Elisabeth Easther enjoys a tour of a Cambridge stud farm and takes a crash course on raising racehorses.
You can't visit Cambridge without noticing that the town is a thriving hub of horsiness. Clues are its slogan "Home of Champions" and that the properties surrounding this picturesque hamlet are made up largely of glossy paddocks filled with fine examples of horseflesh. Knowing very little about the world of racing, I was keen to join Waikato Thoroughbred Stud Tours to trot around a prominent stud farm.
Pete Evans, who leads the tours, is one of those inspirational people who has turned his passion into his profession. After 20 years in the security business, it dawned on Pete one day that there had to be more to life than working to live, so he reinvented himself. He now guides hunting and trout fishing expeditions and tours of some of Cambridge's most illustrious stud farms. With strong connections to the world of racing, he has the perfect pedigree for leading these adventures; what he doesn't know about horse racing isn't worth knowing.
From Pete's house just outside Hamilton, we set off for the fabled Cambridge Stud. He did warn us that we entered the properties at our own risk, which is fair enough, because stallions and mares pack a fair kick or a nip if you're tempted to get too close.
We are greeted at the impressive grounds of Cambridge Stud by an imposing life-size bronze statue of champion Sir Tristram. Pete explains how the property's owner Patrick Hogan (now Sir Patrick) moved from dairy farming to try his hand at breeding racehorses. He and his wife bought 150 rundown acres, turning the former pigsty into their first office. Sir Patrick bought Sir Tristram sight unseen.
It's a risky business, buying a horse without kicking its tyres; however, Sir Patrick managed to sign up 20 shareholders to help with the purchase. But then disaster struck: Sir Tristram was in quarantine when a fire broke out. As the quarantine officers rushed in to rescue the stallion, ashes and sparks were falling on the terrified creature. As soon as the door was opened he bolted to the mares. Rather than receiving a hero's welcome — or even a kindly hello — he was attacked by the ladies. So when Sir Patrick finally showed Sir T to his new owners, four bowed out of owning shares in a singed, bitten and bruised horse. The rest we know: Sir Patrick bought them out, and Tristram turned out to be one of the finest sires New Zealand has ever known.
We learned that stallions can often be unpredictable and dangerous and Sir Tristram was moodier than most. But the cantankerous stallion sired more Group One winners than any other New Zealand horse. He never really warmed to humans, so catching him used to be a three-man operation involving crash helmets and body armour.
Although there was one creature he was fond of, a black cat who was allowed to sidle up to him on occasion, a fact I found rather endearing.
In the stables we met Zabeel, another well-known name in racing and over the way from him was Keeper, who likes to nip visitors who stand too close to him while taking photos of Zabeel. Jealousy perhaps?
Visiting at the start of foaling, we were lucky to see a wobbly legged girl just a few hours old take her first steps. And if you visit between October and December, you might witness the covering, when the stallions are put to the mares. That particular activity is not for the faint-hearted. Horses don't do romance and there is a certain brutality to the coupling, with the humans and horses all wearing protective attire.
Visitors can also visit Windsor Park or Trelawney Studs for a fascinating glimpse into the world of breeding champion horses.
NEED TO KNOW
Waikato Thoroughbred Stud Tours: For horse people and total newbies, Pete is a friendly and knowledgeable guide. Tours can take anything from 90 minutes to four hours, tailored to individual preferences and timeframes. Pete also hosts hunting and fishing expeditions.