A Curly Story

A Curly Story

Bruce Stewart

Not too many horseman have managed a champion sire, driven a champion mare, sold a millionaire pacer, had a personal request from the Prime Minister, and raced and drove a horse at the same race meeting that ran fifth as a trotter and two races later won as a pacer.

Well Southland harness racing and sporting identity Curly Thomas has, and it was a pleasure to catch up with him recently – by phone of course due to Covid 19 – and hear some of the many stories he had to share.

Graeme (Curly) Thomas was born in Tuatapere in 1939, the son of Bazil and Val Thomas.

“After I was born they took me back to a tent where they lived. Dad was a bushman. Later he got his own contracting business and we lived out by the Invercargill Cemetery on Rockdale Road for most of our lives,” Thomas said.

Although his parents didn’t have any association with horses his grandfather Billy McRae certainly had.

“He was a legend mate. He used to ride horses in the saddle trots. He also trained horses at Dunsdale (near Hedgehope in Southland). They also used to make the Hokonui Whiskey.”

Thomas went to Surrey Park Primary School before heading to Tweedsmuir Intermediate then onto Southland Technical College (Tech).

As an after school job Thomas worked for Jock Purdue where he began his grounding in horsemanship.

“I hated school. I left when I was fourteen. Bill McCaw the All Black was one of my teachers.”

In those days Thomas said he was never far from trouble. “I had the welfare and the Police after me for not going to school so I went out to Bob Lawrence’s Mataura Island stud farm for a year. I learnt more up there than at any time in my life.”

Lawrence’s stud stood Italian trotting stallion Baffelan. His best daughter was Lady Baffelan which won four trotting races. She was the beginning of a family that Peter Van Der Looy had great success with, from horses like Thurber Command (7 wins), Smarty Pants (10) Sherlock and Kincaid (6) and later Vanderal (14). (Brent Shirley also had success with this family through his broodmare Satire Franco).

“Before me (at Lawrence’s) guys like Les Norman and Robert Cameron were there. So I had to try and fill some bloody big boots.  The biggest lesson I learned there was to keep my mouth shut.”

After working at Mataura Island for a year Curly headed to the Makarewa Freezing Works, although he still kept his hand in, working with Gil Shirley in the mornings before work and for him full-time in the off season.

“My first job at the Works was in the gut room. Then I went up to the chain when I was sixteen and worked there for the rest of the time.”

The Makarewa Freezing Works

In those days you were paid in cash and Thomas vividly remembers nearly losing his first pay (12 pounds) in a coin game of Two Up.

Editor’s note: Two-up is a traditional Australian gambling game, involving a designated “spinner” throwing two coins or pennies into the air. Players bet on whether the coins will fall with both heads up, both tails up, or with one coin a head and one a tail (known as “Ewan”). The game was traditionally played with pennies.

“We lived in the huts which we called China Town. Luckily I lived with two mates that I went to school with, Freddie and Jimmy Harris. On the last day (of the week) we were waiting for the bus so we went round to play Two Up. I’d never played it before. Anyway I got down to two pounds then got back up to ten. That was it. I put the bloody ten pound in my pocket and never played ***** Two Up again. They used to play for thousands of pounds in those days.”

Strikes were also a regular occurrence in those days and Thomas was Union Delegate at Makarewa. He remembers one day getting a phone call from Blue Kennedy the Secretary of the NZ Meat Workers Union.

“He said ‘I’ve got a fella that wants to talk to you.’ The fella came on the phone and said its Norm here. I said who? He said, ‘Norm Kirk. He said Mr Thomas, its election year and I think you might be hurting us a bit by being on strike all the time. Do you think you can get back to work?’ I said “Sir, we’ll get back to work tomorrow.” He said ‘What?’ “He didn’t believe me.”

Thomas then called a meeting but the rank and file weren’t convinced.

“I said we’ve been asked by the big fella from up above to go back to work. They thought I was bull****ing them and they wouldn’t go back. So I had to call another meeting and say “listen, the big boss is Norm Kirk and we go back to ******* work. The only guys that voted against going back were four old communist guys.”

Curly is very much indebted to the help he received while at the works.

“Gordon Sutherland was a boardwalker. He was an eighth army man, Teddy Hayes from Riverton and Jack Martin. Jack taught me everything about the Union. He was a brilliant man.”

Throughout the early part of his life Thomas also had an interest in boxing.

“I wasn’t that bloody good but I was lucky. I was strong and I could knock them over with one punch.”

He was trained by Walter “Chow” Murdoch and for a time was ‘King of the Ring’ at Makarewa.

