Former Hedgehope and Winton trainer Maurice Skinner and wife Val are enjoying retirement and both have fond memories of the industry they’ve been involved with for years.
Maurice, who is now 87, doesn’t get to the races at all these days but it doesn’t stop him from enjoying it on the tele and reminiscing about the good times.
And he’s still getting around with that wicked laugh and the pigeon toes that are too late to be reshod.
His memory isn’t too bad either but sometimes it just needs prompting and Val is very good at that.
Maurice is the oldest of three children of Arthur and Flo Skinner.
He was born in Mataura and brought up in Tuturau and Tisbury where he started school. They moved to Hedgehope in 1936 to a 213 acre farm which was to produce many winners over the years.
Arthur, or Pop as he was known, developed a five furlong track on it and started to train a few horses. As the years went on he became a successful trainer with one of his best being the good trotter Worthy Admiral, which he bought for twenty five pounds. Worthy Admiral ran second in the Rowe Cup twice; in 1957 he was beaten by Tapuwae by a length – driven on that occasion by Roy Purdon – and the following year driven by Doug Grantham, Recruit beat him by a nose.
Arthur Skinner also had some association with Rowe Cup winner Quick Silver. She won seven of her sixty starts mainly for Arthur, but the record books state she was trained by Wally Tatterson when she won the 1954 Rowe Cup.
Pop and Flo brought up three children and both the boys Henry and Maurice became jockeys with Maurice joining the ranks in 1942.
“I became a jockey when I was twelve. I was with Andy McKay who trained three or four horses just past the Riverton racecourse. I served my time. He trained Excellency who was a top three year old,” he said.
McKay trained Excellency during her two and three year old seasons. At two her wins included the 1946 Welcome Stakes at Riccarton and the McLean Stakes at Wingatui.
At three she won the Middle Park Plate at Riccarton over a mile. Later in her career she won the 1949 New Zealand Cup when trained by Fred Ellis.
Maurice also worked for a while for ‘Ripper’ Boyle. And he ended up riding twenty two winners as a jockey.
Brother Henry was riding at the same time and were both attached to the Maurice Corkery Riverton stables until increased weight forced them to switch to the trotting game.
“After four years I also got a bit homesick and wanted to go home,” said Maurice.
During those early years he took a break from racing and did a stint driving Railway buses in Te Anau which is where he met Val whom he married in 1956.
Val’s father Tom (Plato) had begun working in Te Anau in 1929 helping to build the road to Milford Sound. Home for him in those days was a tent and a paillasse stuffed with straw. Val’s mother Evie (nee Lloyd –originally from Stewart Island) joined him in 1935 after they married and home for themselves and their seven children for six months was a tent on the Te Anau lakefront with an open fire, with a camp oven for cooking and only kerosene lamps for light. They later moved into a public works house.
Back to Arthur. He took out a professional licence in 1951 and his first winner was trotter Factotum which scored at the Birchwood Hunt Club’s meeting in 1952.
At that point Maurice took out his professional drivers licence and a horse called Johnny Smith, trained by his father was his first winner at the Gore meeting on Boxing Day 1961. He was by Irish Orator out of Matareri and was 12-13 in the betting. He won by a head and paid seven pounds to win. Maurice drove 4 winners in his first season.
In August 1966 Maurice joined his father in a training partnership and drove most of the team. Arthur also drove for a while before a bad smash at Roxburgh in 1961 unfortunately halted his driving career.
Together the partnership trained 33 winners with Maurice’s first winner in partnership with Arthur being Fort Nelson in October 1966 at Forbury Park.
Maurice Skinner rates him as the best horse he ever drove. Fort Nelson was owned by Drummond farmers Ian Kincaid and Cyril Keen and started his career with a fourth in the 1966 Kindergarten Stakes won by Holy Hal.
Arthur Skinner was quoted back then as saying “He’s a tough young horse that needed to be ironed out.” Maurice agreed. “He was an outlaw to start with. If he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t do it no matter what you tried. He was the best and fastest pacer I trained and drove.”
Skinner recalls that Fort Nelson had to be practically broken in each time he was brought back into work but as a four year old all those traits had disappeared. There was always plenty of buyer interest in Fort Nelson and he was nearly sold when he was two. “There was a discussion about selling him. I think the price was about four thousand pounds,” Val said.
As a three year old he was taken north to Auckland in December 1966. He won on the 24th and repeated the dose three days later. Then four days later he ran second to Governors Frost in the 1966 Great Northern Derby beaten by a head. He then returned to Addington and won on January 2nd – four starts in ten days.
