Tony Lee, undoubtedly one of the best race commentators New Zealand has had, will make his last call on the Hastings track today as he nears the end of an outstanding time behind the microphone in this country.
After a career spanning almost 40 years Lee’s contract with Trackside will end this month, with his last day of race calling being on Wellington Cup day at Trentham, on January 20.
Over the years Lee has endeared himself to everyone involved in the New Zealand racing scene, reeling off thousands of clear and precise race calls with the addition of plenty of colour when required.
Tony Lee said this week he has been calling races at Hastings for more than 30 years, starting out with Radio Pacific before taking over from the late Alan Bright in a more permanent role.
He rates Hastings as one of the best tracks in the country to call races from, with the commentator’s box positioned high up and back from the track.
“It gives you an outstanding view of the entire track and, having called so many races there now, you can usually judge which way the finish will go,” he said.
“It’s always special to call races in the Bay, especially in the spring time when the Group 1 races are run.”
Asked what has been some of his more memorable race calls on the Hastings track, Lee said the wins by Australian raider Starcraft in two of the Group 1 features at the 2004 spring carnival; Xcellent’s last-to-first win in the 2005 Mudgway Stakes; Princess Coup’s win in the 2007 Kelt Capital Stakes and Melody Belle’s six Group 1 wins from 2018 to 2020 were some that come to mind.
“Starcraft was a special horse and his effort to get up and win the Mudgway Stakes that year was quite outstanding, coming from lengths off the pace at the 200 to produce giant strides for jockey Leith Innes,” he said.
Starcraft also won the second leg of the Hawke’s Bay Group 1 ‘Triple Crown’ that year, when ridden by Australian jockey Glen Boss, only to be beaten by Balmuse in the Kelt Capital Stakes on the last day.
“I remember Dummy (Kevin) Myers, the trainer of Balmuse, was wearing a new suit that day so that should have been an omen,” he quipped.
Always the ultimate professional, Lee has had to work under sufferance at times, never more so than when calling Xcellent home in his 2005 Mudgway Stakes win.
“I remember I was crook with the flu that day and it had attacked my voice box. With the help of medication, I was managing to get through the day and when I could see Xcellent coming I had to let go.”
As the big horse powered down the outside to get up in the last few strides, Lee’s voice reached fever pitch, describing the performance as: “Amazing… he is a superstar.”
Princess Coup recorded back-to-back wins in the Kelt Capital Stakes, in 2007 and 2008, and it was the first one that Lee remembers best, when ridden by Noel Harris.
“She was only going to run a good third or fourth with 200 to run that day but got up in the last stride, like only Harry (Harris) could do.”
Melody Belle became the first horse to win the Hawke’s Bay Group 1 ‘Triple Crown’ in 2019 and Lee said it was a privilege to call her home in those three victories. The champion mare also won the Tarzino Trophy and Windsor Park Plate in 2018 and the Livamol Classic in 2020.
Another great memory Lee has of the Hastings track was when he called Sunline home to win the 2002 Mudgway Stakes, in what was her last New Zealand race appearance.
“The crowd that day was huge. Everyone expected her to win and she did it in style, staving off a late challenge from Tit For Taat.”
One of Lee’s most famous race calls was when Castletown recorded the third of his three Wellington Cup wins in 1994, his commentary coming to a crescendo in the final stages when he said: “But the dream burst into reality with Castletown winning the cup again, and his third.”
“That one got me on my way. It wasn’t the best of calls to be fair but people picked up on it and it became a bit of folklore.”
Lee said one of the most satisfying aspects of being a race commentator has been the enjoyment of meeting a lot of nice people involved in the New Zealand racing industry.
“I am very sorry to be leaving but I’m happy with my career,” he added.
Bary bags three in three days
Hastings-based John Bary did best of the Hawke’s Bay trainers over the Christmas-New Year period, producing a treble of winners.
Bary saddled up Lohnagan to win a 1200m maiden race at Hastings last Sunday and then picked up a winning double at Tauherenikau on Tuesday, with the two-year-old Sunrise and another maiden in I Say I Do.