“That’s when you took all comers in the boxing ring.”

Follow horse trainer Jack Lynch was also in the local boxing ranks in those days.

“He was alright but I knocked him out. I knocked most of them out except Bill Kini and another fella from Wellington.”

Thomas was also recently reminded of another boxer he crossed paths with.

“My brother-in-law wanted to know if I ever fought a guy called Sugar Bristow. John (brother-in-law) said Sugar Bristow was the most feared man in boxing in Vietnam. He was at the freezing works when I was there as well and I fought him at the Civic Theatre and knocked him out.”

He also remembers winning a Southland Boxing Championship.

“Gil (Shirley) was coaching me then. We went along as spectators and he talked me into it when I got there. I ended up winning the title but spent the night in hospital.”

He also did a bit of wrestling, helping out local wrestler Warren Hubber.

“I used to train with Warren before he won a medal at the Commonwealth Games. He had no one else to train with so he got me in.”

A big part of Curly’s early life also revolved around rugby. At that time the province was very competitive and featured a number of All Blacks. Curly was a front row prop and was part of a very formidable Pirates forward pack which included Greg Spencer. Curly started playing senior rugby when he was sixteen, initially playing at lock.

“Nelson Gutsell (Blues Club) was around in those days but the best guy I propped against was Hughie O’Neil. He played 100 games for Marist and played for Southland as well. He was a man’s man and he was the best.”

It was during that time that local radio station 4ZA rugby commentator Ollie Henderson called Thomas Chop Chop, a name that derived from his method of dealing with his front row opposition that he may not have been getting on that well with.

“One day he came out (in his commentary) and said there goes old chop chop, one, two three. After that everyone in Southland gave be ***holes. The next time I saw Ollie I said “Listen you rotten ******* my name is Graeme. Call me that or nothing. From then on he always called me Graeme when he was on the radio.”

And playing for the Invercargill Town sub union team, Thomas always got a great thrill in beating the highly rated Eastern side.

“They could beat everybody else but they couldn’t beat us. They had about ten Southland players in their team like Watson, and Robin Archer.”

He also remembers playing rugby against the Invercargill Borstal teams.

“Everyone was sacred to play them. When I was fourteen an old school mate Rex McDonald and I used to go down there every Saturday after we played our game and play against them. In those early days we weren’t frightened of nobody.” Thomas had a soft spot for the detainees and later Ascot Stud provided casual work for those who were allowed to take on outside work.

Thomas was part of the Southland Trotting Rugby 15 that annually played against the Southland jockeys.

The team included; Back row: Gil Shirley, Don McRae senior, Ray Todd, Dave Fairweather, Curly Thomas, Peter Rosewarn (Blacksmith) Jackie McIntyre, Owen Crooks, Front Row: Brian Pankhurst, Cliff Irvine, (Unknown), Henry Skinner, Stan Hamlin, Frank Sheridan, Doug McNaught and Andy Laidlaw.

The trading years:

Through the 1970s and 1980s Thomas was very involved with selling hundreds of horses to America and Australia.

Perhaps the most notable pacer he sold was Miracle Mile winner Sokyola which he sold to Lance Justice for $50,000. Sokyola went on to win seventy eight races and $1,890,990.

Sokyola and Lance Justice winning the 2004 Victoria Cup

“I sold the most horses out of New Zealand for three or four years. I sold about three to four hundred thousand dollars’ worth a year. I’d see them go at the races, make sure they were sound and had no tricks. Then I’d get people to come over and trial them if it was for big money. When the Americans came they’d buy a dozen at a time.”

One American he had an association with was Marvin Proven.

“He saw this horse racing and fell in love with it but he wouldn’t buy a horse unless he drove it. He said ‘Curly, (I’ll buy it) even if I drive it on the grass with no hopples on.’

Curly said that the New Zealand trainers worried that the Americans when trialing them, would drive them too hard. He said “I set the thing up. He (Proven) went round the paddock twice, came back and said ‘I’ll buy it.”

Proven famously bought Australian pacer Cocky Raider which beat Lucky Creed in the 1970 Australian Day Cup at Harold Park.

Editor’s note: With three furlongs to run Cocky Raider, which had started off 24 yards was still giving the leaders ten lengths at the bell. His driver let him go and he joined Lucky Creed at the top of the straight. With the crowd raising a frenzied crescendo the two champions went head to head with nobody sure which horse had won. The judge ultimately settled for Cocky Raider by a half a head. That win prevented Lucky Creed from achieving its twenty fifth consecutive win. At the time it was accepted as the most exciting race ever staged at Harold Park (One Hundred Years Of Trotting 1877-1977 – Greg Brown)

Cocky Raider won his first race at Bathurst in November 1967. He won thirty nine races (including a dead heat) from seventy eight starts and was named 1969 Harness Horse of the Year. He was sold to America for $112,000 but he never raced there.