One of Fort Nelson’s other wins was in a heat of the 1968 Interdominions in Auckland. He ran 8th in the final which was won by the Australian pacer First Lee. The field included some of the New Zealand pacing greats such as Holy Hal, Chequer Board and Humphrey.
He also won a heat of the Easter Cup before finishing third to Allakasam and Stewart Hanover in the final. His New Zealand racing career ended in April 1968 at Gore when he ran third behind Humphrey and Stewart Hanover in the Southland Invitation Stakes.
His final tally was eleven wins from his thirty five starts in New Zealand.
After his run at Gore Fort Nelson was sold to an American syndicate headed by New York trainer Eddie Cobb.
“He was the first horse to be sold for $100, 000,” said Maurice.
Records show he was sold for $80,000 with a $20,000 contingency. He went on to race 31 times in America for 7 wins – earning his new owners $139,552.00.
According to Maurice’s son Neville the new owners of Fort Nelson couldn’t get the horse going early on and wanted his dad to head to America to sort things out.
“He got his passport ready but they phoned three or four days before he was due to go and said they’d finally got him going,” Neville said.
Another good horse Maurice was associated with was King Suva which won five races.
“He was owned by Bill Hickey and Allan Duncan from Central Otago. They’d come down to the races, have a few drinks and then went back to Omakau. Those were the days when drink driving wasn’t a problem.”
Another good horse was Fab and his win in the National Handicap in August 1973 was his seventh in eight starts. It graduated him to Cup Class and was a nice birthday present on Maurice’s forty third birthday.
Fab started twice in the New Zealand Cup – both times driven by Skinner. He finished 12th in the 1973 Cup won by Arapaho which beat Globe Bay and Young Quinn and he was 12th the following year in a cup won by Robalan.
Skinner rated Haughty Romeo highly and he was one of the country’s top three year olds. At four he had three wins and four minor placings leading into the Messenger in Auckland. In that race he finished seventh. He had five more starts that season and was put aside to have a splint removed.
Haughty Romeo was raced by Rewa Burns, wife of long time secretary of many Southland clubs Peter Burns. He ultimately won nine races – 8 of those under the guidance of Maurice.
Over the years there were many good horses. Maurice drove Kawarau Gold trained by Frank Oliver and his win in the Kindergarten Stakes was the first for stallion Majestic Chance.
Others included Maori Maiden, Mark Antony, Tetarney for Joe Morgan, Ben Rodden for Graham Hale, Lynsalle, Kawerau Chip and Dream Ahead which was raced by Shelley, Val and Judy. He also drove Spanaway which won five of twenty starts including the 1967 Gore Cup, Dollar Man which won four races and Gaylee which won six.
He also trained Ann’s Globe early in her career. She was owned by Harold Jenkins (father of Ray Jenkins) and was to become the dam of good trotters Globe Pride (8), Golden Blue (9) and Tobago (15)
Another highlight of Maurice’s long career was training Balgove Boy which was his son Neville’s first driving success in October 1978.
Maurice was Southland Trainer of the Year for the 1967-1968 season with 18 winners, eight more than Harry Cox.
He prided himself on getting trotters winning and Brown Maiden a mare bred by the late Colin Baynes, provided Skinner with a great source of square gaiters over the years.
She left Adiantum which won eight races, seven of those for Maurice.
“With Adiantum you couldn’t do anything with him at all. There was this fella Mainland down the road and he told me his father said if a horse didn’t go they used to put a bag over his head so he couldn’t see. That’s how we got him to go.” Neville was riding him on the lead one day with the bag on his head, and I lent over and took the bag off him, well did he buck after that. Poor Nev didn’t stay on for long.
The process amused many visitors to the Hedgehope property.
“Charlie Anderson was down at our place one time. He was the caretaker at Addington. He was working in my garden and Morrie was getting out of the stables with a horse with a bag over it’s head. Charlie couldn’t believe it. They spent hours and hours with that one horse,” said Val.
Another trotter he has fond memories of is Classic Countess. She won five races and became the dam of New Zealand Cup winner Bee Bee Cee (14 wins).
“Those owners were my favourite syndicate. Russell Morton, Kevin Dukes, Ernie Atkin and Peter Grace. They worked at the smelter and were just genuine guys, Southlanders. We won with her at Gore on Boxing Day. It was a wet shitty day and they all arrived at Hedgehope. They had a great night at our place,” said Val.
