On the eve of the 2021 Melbourne Cup, we can look back to the 2015 running of the event when Prince of Penzance (NZ) triumphed – at a $101 chance.
The last Kiwi-bred horse to win was Efficient in 2007, so it was a while between wins for a thoroughbred harking from New Zealand before Prince of Penzance surprised the world.
And it was quite a moment for John Thompson whose Matamata-based farm, Rich Hill Stud, was the birthplace of Prince of Penzance (NZ) and is where the horse's sire, Pentire, is buried after his passing in 2017.
We sat down to chat with John about Pentire, how it feels to bred a Melbourne Cup winner and how exactly you celebrate when one of your stud’s progeny is thrust on to the world stage.
Firstly, can you tell us what it feels like to breed a Melbourne Cup winner? What was going through your mind when you watched the race?
It’s a really interesting question and one that’s quite hard to put into words. We were watching the race on the farm with the staff and it was already a bit special just having a runner, despite him being at long odds.
As he came into the straight, I remember commenting on how well he was going, and when Michelle got him out into the open, it became obvious that he was going to be right in the mix.
That got the adrenaline going at that point! To see him win was truly a great thrill.
Leading into the race, did you think he had a chance? Given he was at odds of 100-1, punters weren’t considering him the most likely of bets.
Looking purely at his pedigree, he really was bred to stay on both his dam side and through Pentire – so when a couple of people called me prior to the race and asked if I thought he was a chance, I advised them to chuck him in a trifecta off of pedigree alone – I sadly didn’t follow my own advice!
The other factor that went through my mind was his performance when he ran second at Moonee Valley behind The United States. He didn’t have the best run and it was a race he really should have won so he was showing good form heading into the Cup.
I felt it was a bit ridiculous that he was at such long odds so perhaps there were other factors that influenced that.
Was it that he had Michelle on him? Or just maybe that he didn’t have the profile that some of the other runners had?
How did you celebrate that night?
We had quite the party – but we were mindful that it was still breeding season and we all had to work the next day. It was great to have all of the staff there and some friends spontaneously called in to celebrate with us too.
One enduring memory is how many media calls I fielded in that first hour or so after the race.
I was consistently on the phone to New Zealand radio stations and news outlets both here and in Australia. TV1 even arranged to come to the farm the next day.
I think that was the moment for me when I realised the level of significance and public interest his win had created, through being the first female winner but also the first kiwi horse to win in some time, at such long odds.
It blew me away and I’ll never forget it.
Six years later, would it still be one of the highlights of your breeding career? What other moments have come close?
Breeding a Melbourne Cup winner is definitely still the highlight of my breeding career.
I was quoted at the time saying “I’ll die a happy man, I’ve bred a Melbourne Cup winner” which was a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of a quote given after a rugby game but it really does sum it up.
Do you have anything at the farm that celebrates his win?
We have the replica of the Melbourne Cup on the farm with some pictures of him. And to this day people are still interested in seeing it.
Because Prince of Penzance was actually bred in partnership with Katsumi Yoshida, we had to get his permission to keep it here at the farm which he very kindly did.
It was presented to us at Ellerslie as part of the Karaka Million night by the Victoria Racing Club and Michelle [Payne] was in New Zealand for the race meeting so that was really special.
It was a lovely moment of acknowledgement in front of all our peers from the racing industry.
Interestingly, Prince of Penzance’s dam was not meant to originally have been bred to Pentire and only the outbreak of Equine Influenza kept her in New Zealand and thus be able to be put to him.
Prince of Penzance might never have been!
Can you tell us a bit about Prince of Penzance as a foal?
We bred the mare on 20 December and Prince of Penzance was born on 11 November so he was a late foal.
He was definitely an athletic type but just immature.
We’d agreed with Katsumi that he would go through the National Yearling Sales Series at Karaka and he was a very early lot.
Pentire had another strapping colt in the Sale (which ended up being the well-known racehorse, Ferlax) who got a lot of interest and we think had the lots been reversed, Prince of Penzance might have seen a bit more action from those who missed out on Ferlax!
As it was, he was passed in and I’ve never seen John Foote run so fast post auction to come and make an offer. We agreed on $50,000, shook on it and he was sold.
As mentioned above, a great judge in John Foote purchased him at the National Yearling Sales Series in 2011 for $50,000. What do you think John saw in him that others perhaps didn’t?
I do think coming before Ferlax in the Sale had an impact – but that’s auctions for you!
John had always been a fan of Pentire and it was actually the first time he’d been asked to buy for Darren Weir and he’d given him a limited budget for a stayer and Prince of Penzance ended up being the perfect fit for his ‘order’.
