Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve questions with Stephen McKee, horse trainer

By Jennifer Dann

Stephen McKee is one of New Zealand’s top horse trainers. With father Trevor, he trained Sunline, the world’s highest-earning racemare of her time, earning more than $12 million. Alongside training partner Eddie Chippendale, McKee has 11 horses racing during Auckland Cup Week, which starts on Saturday.
Stephen McKee says he won't be bothered if his children choose other careers. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Stephen McKee says he won't be bothered if his children choose other careers. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. What does Auckland Cup Week mean for you?

I love the buzz and excitement in the atmosphere on a big race day. Auckland Cup Week starts with Derby Day which is the glamour race in most countries - everyone tries to win at least one. It's the classic mile-and-a-half race for 3-year-olds.

We have seven horses racing, three of which have won their last start " What's The Story, Passing Shot and Lilyput. Then there's the Auckland Cup which is more like the Melbourne Cup. It's a longer race, a staying race, for older horses.

We've got four horses racing in that - Xiong Feng has won all three of his race-day starts including the Karaka Million, New Zealand's richest race, in January.

2.How much of a horse's success is down to good genetics and how much to good training?

It's a bit of both. Sometimes they don't show you that much on the training track early on and then with the spark of race day and a bit of practice they suddenly improve. Xiong Feng's an example. He wasn't showing us a great deal of promise and was quite well beaten in both his trials but he just kept improving to a point where his prospects are now very good.

3.What does it take to be a good trainer?

Hard work, being hands-on and having a good eye for horses - some of that's instinctive but like everything, practice makes perfect. Being able to back your own ability to make judgment calls and go with your gut feel. The more success you have behind you the more confident you are to make those decisions.

Trainers are quite a reserved bunch. You don't see them jumping for joy or fist-pumping after a big win. The best advice I've received from a trainer was not to take a horse too far into its campaign before you think it's ready to be spelled and always try to have your horse ready a week before a big race.

4. Is there ever pressure from owners to race a horse you think should be rested?

Very much so - all we can do is advise what we think would be best for the horse. There's a lot more pressure to run them in places like Hong Kong and Australia because there's so much money and so many opportunities for 2- and 3-year-olds to race. It's a bit more relaxed here.

5. Have you always wanted to be a trainer?

I grew up in Takanini which in those days was really just a horse racing community. I liked horses and I liked the work so I left James Cook High School after I got School C to work full-time for my dad and then progressed to partnership at age 22.

There's always a bit of friction with family businesses but generally it worked out. We used to have a lot of arguments when I was a kid about what I thought a horse needed, but he was the boss and he made the final call.

6. You trained Sunline together. Was she a born winner?

She could go very fierce in her track work so we had to make sure she wasn't taking too much out of herself before race day. Some horses are lazy on the track and then spark up on race day but she wanted to do everything full bore all the time. But managing her was pretty easy. We just had to make sure she was fit and healthy and she did the rest.

7. Was it a hard decision to have her put down at the relatively young age of 13?

Yes - especially for a horse that's made your name on the world stage. But she had a disease that was causing her hooves to rot and she was in a lot of pain. She didn't have a long retirement either. She only had four foals. She deserved better. My wife made the bronze statue on her grave at Ellerslie Racecourse.

8. Which have been your favourite horses?

Sunline, Xiong Feng, Mufhasa, Solveig, Interval, Moonshine - we've been lucky to have a few over the years. Getting Flying Luskin and Boundless to the Melbourne Cup were great experiences. My favourite horses haven't necessarily been the top performers. Some I just like - especially ones that really try hard. Anne of Stratford was only pony-size but she was really game and ended up winning a couple of nice races. Her desire and will took her further than her ability would otherwise have let her.

9. Mufhasa was one of your top performers. Were you disappointed when his owner shifted him?

I had a bit of a falling out with the staff member concerned and when she left the owner decided to move the horse with her. I didn't take the loss as too big a thing at that stage of his career. He'd won 10 Group 1 races for me and was of an age where he could've retired anyway.

10. Has the job changed much over the years?

Owners are far more hands-on now. In the old days when you trained for farmers you'd ring them on a Friday night and say, "Your horse is racing tomorrow," and they'd say, "Oh yeah, I saw that in the Herald." These days they want a lot more communication and input. With the internet they can find examples of specific racing programmes they'd like you to set. But most will leave the final decisions to the trainer because they're the ones who are there with the horses day by day.

11. You have two children aged 11 and 7. How has being a father changed you?

I'm a bit more relaxed about race day. Before that my whole life had basically been horses, results and pleasing owners. Sometimes it can get you down a bit when owners don't take losing so well because you're not happy that the horse hasn't performed to its best either. It's nice to go home where no one is particularly interested in racing. I try to plan my Sundays so that I can spend as much time with the kids as I can.

12. You're 52 now. How is age treating you?

I hadn't really thought about it until you asked me. I said I would finish training when I was 50. Probably 60 would be more of a realistic goal. Dad was 68 when he retired. I wouldn't be worried if my children didn't follow me into the family business. It's a hard life and you've really got to be 24/7 to make a go of it. I have the odd game of golf where I can get a good four or five hours without thinking about too much apart from chasing a little white ball.

- NZ Herald

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