Other well-known trainers Thomas was associated with over the years, were Australians Lance Justice and Trevor Warwick. “They were the best of the best.”

Thomas was also a pioneer when it came to shipping horses overseas.

“We brought a plane into Invercargill airport to ship out 15 horses. The name on the side of the plane was Phar Lap. We did it a couple of times.”

In 1964 Curly and Gil Shirley joined forces and bought 100 acres at Oteramika Road which would become Ascot Stud.

“We bought the 100 acres for twenty thousand pounds and everyone said we were mad, and that we would go broke.”

Ascot Stud in the early days

Ascot Stud later expanded to become 300 acres when Thomas and Shirley were able to buy neighbouring properties.

Surprisingly the first stallion they stood at Ascot Stud was a thoroughbred called Zarabanda.

“He came down by float before we were ready for him and we had to put him in the boxes at Father (Tom) Keys.”

Ascot Stud stood a number of thoroughbred stallions over the years including Talismano, Whistling Willie, Great Western and Persian Hope.

Alex Chisholm and Whistling Willie

Talismano with Curly Thomas and Whistling Willie and Gil Shirley

Whistling Willie was by far the most successful leaving two good horses in Stormy Seas and Judge Obadiah.

Stormy Seas trained in Southland by Ray Pankhurst, won the 1970 Dunedin Guineas and JB Reid Cup. He also raced successfully in Australia when trained by S.B.Brown, and finished 5th in the 1972 Melbourne Cup. (Won by Piping Lane). Stormy Seas was owned by well-known Invercargill Butcher Alex Milne whose butcher shop was located on Elles Road.

Stormy Seas after winning the Cumberland Handicap at Randwick in April 1974. He was ridden by Roy Higgins.

Judge Obadiah won seventeen races including the 1978 Wairio Cup. He also ran third in the 1976 2000 Guineas at Riccarton with only Vice Regal and Silver Lad beating him home.

But it was the standardbred stallions that Ascot Stud had the most success with.

Blue was the first Standardbred stallion to grace the property initially, standing for a fee of 40 guineas. He was the fastest yearling in the world over a mile in 1957, running the distance in 2-9 and 1-5th. He was unbeaten in 6 starts at two and also won the 1958 New Zealand Derby. His best winner was Bobby Blue which won eight races for Gore trainer Keith Barclay.

But it was Adios Butler stallion Majestic Chance that was to have the biggest impact at the stud over the forty three years it operated. Majestic Chance served over 1,300 mares in his time and produced stock that won over two and a half million dollars in New Zealand, and a stack more in Australia and America.

The purchase of the stallion was initiated from a conversation that local Southland Times racing writer Norm Pierce had with Thomas and Shirley.

“I said to him one day “Can we get a son of Adios Butler” who was all the rage in America.”

Majestic Chance was secured in 1969 by Ascot Stud as a four year old, and imported to New Zealand by Dr John Sullivan and Noel Taylor. He was the first son of World Champion Adios Butler to be imported to this country.

He was bred by Eddie Cobb and was held in high regard as a two year old by the New York trainer. However he didn’t make the race track due to a chest injury inflicted by the shaft of a sulky.

Majestic Chance

Owned by Curly and Gil’s wives Anne and Vera, Majestic Chance was very well marketed in the province early on, with full page advertisements taken out on the Southland Times racing pages as well as stud lift outs, and he served 100 mares in each of his first two seasons.

Gil and Vera Shirley and Anne and Curly Thomas

Majestic Chance stood initially for just $150 and it wasn’t long before his progeny started to show up.

His first winner was Kawarau Gold which won the 1973 Kindergarten Stakes at his first start.

Majestic Chance proved early on that he could leave precocious juveniles and he crafted an outstanding record in the Kindergarten, leaving other winners of the time honoured race including Parlez Vous (1974), Mel’s Boy (1981) and Bionic Chance (1986).

Those early winners was just the beginning with Majestic Chance leaving good colts and fillies and two New Zealand Cup winners in Lunar Chance and Bonnie’s Chance.

Thomas says over the years Majestic Chance was a pleasure to deal with.

“I said to some of those buggers in Gore that he was so quiet I could get inside his back legs. Old George Orr still has me on about it to this day.”

At the end of his career he also stood for a season at Vance Lodge before he came back home to retire. He died in May 1998 and was buried on the property facing towards the city.

