One of racing’s elite broodmares of yesteryear is being inducted into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame next month.
Sunbride will join fellow iconic broodmares Eulogy and Eight Carat when she is honoured on May 2.
The name Sunbride will forever be connected to the Williams family’s Te Parae and Little Avondale Studs, but in particular with family matriarch Nancy Williams. It was she who made the landmark decision to purchase the young English-bred mare and then place her undying faith in her as Sunbride forged her place in thoroughbred breeding history.
Nancy Williams was made of stern stuff, growing up as Nancy Teschemaker on the family station in Marlborough, at the top of the South Island, and together with her horses and dogs, gaining renown as a high country musterer. Her life changed forever when she met a young Wairarapa farmer from a similar background, Alister Williams, and together they were to establish one of New Zealand’s most significant thoroughbred breeding operations that is now the country’s oldest family-owned stud.
However, that evolution was not straightforward, as the couple’s sons Tom and Richie (better known as Buzz) would attest in their retelling of a fascinating story.
“At the time my parents were married in 1938, mother said she would bring her dogs and her horses with her, but father told her the dogs would be useful but forget about the horses,” Buzz said.
Two of those horses were thoroughbred broodmares, one that had been gifted and the other costing £5, and no way was Nancy crossing Cook Strait to her new life without them. Having made that concession, Alister Williams realised that the breeding of horses at Te Parae Station could well be a worthwhile addition to other farming operations.
Thus Te Parae Stud was established in thoroughbred breeding, selling their first yearling for 120 guineas at the National Yearling Sale at Trentham racecourse. Nancy was the driving force, while her husband quickly adapted his understanding of sheep and cattle bloodlines to the thoroughbred.
Alister’s approach included organising a meeting of breeders in Wellington that led to the establishment in 1948 of the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association. Canterbury-based Australian Ken Austin was the founding president, while Alister and Hawke’s Bay breeder Tom (TC) Lowry were elected as vice-presidents.
By this stage there was real momentum in the thoroughbred arm of the Te Parae operation, leading Nancy to explore investment in other bloodlines. That led to her purchase of Sunbride, who was by Tai Yang, a little regarded son of the 1925 English St Leger winner Solario. Sunbride, who was unplaced in a brief racing career, and several other young English-bred mares had been imported to New Zealand in 1946, but when their owner struck hard times, they were put on the market.
“My understanding is that Wright Stephenson had financed the shipment,” Tom Williams said. “Charles Robertson, head of their stud stock department, made the decision to put the mares up for tender and they were available for inspection at the Trentham sale grounds.”
Nancy took a shine to the medium-sized bay mare known as Sunbride and became her new owner with a successful tender of 1250 guineas.
“She had a great eye for a horse and from what we’ve been told, as soon as she saw this mare over the box door, she made her mind up that she was going to have it,” Buzz said. “She was nothing special on type, so what it was that mother saw in her, I suppose that’s something we’ll never really know.”
Sunbride’s early breeding exploits gave no indication of what was to come, producing fillies to her first five matings and none of them – even one by the champion sire Foxbridge – was of any great account. That led to the suggestion that Sunbride should be moved on, but Nancy was implacable.
“I refuse to entertain any thought of selling Sunbride,” she told her husband. “When I go broke and am evicted from Te Parae, Sunbride and I will walk down the road together.”
To this day that famous statement of loyalty and faith resounds, based on the heights that Sunbride was to reach through her most potent offering – her sons. The first of these was her sixth foal, born in 1952, a colt by Faux Tirage, the emerging stallion at the Lowry family’s Okawa Stud.
Named Straight Draw and trained by Jack Mitchell for Sydney newspaper magnate Ezra Norton, he showed early form with a win at five furlongs (1000m) before coming into his own as a stayer. In 1957-58 he became the first horse to win the Metropolitan Handicap, Melbourne Cup and Sydney Cup in the same season.
Norton also intended to buy Sunbride’s 1955 colt, by Te Parae foundation sire Sabaean, but the sale fell through when he failed to pass a veterinary examination.
“He had a back problem of some sort which made him step short a bit on one side, so my mother retained him and leased him to Dad for the nominal sum of one shilling (10 cents) a year,” Tom said.
