(First publiced on Friday 24th July 2015)
After thirty six years of training 110 winners, the popular Southland sportsman and horse trainer Ken McRae has sold his Waimumu property and is moving to Canterbury.
McRae has spent most of his adult life gearing up horses, but he’s also played top level rugby and been a livestock buyer for the Alliance Meat Company, from which he retired two years ago.
Leaving the province after a good stretch of life involved with sheep and beef, rugby, racing and perhaps the odd beer I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask Ken’s opinion on the current state of the harness racing industry, rugby, and thoroughbred racing in the south.
Southland Harness has some challenges ahead. What do you see as the main ones?
Naturally stake money but it’s going to be hard to improve on the way things are going. The stakes since I started have probably doubled but the costs have gone up tenfold. The other challenge is to try and keep young people in the game.The price of land makes it difficult.
Can Southland Harness racing survive in it’s current form?
I think it’ll battle. It’s a hard thing to say but I think the cost structure is going to beat us. I think the biggest thing is the number of tracks we’ve got down here.
What needs to change?
I can’t see how we can justify having four tracks for a province of our size. That comes back to parochialism. Some people are very hard to shift in their ways.That goes back to the 1950s and early ’60s when they tried to buy a property at Longbush. That was going to be established as a centre for Southland racing. Two or three clubs wouldn’t agree and it fell over. Bert Crooks ended up owning it.
What’s the best horse you’ve trained?
King Alba. He won as a two year old and was a good three year old. We sold him as a three year old and he went on to win eleven races. He was placed in the Australian and Queensland Derby. He was bred by a farmer at Waikaka where I was working at the time. He was offered to me as a foal so I weaned him and broke him in and carried on from there.
How did his sale come about?
National Bloodstock had started off at the time. They had formed syndicates and were looking for horses and they approached me about him. Eventually it fell into place. We didn’t get $100,000 but it was getting up around there. That tells you something else about our industry. The selling side hasn’t improved a hell of a lot over time either.
What do you consider to be the standardbred you’ve seen?
Cardigan Bay and Young Quinn.
Of the horses you’ve trained which one stands out as perhaps not reaching it’s potential?
Educate. He looked very smart as a three year old. We brought him back as a four year old and he got a bowel infection. For some reason the vet thought he had an allergy to penicillin. He didn’t treat him with penicillin for a start and it got quite serious. I don’t think we saw the best of him after that. I owned him with Jeffrey Gardiner who was related in some way to Freeman Holmes. Freeman send him down to us as an early three year old. They were having trouble controlling him up there.
In your time in the industry who would you consider to be the best driver?
I saw Maurice Holmes at the end of his career and Peter Wolfenden but at the end of the day I don’t think you can go past Dexter (Dunn).
Did you ever buy as an agent for the American or Australian market?
Through selling King Alba I developed quite a good relationship with Richard Tong in the North Island. He bought horses for Bob and the late Vinny Knight so I sourced horses for them. Probably the best was Maestro which went on to win the Interdominions.
Note: Maestro renamed Our Maestro won 27 races from just 37 starts. He earned $576,692. His major wins were in the 1988 Miracle Mile and 1988 Interdominion Final.
You’ve heard plenty of racecallers – do you have a favourite?
I thought the late George Haywood did a pretty good job. I had a big regard for Tony Lee and of course our own Davie McDonald.
Who was the best Southland driver you’ve seen?
Ken Balloch and Henry Skinner who could both mix it with the Canterbury guys. I thought Robert Camerson was also pretty sharp.
Your best season was in 1992 when you trained 15 winners from 55 starters. Who were the good horses in your team that year?
I had Educate that year.I was given Rarity for a while to train and I won three races with her. Jay Cee’s Fella won a couple that season.
Note: Educate was by Vance Hanover and closely related to Noodlum and Olga Korbet. He won four of his three starts for McRae as a three year old. He won just one race at four. He was exported to Australia where he won a further 18 minor races. Rarity raced for McRae as a three year old winning three races and running second once in five starts.
