Branxholme Blackie

Branxholme Blackie

Bruce Stewart

7th May 2020

In the last few seasons thirty nine year old Branxholme trainer Alister Black has fashioned an excellent strike rate in the Southern Harness scene.

Last season he was the fourth best national UDR rated trainer of the season for trainers with ten wins or more. His 0.3889 was only bettered by Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen, Mitchell Kerr and Barry Purdon.

As part of that season Black also experienced a golden run at premier meetings at Addington. He won the last race on May 10th with Vintage Cheddar, then the following Friday won the first race with Get Lucky and the second race with Vintage Cheddar.

“That night was magical really,” he said.

Alister Black is a born and bred Southlander with plenty of harness racing in his genes.

One of his grandfathers, Arthur Smaill trained at Heriot and geared up twelve winners between 1963 and 1979, with his first, being Dark Shadow at Invercargill in February 1963. Others winners for Smaill included Dark Sun (Garrison Hanover) 3 wins, and Joy which also won three.

Note: Dark Shadow was a half-brother to Lucky Chance – the same family Diane Cournane is still breeding from through Breath Of Life.

Alister’s other grandfather was George Black.

George owned quality trotting mare Sure Mart trained by Henry Skinner. She started racing as a three year old and progressed to open class, winning twelve races. She hit peak form late in her career and as a nine year old won six races and at ten won the 1980 New Zealand Trotting FFA and 1980 New Zealand National Trot. She also ran third in the 1980 New Zealand Trotting Championship at Addington.

She raced in one of the golden eras of trotting with horses like Scotch Tar, Stormy Morn, Framalda, Special Pride, Even Speed and No Response.

As a broodmare Sure Mart left Cilla’s Pride which George trained to win six races, Cilla’s Son won five for Ali Malcolmson, and George’s Wish won three for Owen Crooks.

Once George had finished training, his daughter Dorothy who part-owned Sure Mart, took over the red and white racing colours and her husband Tony O’Brien used them in the 1990s when he trained for seven seasons.

O’Brien trained three winners (all out of Cilla’s Pride); Dorothy’s Choice (Yankee Jolter), Cilla Elite (Armbro Invasion) and Cilla’s Whiz (Gee Whiz II).

During this time Alister attended James Hargest High School.

“School wasn’t the place for me unfortunately,” he said.  When he could, he helped out round the O’Brien stables where his interest in harness racing was spurred.

So as soon as he could Alister left school.

“My first job was at Kirk’s (Larsen), then I went to the North Island and worked for Doug Gale at Helensville for twelve months. I came home and worked at Jaccka Lodge for a short time and then went to Alan Paisley’s.”

Black started driving at the trials in 1999 and he obtained his junior drivers licence in 2002. He drove for six seasons as a junior, winning 48 races. His first winner as a driver was on the OK Bye mare Shoshoni Sunrise at Ascot Park in September 2001.

“She was a bit of a trick really. She wasn’t very good from the stand. The only time I got her away from a stand was in the Roxburgh Cup (which she won). She used to pull in the warm up but had a lot of high speed. She wasn’t very brave but very good saved for one run. As a junior I did okay, but I wasn’t top of the tree, I’ll give you the tip.”

As a broodmare Shoshoni Sunrise’s first foal was Washakie which won thirty two races, including eight Group One races, and he banked over one million dollars in stakes.

His biggest win was the $200,000 Queensland Pacing Championship. He won the Group One MH Treuer Memorial five times (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013).

Washakie

In his driving career Black has driven sixty one winners with Alan Paisley providing twenty one of those.

In 2003 he meet Sheree Hamilton who also has plenty of harness racing in her genes. Her father Peter Hamilton is the eldest son of Ron (88) and Maureen Hamilton (86). Ron trained for many years in Southland. Sheree’s mother is Marcia Legat, daughter of Craig and Wilma Legat. Craig was a stud master and trainer in Southland with his best horse being Gaines Minbar gelding Shapiro which won four races.

Ron Hamilton trained 61 winners over a long career, including cup class pacer Trevira a son of Vonnell. Vonnell became an excellent source of winners for the Hamilton family, leaving Trevira (16 wins), Trilobel (9), Tokorangi (8), Tricotine (4) and Lirelle (4).

Easter Cup winner Trevira with driver Gavan Hamilton

Alister and Sheree were married in 2006 and have two children, McKenzie who’s twenty, is in her second years as a nursing student at SIT and Riley who’s twelve and attends Southland Boys High School.

“He’s a lot better at school than I was so that’s a good start,” laughed Alister. ‘He’d love to be a race commentator. He’s filled in at the Winton Workouts a couple of times. On race days he’s always up in the box with Davey (commentator Dave McDonald,” added Sheree.

Sheree Black at the head of Vintage Cheddar with son Riley

The Blacks now live in Makarewa and while Alister looks after the horses full time, Sheree works at Vet South, and prior to that at the Café at Southland Hospital.

“It was good. I used to start work at 5:30am and get home at two. Alister used to go to work at three. We didn’t see each other for about eight years,” (laughter).

Black took out his training licence in 2005 and was able to wear his grandfather’s colours which he’d inherited from his Auntie Dorothy. He trained a small team at that point, as he was working at the Makarewa Vension Plant. He continued to work there for eight seasons.

In 2010 he was offered a training position with Ian and Lindsay Thomson. The Thomsons had sold their sheep farm at the peak of the dairy boom when land prices were at their highest and they bought a 107 acre property at Branxholme where they set up a track and training facilities.

Alister’s first winner from the property was Rome which won at Forbury Park in 2010.

