Article by Paul Montague
Drum roll, please: Unbeaten and unbowed in three consecutive years over 75 steeple fences, covering 17.2 kilometres in distance and nine times up and over the Ellerslie Hill. That was the one and only Hunterville; jumps horse extraordinaire. Winner of the Great Northern Steeplechase in 1983, 84 and 85. It was New Zealand steeplechasing's version of Makybe Diva's Melbourne Cup three-peat.
Owned by Doug Mackenzie, trained by Ron Cropp and regularly ridden by Dennis Gray, Hunterville, according to Doug Mackenzie's son, Don, was called so because he was purchased as a three year-old from a dispersal sale in the Central Districts town of the same name. The price was a bargain $1,000.
Don recalls his dad "never believed in racing jumpers on the flat. There was a strong reason for this.
"Dad maintained it encouraged the horse to pull too much in jumping races, rather than settle early and conserve enough oxygen."
Don also has a recollection of going to the trainer's Cambridge property to watch his dad's horse being worked.
"Ron Cropp was running Hunterville on some steep hill country. My dad turned to me and said, 'that's the only way to build stamina in a horse.'
"Dad explained that the legendary trainers, the Brownes, also agreed with this philosophy."
Before Hunterville emerged and overturned the form book, there had been twelve dual Great Northern 'chase winners over the 100-year history of the event (the wonderful Hypnotize did come very close to the "consecutive years' three-peat", winning in 2007, 2008 and 2010).
In fact, Hunterville was so exceptional that he almost won four Great Northerns in succession. In his first attempt at the race, in 1982, he finished second to Mountain Gold.
For the first of his victories, on the Queen's Birthday Monday of 1983, Hunterville returned from runner-up the year before to be rated as the top weight for the race at 62kg. His jockey was the 34 year-old Dennis Gray. The horse was among the favourites for the race, along with last-start winner Reklaw, Headford from Hawera, and Lady Edwina. Dulico was also well-supported.
On a bleak day with the track heavy, one of the lesser-favoured runners - Sparking Brew - settled at the front almost from the start. No one was overly-concerned, but punters did begin shifting nervously in their seats when Sparkling Brew opened up a decent gap heading up the Ellerslie Hill for the last time.
They may have even begun chewing the staples from their racebooks when the horse was still in front approaching the final fence.
By this stage however, Headford and Hunterville were right with the brave front-runner. At the final jump, Hunterville stumbled slightly and Headford stuck his nose in front.
Hunterville though summoned his legendary will-to-win and hunted down the Taranaki horse in the shadow of the winning post, forcing his way to a three-quarter length victory - a very small margin for a 6,400 metre race over 25 steeples and three hill climbs.
Headford took a gallant second and the exhausted Sparkling Brew held on for a place, three and a half lengths back.
Hunterville had won his first Great Northern Steeplechase as a seven year-old. Owner Doug Mackenzie had finally won the race he had most coveted for 30 years.
The following year Hunterville was back to defend his crown. He was now being strapped by a young woman who would end up a riding legend of the Kiwi turf; Ron's daughter, Lisa.
He didn't have to fight quite as hard for the middle victory of his three, in 1984. But he still had it far from easy - the track was again heavy and he'd now been handicapped up to 65.5kg in weight. (Compare this to the eventual runner-up, Dulico, who only had to carry 59.8kg, and third-placed Civil Rights, with 57.8kg.) It was a comfortable enough one and a quarter length win, with another half length back to third.
Tragedy was to shroud Hunterville's hat-trick attempt of wins in 1985. In a very cruel twist of fate just a week before the race, owner Doug Mackenzie passed away after a short illness, aged 69.
Doug Mackenzie was a luminary in New Zealand racing circles.
He was not only an owner, but also a trainer and breeder. He founded Kempton Park Stud in Putaruru (which had his favourite stallion, Fairs Fair). He later moved to Cambridge and set up the successful Hyperion Bloodstock Agency. He was also a member of the NZ Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and had been a national racing councillor for six years.
Hunterville certainly had a less-than-ideal preparation for the 1985 race. He'd been weakening in his lead-up events, and in an Ellerslie trial just a week before the race, had either hit the fences or just scraped over them. Perhaps he had a sixth-sense for his stricken owner.
Hunterville, though, was a horse for the big occasion.
His main opposition in 1985 was Resolution, the beaten 1984 favourite and winner of his two lead-up races at Te Rapa, including taking three seconds off his own course record in winning the Waikato Steeplechase. It seemed that anything other than a perfectly-judged race wasn't going to cut it for Hunterville, with his most feared opponent in that type of form.
The 1984 Grand National winner from the south, Bymai, would also be extremely tough.
