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FROM a “horse mad” child to a horse whisperer, Libby Bleakley has spent virtually her whole life learning about thoroughbreds from some of the best in the business. Now she is putting that knowledge to good use at Highden Park, a property she owns with husband Sam, and experiencing some spectacular success at the sales and on the track.
WHAT an incredible last nine months Libby and Sam Bleakley have had. Although their 20ha Highden Park at Palmerston North has a capacity of only 50 horses at the busiest of times, after enjoying earlier successes, they have been going from milestone-to-milestone.
It all began on December 10 at Waipukurau when Cornerstone, by Road to Rock, registered their first win as owners and breeders. Within a matter of hours Beauty Generation, who had been in Highden Park’s draft to the 2014 New Zealand Bloodstock Select Yearling Sale, won the HKJC Hong Kong Mile-Gr.1 at the International Race Day at Sha Tin.
This upward trend gathered further momentum on March 18 when the Nom de Jeu gelding Ping Hai Star, a member of the farm’s 2015 draft, won the HKJC Hong Kong Derby-HK.1. That was followed on July 13 by the announcement that Beauty Generation, who had added the HKJC Stewards’ Cup-Gr.1 on February 25 and Champions Mile-Gr.1 in April 29 to his resume, was Hong Kong Horse of the Year.
In between those racecourse triumphs Libby and Sam’s draft of nine to the New Zealand Bloodstock Premier Yearling Sale at Karaka early this year had yielded $1.9m. A sister to 2016 HK Horse of the Year Werther, by Tavistock from Bagalollies by Zabeel, was bought by Dean Hawthorne Bloodstock for $NZ500,000, while a sister to multiple Gr.1-placed winner Harlow Gold, by Tavistock from Belongs in Lights by Belong to Me, went to N.J. Turnbull for $NZ390,000.
“We knew we had a nice draft of horses but we were blown away by how well they were received,” Libby said. “It was totally unexpected.
“Looking back we think what has been happening during the past few years is the culmination of a lot of hard work. There has been a lot of reputation building and we are finding that people are buying from us year-after-year. We are also finding that people are doing their buying based on statistics and we are sitting on 22.5% of runners to stakes performers, so when we are doing only 10 yearlings every year you know two are going to compete at the top level.”
Importantly, too, there is also an element of horse whisperer in what is taking place on the farm. “We teach the yearlings to be confident, that they are the best and that they can achieve anything. Down the line, when they are racehorses, this plays a huge part in the success they achieve.”
This climb to the heights has all come about from Libby being, as she says, “horse mad” for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always said I was born with the passion for horses, not into the horse game,” said Libby, who grew up in the small town of Martinborough, situated 65km east of the New Zealand capital of Wellington. “We couldn’t afford to have a pony, but there was a horse across the road and I spent countless hours patting him.”
When she was eleven an opening for Libby to become more actively involved arrived after she had written a “horse mad” story while at Martinborough primary. “My teacher said the story was so good I was taken to the principal’s officer to receive a gold star and a pat on the head, as you did then.”
Her mother, Kate Ferguson, being an associate teacher at the school, knew the principal “quite well”. “While we were in the principal’s office he offered to take us to the old Newbury Park at Palmerston North one weekend to have a look.
“That was an invitation I was never going to turn down. I was introduced to Jeff and Jan Linds, who operated the place then, and from that time I was on a bus nearly every Friday after school and during the holidays to help out at Newbury. It was where I cut my teeth in the racing stables with Gary Barlow.
“Gary taught me such a lot about horses and work ethic and you wouldn’t find a harder working person anywhere than him. I was shown pretty quickly the hard work and the toil involved and rather than deterring me it made me hungrier.”
While she rode some track work at Newbury Park Libby found she really enjoyed being in the stables more than she did being in the saddle. “I preferred being on the ground and being eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart with the horse and communicating with them and coming to know them that way. When you were riding them there was a bit of distance between you and the horse because of the gear on them, but it is face-to-face in the stables.”
Libby was so enthusiastic she retained her connection with Newbury right through her secondary schooling at Kuranui College at Greytown in the South Wairarapa region of the north island. On leaving Kuranui she began working for highly respected Levin-based trainer Grant Searle, who the previous year had won the VATC Caulfield Guineas-Gr.1 with the brilliant Our Maizcay.