You’ve had a close relationship with driver Robin Swain. How did that come about?
He drove horses for me for the first time 25-30 years ago at the workouts. I found him approachable and helpful. I thought he was an under rated horseman. Like all junior drivers he became popular. Once he lost his junior status he when out of favour. At that point he was easy to get hold of and I thought he was driving better at that point than he was as a junior.
Over the years harness racing has evolved. What do you feel has been the biggest development?
It’s the breed of the horse now.The standardbred has got a lot finer and a lot faster. The tracks have improved – just take a look at Forbury. Back in the ’70s you could qualify in 3-12 (2400 metres) and think you were quite smart. Now you don’t take them (to qualify) unless you can go 10 seconds quicker than that.
Have you renewed your licence?
No. I’ll probably wander out to Spreydon Lodge and give a hand out there.
Are you taking any horses to Canterbury?
Only two. Both rising two year olds.
What do you think you’ll miss most about the industry here in the south?
The company and the people we know. I’ll probably miss the ‘bomb shelter’ as we call it (bar in the South Stand at Ascot Park).
You were brought up around thoroughbreds. What was the best race your ever saw?
Princess Mellay and Trelay in the New Zealand Cup. We also saw Eiffel Tower and Summer Magic in the Invercargill Gold Cup.
Eiffel Tower. He was so versatile.
I saw all the Skelton boys riding. Probably Johnny Dowling was the most impressive. He was very strong and vigorous.
How do you see thoroughbred racing in Southland?
It’s probably in a worse situation than harness racing. We’ve lost our pool of broodmares. Back in the ’60s we had our good breed and people like Bill Hazlett. Every farmer had a galloper. We are really living off castoffs from the North Island at the moment.
You also had a successful career as a rugby player. Who did you play for?
Early on I played senior rugby for Taumarunui as an 18 year old. When I came south I played for Marist, Edendale, half a season for Celtic in Timaru, Marist again and ended up playing for Otautau. I also got into the South Island team, made a couple of All Black trials and played for the Junior All Blacks.
Can you see Southland rugby returning to the top division?
I think we’re on the back foot. I was sad to hear that Brad Mooar (current Southland coach) was leaving. I thought he was on the right track and doing not a bad job. His recruiting looks good so I won’t be surprised if we can come back.
Did you ever coach?
Not a lot. I don’t like coaching but got bullied into it a couple of times. I coached Waikaka for a couple of years and I was also involved with the Eastern sub union a bit.
Best Southland rugby player you’ve played with or seen?
Steven Pokere was the best I saw. I played with Ken Stewart and Leicester Rutledge and they were pretty handy. I thought Lin Booth was a very under-rated centre or wing.
Favourite rugby moment?
Some of the after match functions. Winning the senior competition in Taumarunui in my first year as a senior and winning the competition in my last year playing for Otautau in their centennial year. Also playing in the North versus South matches when I was only 21. They were big back then. I think I was the only forward in both packs that wasn’t an All Black so that was quite a moment.
You’ve played mostly at hooker in your rugby career. Who would you rate as the best props that you got to play with?
Jack Hazlett would take the top rating and I had a lot of time for Ivan Gutsell.
This may surprise you. Vince Nally. He was the captain when I first played for Marist. He did it the hard way. If you weren’t doing it he wasn’t afraid to grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you up the paddock with the ball under your arm. He lead from the front and worked hard at his own game. He had to force his way into the Southland team that had beaten the Lions and he managed to do it.
Which two teams will be in the Rugby World Cup?
The All Blacks and England.
Who will be the next Southland All Black?
What other sports do you enjoy?
Cricket when I was younger. Played a bit at senior level but wasn’t good enough at the end of the day. I also played a bit of squash.
You’ve been a stock agent for most of your life. Who did you start with?
I started with National Mortgage and then went to Southland Farmers Co-op. They were a good firm. I then ended up working in the freezing industry side of it starting up with Waitaki in 1980. The last 35 years have been with Alliance. You have your ups and downs but you meet a lot of people. It’s been really enjoyable.