Trotting’s Talent Spotter
Over many years, Southland standardbred agent Geoff Gibson-Smith has been involved in purchasing some of New Zealand’s most talented pacers. Although he hasn’t kept count of numbers, he can certainly name some.
Clear in his memory are horses such as Themightyquinn, Motu Crusader, Didjamakem Bolt, Dasher VC and more recently Mr Mojito, I’m Full Of Excuses and Salty Robyn.
And although many of the horses he’s purchased on behalf of clients haven’t been household names here, they’ve developed into Grand Circuit horses in Australia. A good example would be Try A Fluke which left Southland as a maiden and went on to win 30 races in Australia, $584,802 and the 1998 Hunter Cup.
Geoff’s career in the buying and selling of horses started in 1976 when as a twenty one year old he went to America as a groom with Brian Meale and Charlie Hunter. He stayed for three years.
“We may have had up to 30 to 40 horses over there at the peak and all were for sale. A lot of Southland boys went on these trips. You were away normally for six months but I was away for three years,” he said.
Gibson-Smith said the flagship for New Zealand bred Standardbreds at the time was Young Quinn, and his presence in the States attracted a lot of business. Meale and Hunter bought the horses in New Zealand and flew them to the States.
“I remember the first trip I went on. I think there were 25 to 30 horses on the plane. It was a terrible trip. We had a horse that played up the whole way. Someone had to be with him all the time. There was only a pilot, co-pilot, an engineer and three grooms.”
After returning to New Zealand from the States Gibson-Smith thought he’d give trading horses a go.
“Before I left (the States) a fella said he was interested in me buying a horse for him. I came home and bought three horses a few months later.”
One of the horses was Tetarney (Smooth Hanover – Rosarney) which had won eight races for Jim Morgan of Omakau.
“Tetarney won about $100,000 for his new owners that year so that helped me a lot.”
The gelding ultimately won 16 races in America and ran a mile in 1981 in 1-55.3.
These were heady days in the ‘80s when up to 200 horses would be exported from New Zealand to America each season. In more recent years, the demand has dropped away somewhat. Only 15 horses were exported in 2011/2012. But the market has experienced a bit of a resurgence recently, with 55 horses heading state side in 2014/2015.
“The dollar killed the market and I haven’t bought a horse for America for a long time, although Brian Meale did ring me the other day looking for a horse.”
Gibson- Smith says the freight bill per horse was $3,000 in the early days but it’s now about $20,000 to get a horse airlifted.
After experiencing all aspects of the export game and looking to settle down, Gibson-Smith started training a small team, and turned his hand to breeding. Around that time he started buying horses for the Australian market.
“After Jill and I had children it wasn’t ideal to take them across to America so I advertised in the Australian market in 1985 – 1986. After that I just had guys ringing me for horses and that’s how it took off.”
Although starting at the lower end of the market Gibson- Smith says the Australians are now looking to buy the better quality New Zealand racehorses.
“We could sell horses in the $5,000 to $10,000 range quite readily five or six years ago but the boat stop running. It used to cost about $3,000 to get them there. The plane was about twice as much. The Aussies brought in a registration levy of $2,500 and that really knocked the market for the cheaper horse. There wouldn’t be much change out of $10,000 to get a $10,000 horse there now.”
In terms of purchasing, he says that sometimes it could take a month to do a background check on a potential purchase while at other times, if the horse ticks all the boxes he may buy it within days. He talks to the trainers and trials the horses himself.
“I purchase on the way a horse goes. Time is a factor to a certain degree. Who the horses are racing against is probably more important.”
He says 90% of the time horses are checked over by a vet. Other times he will run a well trained eye over an individual horse, looking for any potential problems.
“One of my clients will get every joint x-rayed. That’s just his policy. That costs $2,000 whereas the average vetting (pre-sale) is about $600.00 to $700.00.”
He says pedigree is not that important.
“It’s nice if it’s by Bettor’s Delight out of a nice mare but at the end of the day if they get from point A to point B quick enough that’s the main thing. I recently bought a horse called Jericho who is by Tomahawk. You could name a few horses that have gone over to Australia or America, by sires you probably wouldn’t breed to that have gone on and done a good job.”
Our Jericho, as he is named in Australia, has won a further nine races, adding to the four he won in New Zealand. He recently ran in the Interdominion final won by Smolda.
Gibson-Smith says although he buys on horse talent he has spotted, he sometimes gets requests from buyers interested in a specific horse.
“Generally I would know the horse and I’m able to let them know what the horse is like. It doesn’t happen a lot but I do get it now and again.”
He says most agents charge between 5 and 10% on the purchase price.
“Sometimes the purchaser of a higher priced horse may negotiate but generally it’s 10%.”
Gibson-Smith says the ideal time to buy a horse is either as a two or three year old or maiden.
