquilliser. It's awful but it's life.

5. Lots of Kiwis hunt pigs and other animals: why do you think some people are anti your kind of hunt?

It's class. I don't think it's any different to other kinds of hunting. I think people see it as elite because in England those are the people who can afford to do it. It's different here. Anyone can come on a horse and enjoy a day out with their mates in the countryside jumping fences. The bottom line is the hunting fraternity are out there for a day's entertainment, not to kill anything. If we never caught a hare no one would worry about it. This blood sport thing is bullshit.

6. Have your children shared your love of horses?

My daughter Emma is allergic. Beat that! She goes near one she coughs and splutters. My son Ben hunted but that was as far as he wanted to go. Not jumping or anything. It's all changed now. It's expensive to be involved in horses. I came back from the World Championships in Rome in 1998 [Ross was eventing team manager] and said then that our sport would become elitist. And it has. Going to pony club or whatever is still fine but if your kid wants to go to a horse show, you could pay anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. There's some of them starting on horses that have been imported from Europe.

7. Do you dislike that aspect of the sport?

That's just the way life's gone. When we were kids growing up around here, every kid had a pony because it was free or cheap, and every family had a bit of dirt to graze it. Now you're looking at $10 a day just for grazing. What I saw in Rome was people buying incredible horses - showjumpers sell for up to $10 million. The sport now is about two athletes - the horse and the rider. It won't work if only one is good. They both have to be.

8. So Karaka's changed a bit since you were a kid?

If you could imagine this, the hunt's kennels were once in Springs Rd, East Tamaki, by the fire station and horses were ridden all around there. When we moved out here in 1953, Karaka was a long way out of town - there was no motorway. Now it's under pressure from new housing developments all around.

9. What do you do with your 20ha here?

I've got the stables and horses. We've got 3.2ha in avocados. It's been a short season here - half what it was the year before. It's not a lot of work - two or three days a week, maybe. You could have lived off [the profits] a couple of years ago, if you were mortgage-free, but not this year. You need to do something else. Do I like avocados? Not really.

10. What's the difference between Avondale and Ellerslie racecourses?

People are very relaxed at Avondale but at Ellerslie, on the big days at least, people are all dressed up for the day. It's like going to Ascot. Avondale used to have huge crowds - it was the last club to have 50c bets so people would go there because you could just bet 50c - but like all racing the TV and phone betting has had its effect. It's great to see the young people coming back to Ellerslie now with the twilight meetings. Do I bet? No. We're not allowed to.

11. You were manager when the New Zealand team of Mark Todd, Blyth Tait, Andrew Nicholson and Vaughn Jefferis won gold at the World Championships in Rome. How good was that?

It's a buzz managing a team like that. I'm not sure it's as big a buzz as winning a gold medal yourself but it was a thrill. I was team manager at the Olympics in Sydney [2000] too and that was amazing. We were there for six weeks and the riders and managers had their own lounge. You'd be sitting there drinking coffee with Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, Princess Haya of Spain. You'd just talk about life in general. In a place like that they're just like everyone else.

12. Will you ever give up riding?

At the moment I still do the races and I hunt. My body's still good - I've broken a few bones but my hips and knees are fine. At some stage I'll say I've had enough.

- NZ Herald

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