Harness racing – risky business paying off?

In simple terms, when it comes to the ‘gee-gees’, success quite literally begets success. But ensuring the right begetting is being done often comes down to an experienced, award-winning horse breeder such as former Howick local Tony Dickinson. JON RAWLINSON explains.

Tony Dickinson and friends. Photo Wayne Martin

For decades, Alta Dream Lodge – run by Tony and Val Dickinson – has produced pacers for the harness racing track both here and abroad. Unfortunately, Tony says, today’s Kiwis are favouring more pastimes than simply rugby, racing and beer.

“The sport is not as strong today as it was in the past,” the once long time Howick resident explains. “I think it’s because there are just so many more options when it comes to sport and gambling. There’s been a quantum shift in terms of how people get their entertainment; there’s much more available, more competition.”

Despite more sports chasing the same dollar, overseas demand for Kiwi horses remains strong. I ask whether, subsequently, New Zealand has become more breeding ground than racetrack.

“Yes. Harness racing is still very popular abroad, in Europe and the USA, so they need top quality horses, which we are known to provide. We might become even more of a breeding ground, but our racing base must be kept to current levels at least.”

Future fortunes depend on New Zealand’s racetracks proving grounds for future champions, at least, he contends.

Overall, Tony remains optimistic there are still enough Kiwi punters keen on racing to keep the sport’s wheels turning.

“There have been plenty of opportunities for the racing codes – that’s harness racing and gallops as well as greyhounds – to hold the line, if you like, but in the recent past they just simply haven’t done enough to hang on to their audience.

“They are working hard on it now and I think changes at the Racing Board are making a difference. I am hopeful we’ll see a resurgence in the racing industry in future and there are signs that could happen.”

Got to know how to foal ‘em

After many years living in Howick, Tony began breeding horses soon after he moved with his wife, Val, to a Karaka lifestyle section in the 1970s. Unlike his sister’s, Tony’s passion for horses was born of a penchant for a well-placed wager.

“My sister, Ann, was the one into riding; she was with the pony club and later rode with the Pakuranga Hunt. She actually married into the Eisdell Moore family [well known for their connection to the hunt],” he reflects.

“I always had an inkling that I’d like to get into the industry. I used to bet a couple of dollars at the TAB and loved to listen to the races; it just evolved from there.”

Many years on and the thrill of harness racing still has Tony all ‘a-flutter’.

“I still back my own horses, but only with $10 or $20 each way, so when people say I must have made a packet out of a win, I can always say I had a small investment,” he smiles. “Gambling is just a small part of the total package for me; all part of the fun.”

The fun of breeding champions began in earnest with a mare called Alta Serena. Sold by the couple for just $3500, she would go on to win $600,000 for her owners, which put Alta Dream Lodge on the map.

Other top lots which followed include Alta Christiano, Alta Maestro, and Alta Camilla, a broodmare which has brought the Dickinsons some rich rewards indeed.

“The foundation blood in Alta Camilla is very strong and there has been a prolific number of winners from her. We sent her to the best stallions we could afford and hit the jackpot – she’s not missed yet; she’s had five foals and all have performed exceptionally well.”

Although the services of a skilled trainer are invaluable – and drivers provide much more than just ballast on the back of a sulky – nature and nurture are crucial to a pacer’s winning (and whinnying) formula, Tony confirms.

“I could say [victory on the track] is all down to clever breeding,” he laughs. “But there is a heck of a lot of luck involved too.”

After many years, and plenty of winning runs from his horses, Tony claimed a win of his own. Late last year, he was recognised at the North Island Harness Racing Awards for his ‘Outstanding Contribution to Harness Racing’ – which includes 20 years on the executive of the North Island Standardbred Breeders’ Association.

“I was petrified about going up to get the award but I was very proud,” he says, modestly. “Breeding and selling horses is just something we do all the time but this award came totally out of the blue. [It was] great recognition from my peers.”

Fresh horses, future champsWhen the ‘who’s who’ of the horsey set descends on Karaka for this month’s Australasian Classic Yearling Sale (for standardbreds), Tony Dickinson from Alta Dream Lodge expects a filly named Alta Louisa, in particular, will catch the eyes of buyers.

“She is the first foal from Alchemist, who won 16 races and $330,000, so we’re more than hopeful we’ll get good return.”

A colt, Alta Destiny – from an American mare, Samantha Q – is also one to watch, he believes. While any future victories by these two – the latest in Alta’s prodigious line – look set to profit others, Tony still gets a kick out of seeing any of his brood cross the line first, and there’s a more tangible benefit too:

“You have to bear in mind that plenty of other people see horses we’ve bred winning too,” he smiles, “Which, I must admit, isn’t too bad for business!”