“It was a horrible night. There was flooding at the Taieri from memory. Ian and I took him up in the truck. He sat parked and got the job done for the Sinnamons. I was driving him at the time and they sent him down for me to train. That was a pretty special night really.”

His first winner as a trainer/driver was Bolton Earl at Gore in December 2011, which Black part owned with Peter Duggan.

“It was a cheap Tuesday and a very poor field. I think there were only about four of us left in after the first 100 metres.”

Since then there’s been steady stream of winners.

To date, Black has trained 68 winners, 58 of which have been owned or part owned by Ian and Lindsay Thomson.

“Two of the greatest gentlemen you’d ever meet. We’re very lucky to have them in this industry. To be fair I wouldn’t be in the game if it wasn’t for them. They’re really like family to Sheree, McKenzie, Riley and I. It’s unbelievable what they’ve done for us and the game.”

Alister Black and Lindsay and Ian Thomson

Black is employed by the brothers but is still able to train a small number of outside horses.

“I’m allowed two or three of my own. I’ve got a small group of owners and a syndicate.”

The Thomsons are very much hands on at the stable.

“They do ninety percent of the work. Craig Milne and Paul McIntyre come and help as well.”

Craig Milne and Alister Black working horses at Branxholme

His first winner on the big stage at Addington came in March 2013 with two year old trotter Successful Way. But the talented young trotter never reached his full potential as he was beset with problems and he only started another twelve times in his career.

Successful Way

“He had a bad wind complaint. At the time they couldn’t operate on it. He was only getting about fifty percent oxygen.”

Abraham Jones was another trotter Black didn’t see the best of. He recorded two wins and a handful of placings from just twelve starts as a four year old.

“That was a hard pill to swallow. A virus went through the stable. We turned them all out and he had a paddock accident. We tried for two years to get him back.”

During this time the Thomsons started to invest in good stock and the winners came through more regularly.

The stable’s biggest winner to date has been Get Lucky which won last season’s Listed Sales Series Three Year Old Final at Addington.

“It was a heartbreak the year before when he ran off the track. To come back at three and win it was very good.”

Get Lucky

Black does all his own shoeing.

“I do ninety percent of it but Timmy White looks after Get Lucky.”

He says he’s learned most of the tricks of the trade by trial and error.

“Back when I was at Paisleys I used to shoe the joggers and Johnny Tressider used to have a look and tell me what I was doing wrong. The rest I’ve just studied and I’ve also read the odd book.”

Black doesn’t drive much at the races these days. The regular stable driver is Oamaru based Brad Williamson who started driving for Black in 2015. His first winner for the stable was Ossessione at Gore.

Brad Williamson’s first win for Alister Black – Ossessione at Gore

“Allan Beck was doing a lot of our driving but he was committing to Des Baynes and it was hard to get him. Ian and Lindsay are fans of having one stable driver. They don’t like chopping and changing so that’s when it all started.”

Williamson has driven thirty six winners for Black.

“It’s been great. He’s always positive. One of my pet hates is getting fifth and being unlucky. Brad is quite an aggressive driver which is great but he can also give them a trip.”

Although Kilowatt Kid has been sold, Black still has a strong team going through their preparation for the new season.

Four year old Get Lucky is the stables leading man when it comes to trotters. He only started twice this season for a third and a seventh at Addington. As a three year old he won four races including the Listed Sales Series Three Year Old Trotters Final at Addington.

“He was having a couple of health issues. We were just starting to get on top of them and the lockdown happened. He was going the best he’d gone in twelve months. He’s had five weeks off, he’s back in now, done a week’s jogging and we’re getting him ready for Hannon Memorial Day at Oamaru.”

Vintage Cheddar is the highest assessed horse (R93) he has in the stable and he’s the winners of eight races including this seasons Wairio Cup.

Vintage Cheddar winning the Wairio Cup

“He’s looking massive. I reckon he’s put on another forty kilos. I’m very excited about what’s coming up. Our main goal this year is the New Zealand Cup. I’d be rapt to have a runner there and what will be will be.”

Vintage Cheddar

Lawrence won three races this season – twice at Ascot Park and once at Winton and Black expects him to go well in the new season.

Black is very pleased with Lawrence’s progress, being very consistent. He’s pleased he’s had a lot of seconds as the then doesn’t go up in the ratings. “In the Country Cups grade down here I reckon if they can handle that grade for twelve months and come back, you’re a lot tougher and better able to handle it. He’ll do a nice job this year.”

Lawrence

Ian and Lindsay Thomson have also become regular buyers at the yearling sales and in the last three years Black has joined them on the buyer’s bench.

“The brothers pick out what they like. I pick out a few and we go round and have a look at them. They’ve got to have a pedigree. I’m big on pedigree and conformation. The Standardbred now is going so much faster.”

In 2019 the brothers purchased three yearlings, Ohoka Agent, Keep On Dreaming and Inclusive.

Of Ohoka Agent Black says “I don’t mind him. He just might take a little bit of time.”

He states Keep On Dreaming is quite a nuggetty Bettor’s Delight colt, that has a bit of gas.

Inclusive is a half-brother to Get Lucky and was purchased for $42,000.

“He’s just bowling around. He’s very big and a wee bit immature. Probably won’t see him until he’s a late three year old.”

Black says horses to follow in the new season are Vintage Cheddar, Keep On Dreaming and Don’t Ask. Don’t Ask is a rising three year old trotting filly by Father Patrick out of CR Commando mare Star Commando.

“She goes nice. From when I broke her in as a yearling I said to Lindsay that I wouldn’t mind a stable full of these (Father Patricks). She’s just so natural.”

There’s clearly plenty of horse power in the Black stable, preparing for the new season.

CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY ON LINDSAY AND IAN THOMSON