As a stallion he fashioned an outstanding record.

Majestic Chance – the stats

  • In his first season at stud he served 103 mares which produced 71 live foals.
  • In total he served 1,355 mares producing 929 live foals.
  • He produced 7,414 starters that won 624 wins for stakes of $2,769,138.
  • In the 1981 – 1982 season he became the fourth Southland based stallion to head the New Zealand Sires list following Dillion Hall, Hal Tyrax and Young Charles. He was named 1982 Sire of the Year. In the season he produced thirty eight individual winners which won a total of eighty races and $352,097. Some of his winners that season were Bonnie’s Chance, Conga’s Chance, Mel’s Boy, Peter Foyle, Steve’s Chance and Take Aim.
  • His busiest season was 1975-76 when he served 158 mares leaving 105 live foals.
  • His biggest winners were; Bonnie’s Chance (32), Bionic Chance (18), Emcee (18), Lunar Chance (17), Majestic Charger (13), Jilaire’s Chance (12) and Mel’s Boy (11).
  • His leading winners stakes wise were; Bonnie’s Chance ($355,000), Bionic Chance ($323,630), Emcee ($205,005) and Tartan Clansman ($163,050).
  • His fastest progeny were; Sole Chance (1-55.4), Majestic Charger (1-55.8), Nojestic (1-55.8), Starling (1-55.8), Congo’s Chance (1-56.2) and Bonnie’s Chance (1-56.2).
  • Left four Kindergarten Stakes winners; Kawarau Gold (1973), Parlez Vous (1974), Mel’s Boy (1981) and Bionic Chance (1986).
  • Left two New Zealand Cup winners; Lunar Chance (1975) and Bonnie’s Chance (1982).
  • Dam sire of Prince Rashad (21 wins), Long Fella (11 wins), Microscopic (11 wins), Onedin Pick Pocket (11 wins) and Role Model (10 wins).

“All the old trainers down here had a nice horse when Majestic Chance was around. I was talking to Ross Wilson the other day and he had a horse called Mister Majestic. He won six races and he sold him, and said he never had a mortgage in his life again.”

Other Standardbred stallions Curly and Gil stood at Ascot Stud were Blue, Parlez Vous, Joe Reward, Direct Flight, Good Point, Hi Lo’s Forbes (sire of 1970 New Zealand Cup winner James), Express Direct, Ermis, Nordel Skipper, Peppy Fulla, Honkin Andy (sire of Honkin Vision) Meadow Bret, Paul Evander and Adios Vic in the twilight of his career.

Nordel Skipper was bought to outcross with Majestic Chance mares.

“Gil bought him when he went to America.”

Nordel Skipper had moderate success at stud leaving cup horse Skipper Dale (18 wins) and Viewfield Prince (9 wins and 1-53.9 USA).

Race horses:

Over the years Curly Thomas has been associated with some nice race horses as a driver, trainer and seller.

The first horse he had success with Anak, a gelding by Major Peterson which won six races.

“Old Bob Lawrence gave me a mare called Southern Adonis which he put in foal to Major Peterson for me and the foal was Anak.”

He provided Thomas with his first winning drive at Winton on 30th December 1961.

“I started him in the second race as a trotter (finished 5th) then started him in the fourth race as a pacer, and he won. He was a natural trotter.”

Anak was 8/8 in the betting and beat Throwaway (W.V.Cosgrove) and Kent Lad (D. McNaught). The winning margin was three lengths with Anak paying eight pounds seventeen shillings and six pence. The winning stake was two hundred pounds.

He was then converted into a trotter and went on to win a further five races at Gore, Winton, Forbury Park, Hutt Park and Addington.

“He was a wonderful horse. I was so lucky to get him early on.”

He also remembers racing him on both nights at the Wellington Trotting Club’s meeting at Hutt Park in September 1962.

“On the first night Anak went into a pace and broke. I got him trotting and all of a sudden I heard this voice outside me say ‘I’ll beat you home for a pie and a bottle of drink young fella’. It was Maurice Holmes. He drove Dianthus Girl. ‘I said, ‘You’re on and I trotted away and left him to it.”

Anak ran fourth and Dianthus Girl ran last.

“On the second night this horse came through the tape from the back and it was Dianthus Girl (off 60 yards) and Maurice said to me ‘If you don’t’ win tonight son I’ll boot your bum.’ Gil said to me afterwards that Maurice had a betting syndicate going in those days and they’d all probably be on.”

Anak won, paying six pounds.

