Diane Cournane

Cournane’s Southern All-Stars Horse Hotel

Grove Bush horse lover Diane Cournane and husband Noel operate an ‘all-stars’ hotel for harness racing’s elite in Southland.

Her paying guests have included a list of harness household names including Hands Christian (13 wins $330,824), Smolda (27 wins $1,518,824), King Denny (10 wins $258,794) and includes the sports latest pinup boy Have Faith In Me (14 wins $1,381,274).

Understandably the four year old wasn’t exactly roaring around the paddock as he recovers from a fairly arduous campaign that culminated in a sensational win in the Group One Miracle Mile with an Australasian record of 1-47.5.

“He’s fairly tired but that’s understandable as he’s done a few miles. I’m feeding him 10 kgs of fattening food twice a day with my own brew and there’s plenty of grass here as well,” said “landlady” Diane Cournane.

The diminutive gelding is no stranger to the Grove Bush meadows. He was a boarder after winning at Ashburton in July 2014, when he arrived as a colt and left as a gelding.

In amongst the paying guests Diane still has room for her own band of mares and talented racehorses, including world record holder Fight For Glory (2400 metres mobile 2-50.3).

The large rolling 10 acre paddocks at the Cournane’s Diamond Head Lodge 25 minutes from Invercargill have become the R and R HQ for Australasian’s most successful harness racing stable of Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen.

The horses sent from the All Stars stable are those that require time to mature, time to rest, or a grassy paddock as part of their retirement package – like Hands Christian. He is now a part of the furniture on the farm although when I paid a visit there last week to do this story he was away on loan doing some trekking.

Diane Cournane doesn’t get any instructions from her clients and often not too much warning as to when the next four legged guests are arriving.

“I just get a call from Majestic (horse Float Company) who say ‘horses coming.’ Or sometimes Mark (Purdon) rings and says one is coming down and there’s four on the truck. I always say to him can you not count?” said Diane with her familiar laugh.

But she welcomes all, gives them all the same care and attention and gains great enjoyment out of being the ‘housemaid’ to these horses.

“When you see them win you feel a part of it because you know them.”

Diamond Head Lodge is 150 acre farm which has beef cattle and sheep to help keep the pastures healthy.

Back a few years ago I suspect Noel was running a normal farming operation with a few horses. But the horse business, as it sometimes does, has taken over.

“Diane is the boss so I get the best paddocks,” says the former hairdresser who has recently sold up and retired for the horse hotel business.

Mark Purdon has been sending horses south ever since he started training in Canterbury at his former Yaldhurst Road stables.

“He trained Christiansheritage (Christian Cullen) for me (in 2003) when he moved to Yaldhurst Road in Christchurch. She was the first Christian Cullen to be born. He just said to me one day will you take some horses to spell. We take the ones that stay for three or four months. Owners in Christchurch just have small paddocks whereas here they get out into 10 acre paddocks.”

It’s obviously been a winning formula and without doubt part of the success that Purdon and Rasmussen have enjoyed over the last few years.

The horses come south for a wide range of reasons. The very talented Didjamakem Bolt has been a regular ‘client’, He’s owned by Cournane’s biggest client, Australian Merv Butterworth.

“He’s (Didjamakem Bolt) got bone issues. It’s almost like a baby with chalky bones. Every time they get him up he seems to go. Merv says just send them to horse heaven as he calls it.”

All enjoying the lush grass which is hard to find in Canterbury even in the best season.

“In the winter they get hard fed with lucerne and baleage. Marks leaves it up to me and I just send them back when they’re right.”

Brought up around horses, her father Don McRae senior trained and drove standardbreds working for Bob Townley at Nightcaps and Jim Flynn at Wairio before training in his own right. Diane’s sister Wendy Blakie of Oturehua has bred a host of winners from Princess Della including Kyvalley Mac (12 wins) and Just A Cracker (11 wins).

Diane’s first venture into breeding and racing was with McWay (Knowing Bret – New Way) trained by Doody and Kevin Townley.

From a limited racing career she won two races before she was retired.

One of her first foals was My Name’s Good (Nero’s BB).

“She never raced as she had dreadful feet. She had one workout and won by 16 lengths. Dad trained her.”

My Name’s Good proved to be a real gem at stud providing the Cournanes with their next generation of racing stock. She left Anvil’s Top Gun (Christian Cullen) the winner of seven races, Breath Of Life (Village Jasper) also seven wins, and Make Mine Roses one win.

It was Breath Of Life that provided Cournane with her first quality race mare.

Initially trained by Ben Waldron she won twice for the Ashburton trainer before Mark Purdon took over.

“Mark drove her at the trials one day and rang me and said “Diane, what are you doing with Breath Of Life?” I said she was coming home to be a broodmare. He said that he wanted to take her to Auckland so I said that’s okay but if she doesn’t win you can keep her as a broodmare. So he now says to me “Can I have her as a broodmare?”

She won a further five races for Purdon including a five length win over Kiwi Ingenuity in the 2009 Breeders Stakes at Alexandra Park in Auckland. She was the first mare in New Zealand to break the 2-40.0 mark for 2200 metres mobile. Her winning time of 2-39.8 was also a New Zealand record.

She also provided Mark Purdon with his 1000th training win when she won at Alexandra Park in September 2009 when driven by Jordon Compain.

Breath Of Life along with her half-sister Make Mine Roses (Washington VC) and Nitouche Franco (Soky’s Atom) are the three mares Diane and Noel are breeding from at the moment.

Nitouche Franco has provided the couple with quality racehorses All Star Man, (8 wins) and Whisper Jet (6 wins).

But it has been Breath Of Life that’s been a bit of a revolution at stud.

Her first foal by Art Major recently won the $200,000 Group One NSW Oaks in world record time. She was purchased by Mark Purdon for just $20,000 at the 2013 Sale of the Stars in Christchurch.

“There was a mess up and she was presented in the wrong order. The sale was declared nul and void and she was supposed to go into the sale the next day. I refused and Mark said “She’s mine and she’s not going up (for sale again).” She was one of the few horses Mark has bought without looking at.”

Purdon offered Cournane a share in the filly and the ownership group was completed by Ann Gibb (wife of former galloping trainer Jim Gibb), Dean Illingworth who also shared in the ownership of Breath Of Life, John and Gaylene Tait and Lyn Tucker (wife of Ivan Tucker former galloping trainer).

Fight For Glory was recently retired after winning 14 races and $674,842.

.There is no doubt that Diamond Head Lodge is part of the current success of The All Stars Stable of Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen and that the pasture Noel and Diane Cournane grow coupled with the Southland weather toughens and nurtures both old and young horses.

Diane enjoys being part of this success and finds pleasure in giving horses her individual attention whether they be her own or some of her star boarders.

A royal relationship.