The Kiwi mare who came in from the cold

November 16, 2008

by Neil Clarkson

Rebecca Bates with Decency and her Tanabota filly, Tyra.

Her name was Decency, although that mattered little in the yards of a Brisbane abattoir.

Life's journey, it seemed, was nearly over for the nine-year-old New Zealand-born thoroughbred mare who had journeyed to Australia as a two-year-old.

The slaughterhouse found she was rideable and, in line with policy, she was given a couple of extra days in case anyone wanted to buy her at meat prices.

It was February or March last year, and Rebecca Bates was after a suitable riding horse for a friend. The pair were checking out the horses destined for the slaughter chain.

Rebecca liked the look of the big mare. She was a nice type, quiet and good to ride. It was impossible to miss the massive scar along her near-side belly - testament to a horrific injury at some time in her past.

Her thoroughbred brand was not recognised by Rebecca, but she felt there was a quality about the mare.

"She came home," recalls Rebecca's mother-in-law, Erica Bates, "and said, 'I have seen this mare. I can't get her out of my head. She's a lovely big mare. She is quiet. Branded. I have a feeling she's well-bred'."

Erica says Rebecca has a great eye for horses and when she gets a gut feeling about a horse, it's wise to follow it.

The next day Rebecca returned to Brisbane and bought the horse for $A600 - some $200 more than most slaughterhouse horses because of the amount of meat on her big frame.

"She was two days from slaughter," recalls Erica.

Little did anyone know that Decency would, in the 18 months to follow, become centre-stage in a thoroughbred breeding fairytale that would turn her into one of Australia's most valuable broodmares.

Decency left the abattoir and headed for Woodwinds Farm, in Numinbah, in the Gold Coast hinterland.

Woodwinds Farm is 108 acres in good farming country.

"It's part of the dairy farm my family had from the early 1960s," explains Erica. "We lived on the coast. We had managers here.

"In about 1998 my husband and I decided we wanted to take on the challenge."

They began running it and bought another farm to boost their acreage. However, deregulation and drought convinced them to move away from dairying.

They started a spelling and agistment operation for racehorses but decided to change direction toward breeding, and stood two stallions - Fouardee and Tanabota, the latter sired by Redoute's Choice.

The family decided to call the big brown mare Mary.

"She wasn't in good condition," says Erica. "She was light for her size."

With love and attention, Decency began to put on condition.

It was nothing the Bates family hadn't seen before. "We have saved a lot of horses from dogger's [slaughter] yards and rehomed them as riding horses. There is nothing wrong with these horses. It's not a money-making thing. It's just something we do."

In the meantime, the young woman for whom Decency had been bought as a riding horse decided to opt out and Erica bought her share.

The family began to research her pedigree. The brand led them to New Zealand. They discovered that her name was Decency. She was born in New Zealand in 1997 and the records show she travelled to Queensland as a two-year-old in 1999.

They traced her life in Queensland and even spoke to someone who recalled the day that Decency, running through a gate with a group of horses, snagged her belly and tore it open. The accident had also broken a rib.

The stud book showed that Decency was out of Lover's Knot by Defensive Play. She was even listed as dead. They applied and had her reinstated.

Lover's Knot had a chequered breeding history and did not produce a foal for the four seasons after she was imported from New Zealand. She was unplaced in four starts in New Zealand.

"Nothing really stood out; she was not really a great breeding proposition," Erica says.

Decency was good to ride and they decided a home at a nearby trail-riding property would suit her.

The day before the trail-riding operator was to come and look at Decency she was spooked by a quail which flew up right under her nose. She reared up and tumbled, and was very sore when she clambered back on her feet.

Decency had broken her wither. For several days the mare could not lower her head to graze. Erica had to hold up a bucket to allow her to eat. She lost a lot of condition as she battled back from her serious injury.

The trail-riding career was not to be. "You don't want to leave us, do you," Erica told the mare.

The first year of breeding at Woodwinds farm went well. Then, in August last year, equine influenza struck. Horse movements came to a standstill.

Woodwinds Farm ended up in a vaccination buffer zone and remained under lockdown.

The Bates family made the decision to cover all the mares on their property with their stallions, including Decency. She was put to Tanabota and was found to be in foal after the second service.

The family settled in to ride out the flu outbreak and, like everyone else in Australia, took time out on the first Tuesday in November to watch the 2007 Melbourne Cup.

Efficient stormed home to deliver a very nice surprise for the family. Efficient was out of a Defensive Play mare - the same stallion that sired Decency. They also discovered that another Group 1 winner around the same time, Zarita, with more than $A1 million in stakes to her name, was also from a Defensive Play mare. Zarita would go on to win the Group 1 Oaks and the South Australian Derby in early 2008, and run fourth in the Cox Plate.

"That was great," says Erica, "as it confirmed she had some value as a broodmare."

The Bates family rode out the flu restrictions on their stud farm and late in September this year Decency gave birth to a filly, Tyra. The story could well have ended there. A mare saved from slaughter repays the kindness with a very commercial foal.

But roll on the 2008 Melbourne Cup. Erica's son, Shannon, who is married to Rebecca, was perusing the list of starters for the Great Race.

His eyes widened at the breeding of the Bart Cummings-trained stallion, Viewed.

Viewed was out of Lovers Knot, the same mare that produced Decency. It also turned out that this mare was a direct female descendent of Wuthering Heights, whose family founded a New Zealand racing dynasty.

Shannon, Rebecca and Erica headed for a local country hall to watch the race with other locals, Erica armed with her ticket for a $5-each-way bet on Viewed.

One can only imagine the scene in the hall as Viewed went stride for stride with Bauer down the home straight, taking out the race by a nose.

Erica's ticket returned $239 but the kindness of the Bates family has returned much more.

What is Decency and her foal at foot worth? Erica says one bloodstock agent has suggested the foal could be worth more than $A100,000, and Decency a similar amount as a broodmare.

Much will depend on the development of the foal and getting Decency back in foal, Erica cautions. It appears Decency did not have foals for the three years before she went to the abattoir.

"It is a fairytale story," says Erica. "It is completely and utterly due to the fact we have a daughter-in-law who has a very good eye for a horse, and a great gut instinct."

Erica says Decency will be covered again by Tanabota and they will then explore further options. "She is comfortable here. She knows she is loved; she has not been sent away."

Decency's future has never looked brighter. "She is only 11," says Erica. "She is a fabulous mum, a fabulous mare.

"She is just the nicest mare. A thoroughly decent horse. There is not a bad bone in her body."