Pentire was your foundation stallion and sired not only Prince of Penzance, but Ellerslie favourite (and 10x Group 1 winner!) Mufhasa too. What traits did he pass on to his progeny?
Pentire was a true champion and that’s evident in his siring of 16 Group 1 winners.
He remains the only sire in history to have claimed the “triple” – the Railway, the Derby and the Auckland Cup.
The key traits he passed on would have to be versatility and toughness.
He had progeny perform at all distances and they all were tough and sound.
Some might have been a bit too tough at times but when they win Group 1s you put up with that!
What was Pentire's personality like?
He was unique – everyone who handled him said so.
He wasn’t a big horse at only 15.2hh but he thought he was 17hh and bulletproof!
He had his routine at the farm and always had to be first to do everything. He really didn’t like waiting and got upset if he wasn’t first.
And from what we hear he’s thrown that pretty strong.
If you could compare Pentire to a person or character, who would that be?
I think he’s best compared to a great All Black half back – the likes of Aaron Smith or Justin Marshall. Larger than life!
What are some lesser-known facts about him?
I think he’s probably the healthiest horse I’ve ever had. In the 20years we had him, we only had to get the vet once for a very minor scrape. And I recall being told by his trainer from England that in all his years in training he’d never had to get the vet out which is remarkable.
Prince of Penzance will not only be remembered for winning the Melbourne Cup but also for being piloted by the first woman to win the race, Michelle Payne. Did that add to the significance of the moment for you?
It certainly did. I think that fact that a movie was even made post-race shows how significant it was not just for me, but everyone. It was just a great part of the story.
Michelle is actually breeding one of her mares to Shocking this season so it's nice to continue the relationship.
Some noteworthy female figures in the Melbourne Cup's history have been Kiwi women, Maree Lyndon and Hedwick McDonald (more about that here), to name a few. Do you feel there's something about the New Zealand "psyche" that has helped these women achieve these historic feats? If so, what?
Absolutely. Going back in history, the fact that New Zealand was that first country to give women the vote shows what strong women we have, even in those early years, and it looks like those genes have flowed on.
I think we’re lucky that women make such a great contribution to New Zealand society and more specifically to the racing industry too.
Where would we be without women in racing? Names like Linda Jones can also be added to that list and at the moment, Lisa Allpress, Sam Collett and Danielle Johnson are real leaders in their field.
As we've seen, Pentire isn’t Rich Hill’s only link to the big race with you also having Shocking on the stallion roster (winner of the 2009 Melbourne Cup). Shocking is really starting to gain prominence as a stallion in recent years with 10 Group 1 winners to his name and we’re sure, many more to come.
Given Pentire has taken out the Melbourne Cup for you already, what’s one race you’d like to see progeny of Shocking win?
I thought Surprise Baby was very unlucky to not win the Melbourne Cup when he ran fourth – we could have had a second! And more topically, I’d love to see I'm Thunderstruck win the Golden Eagle this weekend!
Editor’s note: Since the time of interviewing, I’m Thunderstruck did win the $7.5mil Golden Eagle!
Is there any of Shocking's crop that you’re particularly excited about?
I’m Thunderstruck and Elephant are two names that jump to mind right off the bat.
One enduring theme in New Zealand's racing industry is the love that industry participants have for ‘the game’. What motivates you to keep breeding and racing horses in New Zealand?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked all over the world in my younger days – and whilst I was overseas I just kept reflecting back on the climate, pasture and soil here in New Zealand. It really is just superior.
And it’s true when it’s said that New Zealand is the greatest breeding ground in the world.
We just have the best environment for raising thoroughbreds here in New Zealand.
And what we achieve is fantastic – especially when you look at the billions spent overseas compared to what is invested in New Zealand - yet our horses continue to triumph at the highest level.
I also feel we’re lucky to have Australia on our doorstep – to win at highest level there is a real achievement and Australian racing is arguably the strongest in the world right now.
Is there one date on the New Zealand racing calendar that stands out to you over the rest?
The SkyCity Christmas Carnival's New Year’s Day Races for the Rich Hill Mile!
If you could have dinner with any of the racing ‘greats’ who would they be and why?
I think mine would have to be Lester Piggott – the greatest trainer of all time. However, I’ve heard he mumbled so we’d need to be having dinner to hear what he was saying!
I’d also invite the Queen because she loves her breeding and racing.
And a bit of a wildcard would be Mitch Beer – based off his Twitter comments alone, he’d really bring something to the table!
Our thanks to John for taking the time to chat to us. We are looking forward to seeing what the progeny of Rich Hill Stud achieve next.
While we're no longer racing on 2 November here at Ellerslie, we've still got a lot of great Melbourne Cup content to come as Australasia leads up to the "great race".