Almac was another horse Thomas fondly remembers. By Majestic Chance, he was bred by Alex Milne and had four starts as a two year old in New Zealand before he was sold. He ran third when driven by Eddie Sims in the 1977 Kindergarten Stakes, won by Fancy Matilda. He was then exported to Australia and renamed Black Irish. He went on to win 38 races in a 98 start career winning $272,946.

“I tried to buy him for a fella in West Australia. Eddie Sims ended up buying him off old Alex Milne. He turned out to be a champion.”

In Australia as a sire, Black Irish has left 122 live foals for 44 starters and 22 winners.

Another horse that crossed Thomas’s path was the mighty free-legged pacer Robalan after the horse’s dam Elsinore was gifted to Thomas and Shirley.

“Gil trained Glenda Hanover for the old fella (E.S.Broad) He had too many mares so he gave our wives Elsinore with Robalan at foot.”

After Robalan, Ascot Stud continued to breed from Elsinore and sold a half-brother to Robalan by Majestic Chances (Shawn Adios) for $20,000 – a record price for a yearling.

Majestic Chance with Curly Thomas, Elsinore with Mrs Nola Agnew and Shawn Adios with Gil Shirley.

Curly also trained Live Or Die mare Bonnie Harvest.

“Graeme (son) got her with Jamie Searle. She was buggered but he got her up and won a trotting race and then she was the fastest pacing mare over a mile in a year.”

Bonnie Harvest started racing as a five year old trotter. She won once from thirteen starts in that gait. Thomas won with her at Ascot Park in March 2009.  She’ll be best remembered for her win at Winton in February 2010 when she paced a mile in 1-55.7, a new track record. She won her last start at Ascot Park in February 2012 and is now at stud.

Life Sign gelding Barney Rubble was another horse Thomas trained. He won his first and only start at Ascot Park in May 2012 and was then sold to Lance Justice.

Barney Rubble and Graeme Thomas at Ascot Park

“He’s been worrying me a bit lately. I think I’d like to get him home. We sold him for $80,000 and he’s won over $200,000 ($275,639). I just want to make sure he gets a good home. You know how something runs in your mind sometimes.” Barney Rubble won his first five starts in Australia and is still racing. He’s started 192 times for 36 wins, 17 seconds and 14 thirds.

He’s currently racing in Tasmania in mainly claiming races.

As a trainer Thomas has trained 51 winners with his best to date being Grace O’Malley (7), Bard From Snipping (4), Hurry Curry (4), Bonnie Harvest (4) and Out Of The Red (4). Out Of The Red was his first winner in October 1996.

Grace O’Malley and Peter Hunter

Out Of The Red won eight races and was raced by Curly’s two sisters Vivian and Nola. He’s still alive aged thirty, and is being looked after by Fred Service.

As a driver Curly is perhaps best known for his winning drive on champion mare Bonnie’s Chance when she won her first race at Ascot Park in December 1978.

Bonnie’s Chance with Richard Brosnan

In all he’s driven fifteen winners. His first was Anak at Winton in October 1961, and his last was Quiet Honk at Ascot Park in November 1992.

Curly Thomas and Gil Shirley at Ascot Stud

Curly acknowledges that a number of harness racing people helped him over the years. In particular, Colin Baynes, Steve Lock, Kelvin Franks and Jimmy Bond.

“Colin Baynes gave me a lot of advice and I appreciated that. I’d also like to acknowledge an old mate Jimmy Bond. When I had my knee operation he came and got my horses and looked after them.”

Curly married Anne Killeen in 1966. They have five children Mary-Jane, Graeme, Brendon, Anne- Marie and Donna.

Mary-Jane and Graeme are the only members of the family with an interest in racing. Mary-Jane  races and breeds horses under the Go Ziggy Syndicate and Graeme still helps his father.

Ascot Stud was sold in 2005 to developers Ascot Heights Projects and a large portion of the old 300 acre property now has new houses on it.

But Curly and Anne still own part of the original farm where they’ve built a new house, and have a three furlong track and eight boxes. Curly is currently training two horses including a daughter of Bonnie Harvest which he has a bit of time for.

“I think I may have the best horse I’ve ever had. She’s a three year old filly by American Ideal and she’s got a heart score of 125. I’m very careful with her. She’s been jogging for three months so I’m doing it the old way. I’ve had the hopples on her a couple of times and, I’m frightened to put them back on.”

He’s also breeding from Grace O’Malley which is in foal to Majestic Son.

Now in his early 80s, Curly Thomas says life’s been pretty good to him. He’s enjoyed all of the good people he’s met and is still involved in the industry, albeit on a smaller scale.

“I’ve had a great life and I won the art union when I married my wife,” he said.