One slice of fortune was the last minute withdrawl of 1984's runner-up, Dulico. There was also a visitor from across the ditch in the NZ-bred Battle So Big - the first time an entrant from Australia had run in the race.
The race was significant too for an altogether other reason - the appearance of twenty-two year-old Trudy Archer on Battle On. She became the first female to ride in the event's 100 year history.
The stake money of $120,000 was to be a record for any steeplechase in Australasia. The winner's share would be significant; $75,800. The stage seemed ripe for something monumental.
To the race itself, and Resolution was sent out as the betting favourite. The punters perhaps being put off by Hunterville's underwhelming lead-up.
What they were forgetting, however, was his love affair with Ellerslie; two Great Northern wins being more than a testament.
The track was rated as dead - slightly easier underfoot than for Hunterville's wins the previous two years.
Hunterville settled at the rear of the field in the early going - exactly where Dennis Gray knew he was most comfortable. However, there was an early hiccup: the two almost stumbled over the water jump nearing the completion of the first lap. Gray would later remark, "He always gets a fright at that one."
Onto the second lap of the course and Cactus and Hex took up the front-running. Resolution's race was going well, only to almost strike disaster on the third and final lap when taking a fence on the back straight before the famous hill. He leapt perfectly over the jump, only to unluckily collect the rear of Bymai as he landed, and almost fell.
Hunterville then started to move. Down the hill for the final time, he began closing on the leaders. Hex was still grimly in front, with the inexperienced but classy mare, Imajason right there with it. The pocket-sized gelding Orca ran next, followed by Hunterville.
Approaching the last fence it looked as if the finish was going to be a two-way fight between Imajason and Hunterville. Then the two bumped together before the jump. They were both near the outside rail. In fact Hunterville couldn't get any wider. He was almost straddling the rail itself.
Both horses somehow cleared the fence - Hunterville had jumped it better and seemed headed for glory with around 200 metres to the winning post. Orca wasn't done though, and the little horse, who looked even tinier next to Hunterville's large measurement of 17.1 hands, moved slightly ahead. Back came Hunterville for a neck-and-neck battle as the post hoved into view. To add to the tension Resolution, near the inside rail, had come back and was going well also.
Just as one of Hunterville or Orca looked like edging in front, back came the other to nudge ahead. It was Ellerslie's version of Bonecrusher and Waverley Star. With the large crowd in a ferment and cheering themselves hoarse, it was Hunterville who lunged ahead at the very last gasp to win by the shortest of short heads. It had been an historic end to an historic race.
On course commentator Keith Haub's final few lines live on in immortality: "Hunterville... Orca... Hunterville... Go, Hunterville... you've got there, you beauty!"
It had taken two to make a brilliant finish, and Orca had gone so close. Resolution showed his favouritism and class in recovering from the mishap with Bymai to run a gutsy third, just three and a half lengths back.
The elation at the incredible achievement of a Great Northern three-peat was obviously bitter-sweet, with his owner Doug Mackenzie's passing only one week out from the event. It was a poignant moment in the race aftermath when it was revealed that Doug Mackenzie's will decreed Hunterville be retired at the end of the 1984-85 racing season, no matter the outcome of the Great Northern. It meant the great horse would move into retirement just short of his tenth birthday.
It was decided by trainer Ron Cropp that Hunterville's swansong would be the 4,900 metre McGregor Grant Steeplechase on Ellerslie; a short matter of five days later.
Fittingly, and freakishly, he won that race also, even after dipping badly at the last fence at the foot of the hill on the final lap. And he had to carry 68kg to do it.
He really was, and surely is, a bona-fide legend
Sire |Treason Trial (Ireland)
Dam | Wedding Ring
Foaled | 1975
Retired | 1985
Owner | Doug Mackenzie
Trainer | Ron Cropp
Rider | Dennis Gray
Strapper | Lisa Cropp
First steeplechase | 4,150 metre maiden @ 6 years-old, Ellerslie, Aug 22nd 1981. Finished 3rd. Prizemoney: $315.00
Last steeplechase | 4,900 metre McGregor Grant @ 9 years-old, Ellerslie, June 8th 1985. Finished 1st. Prizemoney: $12,500.00
Winner of the Great Northern Steeplechase | 1983, 84, 85. Runner-up; 1982
Some of the race information in this piece was sourced from New Zealand Bloodstock's magazine. With very grateful thanks to Don Mackenzie for his copies as well as his recollection.
Due to the current COVID-19 Alert Level in Auckland, Great Northern Day - on Sunday 3 October - has unfortunately been relocated to Te Aroha Racecourse.
To read NZTR's release regarding this move click here.