“Two year olds are the ultimate but they’re very hard to buy. Only a certain amount of people can buy a nice two year old. Most can’t afford them. One, two or three win three or four year olds are also good to buy. If it’s a two win horse in New Zealand they’re still classified as a maiden in Australia.”
Blue Moon Rising (formally known as Flavius Aetius) was bought as a two year old out of Maurice Calder’s stable after he qualified in 2-01.8 over a mile at Wyndham in October 2015. As a three year old, the Santanna Blue Chip gelding has won twelve of his thirteen starts. His wins have included the Group Three NSW Sapling Stakes and Group Two Tatlow Stakes both at Menangle as a two year old.
Another horse that left these shores unraced was Marquess De Posh. Trained by Snow Devery the McArdle filly had just been to one workout as a two year old for a win. She’s gone on to be a very nice race mare in Australia winning 14 races and $295,855. Her wins included the 2012 NSW Oaks at Menangle. She also won the Gold Coast Oaks.
Salty Robyn was another horse Gibson-Smith spotted at a two year old trial and since joining the Tritton team in Australia he has won 15 of his 21 starts. He beat close relative Stanley Ross Robyn in the Group Two Hondo Grattan Stakes recently.
“I got the quinella (sold them both) and didn’t even take it. We were out and I forget clean about it. Both qualified for the Chariots Of Fire.”
Didjamakem Bolt was also bought out of Southland after qualifying at Wyndham as a three year old in March 2012.
Gibson-Smith says most of the time the transaction happens quickly.
“Sometimes the money’s here that same day if it’s vetted and cleared. It depends on what bank you are dealing with in Australia. There are some banks in Australia I’ve never heard of and that can mean it can take an extra day.”
In recent times Merv and Meg Butterworth have joined his list of clients. He says his relationship with them goes back 10 to 12 years.
Motu Crusader was one of the first horses Gibson-Smith purchased for the Butterworths. He was owned by Doug McLeish and trainer Tim White. He won four races as a three year old and for the Butterfields he has won another 12 races and $258,235.
“One thing about him (Merv Butterworth) is that he’s never in a hurry once he’s bought a horse. He’s quite happy to give it every chance. Diane (Diane Cournane) tells him all the time how good the Southland grass is. Brett Gray can have them (in his stable) before they go to Mark and Natalie’s or Tony Herihys.”
The Butterworths spell their horses at Cournane’s property at Grove Bush.
Gibson – Smith says without divulging any name, the biggest amount of money he’s paid for a horse on behalf of a client is $300,000. He added that the horse was from Southland and the transaction was made ‘a few years ago.’
At the top of his purchase list as the biggest stakes earner is the Washington VC gelding Themightyquinn who ended up winning 58 race and $5,520,066. He was purchased off Peter Bagrie.
“He was a good mate of mine and gave me the option on the horse. A guy in Sydney was keen to take him but his trainer didn’t think he was tough enough. I don’t know how that trainer feels now. He’s never rung me back.”
Although he primarily purchases pacers he has bought trotters, including King Denny and Sky Commander.
Not only is Gibson-Smith busy on the trading front he also runs a farm, having converted his Lochiel property to dairy nine years ago. He runs 400 cows on 400 acres.
He also trains a small team of four including the promising Southbound Train (Bettor’s Delight – Sugar Shack) and is still breeding from two broodmares Back Off; a two win Presidential Ball mare, and Sugar Shack (Holmes Hanover – Instrumental).
Both stem from the Smooth Hanover mare Biblical. Biblical left eight win mare Evamay, and gelding Smooth Guy which was bred by Southland Stables Limited. That company was owned by Gibson-Smith and brother in-law Des Baynes. Smooth Guy had a stellar career in Australia winning 29 races there and $169,300.
His biggest win was in May 1995 when he won the Rocklea Pot Of Gold. It was a $50,000 race (big stakes for that time) with Smooth Guy taking $40,000 of that. The race was run on the Rocklea track which was only 545 metres in circumference. The length of the straight was just 70 metres. No sprint lane there!!
Southland Stables Limited also bought Lordship mare Queenship in the mid1980s. To that point she had left Lord Hillas (Mister Hillas) the winner of 6 races, Queen’s Advocate (Alba Counsel) 4 wins, Carefree Princess (Pass With Care) 8 wins, Noble Fella (Son Of Afella) 9 wins and Horatius (Double Century) 4 wins.
They didn’t have much luck breeding from her with the best of her later progeny being Man Of Steel (Vance Hanover) which won four races.
Although still breeding and training on a small scale Gibson-Smith’s passion is spotting harness talent for the big stage if at all possible.
“I love it. It’s good to see how they go. When you purchase one you hope that it will go on. You back yourself a bit, especially the dearer horses that haven’t raced.”
That twenty year old groom setting off for America could hardly imagine the career that would unfold in years to come, or the calibre of horses he would be instrumental in buying on behalf of clients. Certainly an interesting and rewarding career for Geoff Gibson-Smith which continues to flourish.