“I’d had enough of school and had already found what I wanted to do and I knew exactly where I was headed,” she said. “I worked with Grant for about a year-and- a-half before going back to Newbury Park to work with Gary Barlow again.”
After a while Libby felt she needed a break from the horses and that she should expand her horizons, which led to a move across the Tasman to Sydney, where she found employment with Channel 10. “I did public relations and marketing at Channel 10. Being at Channel 10 taught me people skills, it taught me about marketing and presentation, so it was really, really valuable for me, but I found I was missing the horses terribly.”
A few years before Libby returned to New Zealand, as a 20 year-old, in 2001 Massey University, at Palmerston North, had revised its veterinary courses, which she found appealing so she enrolled for equine studies.
“I majored in equine,” she said. “I worked every minute of the night and day, which obviously you have to do, because besides studying you have to pay the bills. Luckily for me I was able to find work with Noel Eales, the master trainer, and I reckon that’s where I learned my best skills, as far as talking and listening to the horse are concerned. Noel is an absolute master and I watched him all the time, drinking in, soaking it up, because I had so much admiration for him and the results he achieved with horses, such as dual Gr.1 winner Tall Poppy, who was there when I was.”
Near the end of her studies another “golden” opportunity opened up when she had an invaluable eight weeks of work experience with the highly respected veterinarian Dr John O’Brien at his Newmarket Lodge at Palmerston North.
“Part of my studies required me to do yearling preparations, which I hadn’t really done apart from a brief time at Newbury,” she said. “I don’t think I knew there was even such a thing as yearling sales.
“I rang Dr O’Brien and asked him if I could do my placement at his farm, which he agreed to. With John being a vet, and specialising in reproduction, I was so fortunate to start with him because I was able to learn absolutely everything from the ground up. During the time I was there, John’s stud manager left and he offered me the position going forward, which I accepted.”
After obtaining her degree Libby started at Newmarket Lodge in a blaze of reflected glory with the first draft of yearlings prepared by her for Dr O’Brien in 2004 including Gallions Reach.
Knocked down to David Archer for $NZ30,000, Gallions Reach, who is by Victory Dance from the Straight Strike (USA) mare Dorinka, went on to record nine wins, featuring a triumphant performance in the AuRC Galaxy Stakes-Gr.1. Over the years since Libby and John have retained a close connection and he has been the farm’s reproductive vet since Highden Park was established.
“We have had a very good relationship for such a long time and together we know how to solve problems and get things done,” she said. “John is a key part of our team.”
Her days at Newmarket Lodge ended towards the end of 2006 when Libby was chosen to undertake the Sunline Scholarship, which is sponsored by New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders. “I felt I had nothing to lose by applying and was successful. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t been for doing the scholarship.”
Initially Libby went to Coolmore at Fethard in County Tipperary in an era when Sadler’s Wells and Montjeu were holding court and High Chaparral was standing his first season.
“It was pretty cool and a real eye-opener. While I was there I did some time in the walk-in unit, which was good because the Coolmore barns are going around the clock.
“I think One Cool Cat had 230 mares when I was there, so you were getting up at 3 am so that the stallion can serve the mare at the peak of her cycle, because you don’t want to be doing it twice when the stallions are so busy. It has become part of what we now do at Highden.”
From Coolmore Libby went to Darley’s Dalham Hall Stud at Newmarket in Suffolk where she gathered further experience in the office doing nominations and marketing. “I helped organise the big Darley Open Day which they have and I’ve never seen anything like it. It is a vast operation where no expense is spared looking after the horses and I really enjoyed my time at Darley. It was a lot of fun.”
Then it was across the Atlantic Ocean to Vinery in Lexington, Kentucky, where she worked in the rehabilitation unit. “I had a couple of yearlings to prepare for them as part of the draft and one of them was a Mr Greeley colt from Sylvester Lady, who sold for $US5.7m, which was quite a highlight. It was amazing to see the money involved and how everything operates at that level.
“It was mind-blowing and sharpened my need for wanting to prepare horses and to feel the buzz that comes from selling. I knew that’s what I wanted to do going forward.”
With her curriculum vitae being continually upgraded, Libby was approached by Wellfield Lodge, which was in the process of establishing a stud at Manawatu, when she arrived back in New Zealand.
“At that stage Wellfield had a small spelling and sales farm and wanted someone with experience to help them do that. When I flew home I had about two days off and then helped them design and set up the stud and get the stallions under way.”