The three wins doubled Bary’s tally for the season and took his career tally to 271.
Lohnagan was having his second start when he lined up on his home track last Sunday, following a debut fourth over 1200m at Otaki in November.
The Lohnro three-year-old was a $65,000 purchase from the 2020 Ready-To Run two-year-old sale and is out of the Darci Brahma mare Silver Eclipse, whose five wins included the Listed Pegasus Stakes (1000m) at Riccarton.
Lohnagan is raced by the Silver Lining Syndicate, a large group organised by Bary’s racing manager Mike Sanders. There are a number of Hawke’s Bay people involved in the syndicate.
Sunrise only had three rivals in the two-year-old race at Tauherenikau but could not have been more impressive, leading all the way and dashing away in the final stages to win by five lengths.
The Charm Spirit filly is owned by a prominent Australian racing company and was having her third start following a debut second over 900m at Trentham in October and a fourth over 1100m at Otaki the following month.
Bary purchased her for $30,000 at last year’s Karaka yearling sales which makes her eligible for the $1million Karaka Million Two-year-old (1200m) at Ellerslie on January 27.
I Say I Do went a small way towards redeeming her $120,000 purchase price when scoring a decisive length win over 1300m at Tauherenikau.
The Australian-bred filly was purchased by Bary from the 2022 Ready To Run Two-year-old sale and is raced by the Prenuptial Syndicate. She is by Pierro out of the Commands mare Wedding, who was a winner at Randwick.
Debut win a surprising result
Cornelia’s decisive debut win at Taupo last Saturday came as a pleasant surprise for her Hawke’s Bay owners Simon Tremain and Margaret Larsen.
The Swiss Ace three-year-old filly went into the 1100m maiden event on the back of just one official barrier trial and her connections thought she would need the run.
“She hadn’t done much at all and was still very green,” Larsen said this week.
“She had the one trial at Te Awamutu and, with no more trials around, her trainers Katrina and Simon Alexander thought we would use this race as a trial.
“You could see that she didn’t know much and she shied at the winning post but she won well so it was great.”
Cornelia was ridden by Craig Grylls who bounced the filly straight to the front and dictated the pace to the home turn.
Hastings-trained It’s Amelia came out after the leader early in the home straight and headed Cornelia inside the last 250m. But the latter kicked back gamely and surged clear again close to the line to win by 2-1/4 lengths, with her ears pricked.
Cornelia is out of the Mastercraftsman mare Stratosphere, who is owned by Tremain.
She is the fourth foal produced by the mare and the first to get to the races.
“The first foal was by Burgundy but was unsound and the second foal is a four-year-old by Vadamos,” Larsen said.
“Cornelia is her third foal and there is also another two-year-old by Vadamos out of the mare.”
Larsen has been pre-training horses for Tremain for the past five years and has several others on her Otane property.
She has also been a successful trainer in her own right, producing the former talented galloper Café Culture to record five wins from only 14 starts a few seasons ago.
“Café Culture is still at my place. He’s now 14 years old but still looks good,” Larsen said.
Mixed results for HB owner
Prominent Hawke’s Bay racehorse owner-breeder Peter Grieve and his Christchuch-based partner Barry Thomas have experienced the highs and lows of racing in the past fortnight.
The pair own Island Hop, who scored a dominant 2-3/4 length win in a Rating 65 race over 1300m at Tauherenikau on Tuesday. But they also race a half-sister to that horse, Chapinteel, who stood in the barrier and took no part in a 1600m maiden race at Timaru on December 23.
Both horses are out of the High Chaparral mare Chapinta, who won six races for Grieve and Thomas.
Island Hop was the winner of two races when trained in the South Island before transferring to the Wanganui stable of Kevin Myers earlier this season.
The seven-year-old was having his first start from the new base on Tuesday but had recorded a third and a second in two Foxton barrier trials.
The gelding was slow away and was back second last coming to the home turn. Rider Mareana Hudson then angled the horse to the outside of the track and he powered home, sweeping past his rivals in the final stages