“That was Ilumquh, he was given to Eric Ropiha to train and followed very much in the footsteps of Straight Draw as one of the best stayers of his era.”
Ilumquh was a big winner on both sides of the Tasman, the Awapuni Gold Cup his best at home after he had won the 1960 Caulfield Cup and finished an unlucky third to fellow Kiwi stayers Hi Jinx and Howsie in the Centennial Melbourne Cup. He also finished third in the Wellington Cup and three years after that Melbourne Cup third, he finished second to Gatum Gatum in the 1963 Cup.
The combined achievements of Straight Draw and Ilumquh earned the 1961 New Zealand Broodmare of the Year title for their dam, and seven years later Sunbride became a dual title-holder through the deeds of another standout son, General Command, foaled in 1963. He was from the second crop of another resident Te Parae stallion, Agricola, a son of major stamina influence Precipitation and the first New Zealand stallion to be privately syndicated.
General Command was the most prolific of that headline trio of Sunbride progeny, with his 13 wins including the Sydney Cup, Metropolitan Handicap and both the AJC and VRC Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Another by Agricola from Sunbride, High Principle, was unable to win at stakes level but did finish second in the Sydney Cup. Sunbride’s sum total was 13 foals, all of whom raced and all but two of them a winner.
“The things I remember about Sunbride are her lovely head – a classic English look I would describe it – and even though she was only average size, what great foals she produced,” Buzz said. “Every time she foaled they were big foals – gorgeous types and correct.
“As racehorses her daughters weren’t a patch on her sons, the best they did was win one or two races, but the boys certainly made up for it.”
While she might not have endowed her daughters with above average galloping ability, Sunbride’s prowess as a broodmare was a quality that came through in subsequent generations. Her first foal Our Love became the dam of Great Northern St Leger winner and Cox Plate and Great Northern Derby runner-up Terrific, Bridesmaid’s progeny included Sydney stakes winners Gold Pulse and Down The Aisle, Annie Oakley produced the stakes-winner and Brisbane Cup runner-up Chilton and was the second dam of Queensland Oaks winner Triumphal Queen.
Further generations also included two horses that Tom Williams describes as “right up there as the best we ever bred”, the brothers Grand Cidium (Caulfield Guineas) and Dayana (VRC Derby), sons of the best stallion to have stood at Te Parae, Oncidium, from Sunbride’s granddaughter Dicidium.
Sunbride’s legacy includes a special piece of thoroughbred breeding history through her grandson Gold Pulse, another by Oncidium, who became the first six-figure yearling sold at auction in Australasia when offered by Te Parae at the 1974 National Sale.
“There was a lot of talk about the colt leading into that sale,” recalls Buzz. “They were lining up to inspect him and I remember one, Brisbane trainer Fred Best, coming to our boxes and asking to see him. He ran his eye over him as we walked him up and down and then he said the words I’ll never forget: ‘I’ve just seen the perfect horse’.
“I don’t even know if Fred got a bid in, but what I do remember is leading him around the ring, the bidding was going along well but stalled at around $60,000, then it got going again, up to $70,000, then bang, bang, bang! Before you knew it Tommy Smith had come in with the winning bid – $100,000!
“I lost the plot, I was just stunned, standing there shaking when I was meant to be leading this colt that had just broken through a barrier we never expected to see. That was the single most exciting thing I’d ever done in my life.”
But for Nancy Williams and her intuition in selecting the broodmare who would gain fame as Sunbride, a historical chapter in New Zealand thoroughbred breeding would never have been written.
Melbourne Cup-winning mare Let’s Elope is also being inducted into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame.
During the 1991-92 season, Let’s Elope became only the second mare and the eighth all told to complete the Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double.
Trained by Bart Cummings, Let’s Elope also won the 1991 Mackinnon Stakes and 1992 Australian Cup.
An 11-time winner from 26 starts, Let’s Elope earned more than $3 million in prizemoney and was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall Of Fame in 2012.
After retiring from a broodmare career in 2008 – she produced Group Two winners Outback Joe and Ustinov – she took up a nannying role to foals at Seven Creeks and then Lauriston Park.
The induction dinner is on May 2 at SkyCity in Hamilton. The other new inductees are James McDonald, Sir Peter Vela, Mufhasa, Sir James Fletcher, and Starcraft. Live and silent auctions are also being held on the night.