The foundation stallion at Wellfield was the Red Ransom horse Handsome Ransom, who had won the Canberra RC Black Opal Stakes-Gr.3 and he was followed by the four-time Gr.1 winner Alamosa, a son of O’Reilly. They were subsequently joined by Road to Rock, by Encosta de Lago, who had won the AJC George Main Stakes-Gr.1 and Queen Elizabeth Stakes-Gr.1 when in the care of Anthony Cummings.
“I oversaw the day-to-day running of the stud and the general running of the farm as well as making sure the staff were where they needed to be. I also looked after the preparation of the yearling draft and we had some really good results. I was second in charge to Peter Didham, the general manager, in the five years I was there.”
It was during her stay at Wellfield that Libby met Sam while she having a “weekend away” at Taupo, which has been constructed around the vast waters of Lake Taupo in the caldera of the Taupo volcano.
“Sam was a mechanic, who was into fixing racing cars and driving them,” Libby said. “He had hardly heard of the racing industry and hadn’t been to a race meeting. We did a bit of a long distance thing for a while, but the decision was made early on that I couldn’t do the horses in Taupo but he could be a mechanic in Palmerston North, so he moved down here. Sam was thrown in the deep end right away and he has adapted very well, although he still has his racing cars, which is a nice diversion for us away from the horses.”
Libby and Sam were married in February 2010; in the August they bought Highden Park and in September they launched the business. They now have a two year-old daughter named Kendall, who at this stage is showing more interest in her father’s cars than the horses.
“When we started the business we didn’t have a single owner, but with our work ethic we were confident we could be successful. Initially we bought the property as a breeding operation with the thought that as we built-up the facilities we would prepare yearlings.”
Their plans received a vital injection within a week of the purchase when bloodstock agent Adrian Clark rang and arranged for 12 mares owned by Greg Tomlinson’s Nearco Stud to agist on the property.
“The help from Adrian and Nearco has just been the making of the farm,” Libby said. “To start without a single owner and then be able to send one invoice every month, which paid the mortgage, was a huge relief and lifted a great deal of pressure from us. Sam and I will be eternally grateful for their support.
“Alister Murdoch was another client, who rang us in the first couple of weeks and Glenn and Lisa Morton have been with us from early on, as has Tommy Heptinstall. Through Andrew Campbell, who raised Werther, a number of mares were also sent to Highden by Tommy, who heads a syndicate that owns Bagalollies.”
The mare became a resident at the farm and among the foals at Highden Park in 2014 was a sister to Werther. Sold for $NZ300,000 as yearling to Sona Bloodstock, she raced as Milseain and her efforts have featured a third in this year’s WRC New Zealand Oaks-Gr.1, which proved the Bleakleys were heading in the right direction.
Not offered at the sales, Werther won four races and had two Gr.1 placings before being sold to a patron of Hong Kong trainer John Moore where he had victories at the elite level in the HKJC QE II Cup, Hong Kong Gold Cup, Champion & Chaters Cup and Hong Kong Derby, which earned the Horse of the Year title.
“With Werther being Hong Kong Horse of the Year, Bagalollies was New Zealand Broodmare of the Year for 2015-16,” Libby said. “She is really lovely to work with and to have around the place. With the yearlings we’ve been preparing being so well accepted we now have all the horses we’ve wanted on the farm, which has been reassuring.”
Werther was on his winning way when Beauty Generation, who is from Stylish Bel, by Bel Esprit, was sold for $NZ60,000 on behalf of Nearco out of Highden Park’s draft to the NZB Select Yearling sale. After racing successfully in Australia he was sold to another of John Moore’s owners. A year after Beauty Generation went through the ring Highden Park’s draft included a colt by Nom de Jeu from the Encosta de Lago mare Vicky, who was passed in for $40,000 before being exported to Hong Kong where racing as Ping Hai Star he won the Derby.
As a result of all these successes the dynamics of Highden Park have begun to change. In more recent times Libby and Sam have restricted the business to established clients and have found that the quality of bloodstock they are handling has improved “phenomenally”.
“With the yearlings we have been preparing we have found, over the past three of four years that we’ve had all the horses we’ve wanted on the farm, which has been nice,” Libby said. “It has been lovely that everyone is having a turn at success.”