He also had great success with the progeny of Princess Way. She left Arbitrator (3 wins), Gregory Peter (6), Arlington (3) and Whizz Way (4) which were all trained by Maurice. Her best foal however was Sundon’s Way. Over five seasons on racing he won fifteen races and recorded lifetime earnings of $316,723.
Whizz Way is now owned by Neville and local retired vet Peter Williams. She’s left good trotting winners in Appian Way (6 New Zealand wins), Idid It Myway (14 wins) and Any Old Way (7 wins)
In amongst all the horses Maurice and Val had three children Judy, Shelley and Neville. Shelley now works for McConnell and Dowell in Auckland as a PA. The company manages big construction projects and they’re responsible for the Auckland Tunnel and Frankton bridge projects.
Judy and her husband David run the Night and Day store in Balclutha while Neville works for Corrections at the Invercargill Prison.
Neville and Judy still have an association with Standardbreds. They raced an ill-fated Alley Way which unfortunately died out of the blue. Neville holds his trainers license and Judy is on the committee of the Tuapeka Trotting Club.
In all, Maurice Skinner drove 238 winners, last driving in the 1998 season. His best seasons as a driver were 1980 and 1982 (20 wins in each year) and his last winner was Whizz Way in December 1997.
As a trainer he trained 150 winners (59 trotting) in his own right between 1970 and 2000. The first winner he trained on his own account was Southern Hanover which won at the Northern Southland meeting in November 1969. It was the Van Hanover geldings only win. It’s interesting to note that amongst the beaten lot that day were Kiwi Direct which became the dam of Direct Kiwi (13 wins), Vonnell the dam of Trevira (16 wins), and Trilobal (9 wins).
Over the years Skinner drove against some of the legends of the sport. Locally, names like Robert Cameron, Doug McNaught and Ken Balloch whilst on the national scene he competed regularly against Peter Wolfenden and Jack Smolenski. He rates Maurice Holmes as the best.
“He was a hard case. He’d be sitting inside of you and the next thing he’d push you out. He did it a few times until one day I nearly put him over the running rail. He yelled out hey boy, hey boy. He didn’t do it again.”
Over the years Maurice he was involved in some bad accidents.
Val relates, “He got chucked out at Addington one night driving Gaylee. He landed on the running rail. He was black from his waist to the tip of his toes.”
Maurice decided to retire from driving pacers in December 1992 after his brother Henry was involved in a bad smash at the Riverton Trotting Club meeting at Ascot Park.
Maurice had suffered a serious accident ten years earlier also at the Riverton meeting when Paul Revere fell. He ended up with three cracked vertebrae, a broken collar bone and serious rib damage. He was side-lined for two months. Ironically the race was the IR Kincaid Memorial. Ian Kincaid had been one of the owners of Fort Nelson.
“They kept him in (hospital) overnight. He came home the next day and he could hardly walk. They rang me up a week later to say ‘I hope Mr Skinner is resting because we’ve relooked at his x-rays and he’s got three cracked vertebrae,” said Val.
Many young horseman went through the Skinner stable over the years including close friend Owen Cameron.
“He’s still like our second son. He was there for seven years, coming straight from High School,” said Val.
Cameron’s first winner was the Les Norman trained Valiant Prince which was owned by his father. Second that day was Smithfield driven by his boss (Skinner).
Brendon McLellan was another who learned the trade from Skinner.
“He came from school as well. Snow was great but by God you couldn’t get him out of bed in the mornings.”
Others included Ken McFarlane, David Larkins and the Barron brothers who came out at weekends. Not all were perfect students.
“We had one fella who was hopeless. I was talking to Dick Prendergast who said ‘how’s ya staff going.’ And I said I’ve got one there that’s bloody hopeless and Dick said so have I. He said why don’t we swap. We did, and we got the worst one,” said Maurice.
Outside of trotting Skinner enjoyed white baiting and he owned a stand on the Aparima River near Riverton for twenty years.
“We had a lot of fun there. Some of the neighbours were the Mulqueens from Colac Bay and Ritchie Folster.”
Maurice was also a great follower of the Midlands Rugby team and up until recently he looked after the scoreboard and clock at their home ground in Winton just down the road from their home.
Maurice is one of the true characters in the Southern Harness scene, always happy to offer a bit of advice along with a bit of cheek. One of his favourite pastimes is to sit on the swing chair under the back porch, handing out sound advice to Val who still enjoys her garden.