Olivia Thornley  is saying goodbye to the Purdon racing complex at Rolleston after eight and a half years- with grateful thanks rather than regrets.

“I start on the 24th with Hayden and Amanda (Cullen) and I’m looking forward to that. It seemed a good time for a change and I have been offered  more opportunities to extend my driving career” 

It is hardly a dramatic change -she worked with the Cullens at All Stars, and Ashleigh Royal,a long time All Stars associate employee is on the staff.

“I know from that it will be the right environment and I am hoping to get more free lance driving as well. The work and travelling with Mark and Natalie -and now Nathan- meant I wasn’t able to take advantage of all the opportunities.I didn’t mind,I understood that that  was what I signed up for”

Nathan said Olivia leaves with the stable’s best wishes.

“Olivia has done a great job with us. But it is probably the time for her to take the next step in her career and I wish her well”

Olivia was always into horses and began working weekends at Purdons while still at High School.

“I started with my father (Robin) and drove my first winners for him  while I was still at school. It was a thrill but more so for me for Dad’s sake. The horses he had others hadn’t been able to get going or wanted to move them on.We won  multiple races (Awaytocollect -her first winner at “home track” Motukarara in January 2018-and Don’t Rock the Boat who won three each: Bird of Paradise) and it showed what a good trainer he is when  given the horses.”

She also did part time work with both the Colin De Filippi and Dean Taylor barns before taking up her only full time position .at Rolleston.

Taxman leading with a round to go at Addington and about to win by the proverbial “street” was Olivia’s first winner for All Stars

Sponsored by Ainger/Tomlin it is a notable aspect of Olivia’s approach to racing is her regard for owners,the thrill they get from victory and how her main priority is driving well enough to give them that joy. She is ever grateful to those who agreed to support her in major races such as Brian West, breeder and co-owner of both her Group One winners ( No Matter Wat and Chase a Dream); the late Ian Dobson and Dennis Dunford co-owners of Akuta and Don’t Stop Dreaming: and especially the team racing her pin up horse,Millwood Nike, with whom she has been close since the filly  first came into the stable.

“I teamed up with her and Mark and Natalie believed in letting you look after the ones you specially liked. I am not sure what it was. She was a hothead early on and might have gone either way.But when I first worked her I knew she was going to be good. I became her strapper, work driver, raceday attendant and then I got to drive her on race day. The team (2 Steves,(Thompson and Byrne); 2 Endacotts (Frank and Shane) and a Bruce(Irvine) gave me that opportunity.It has been the highlight to do all that with such a filly”

Olivia has visited “Nike” several times during her water walking programme at Brian Court’s property and sure to be close by the day she hopefully returns to the track.

“There’s no question she will match the open class horses if she gets the chance”

Another favourite she handled was Inter Dominion champion Ultimate Sniper.

“It wasn’t quite the same because he was a three year old when I took over his care. But there were a lot of thrills strapping  a horse like that”

She also looked after New Zealand Cup winner, Cruz Bromac,during his time at All Stars.

Cruz Bromac after his New Zealand Cup triumph

The  consideration for owners counts  as much for more humble winners than Group stars.

“I don’t really want to name my best win  because all owners love to win whatever the race and it is my job to do that for them.They are all equal to me.Its about the owners”

Maybe that explains Olivia’s notable coolness under pressure in the big ones.But how much do the higher stakes increase the nerves of a young driver going into a race against the elite?

“Natalie made a point of helping me with that. She emphasised that I should treat the big events as  just another race, and not be distracted by the stake and the field.There is always some pressure in any race of course.Mark and Natalie have been fantastic to me. They discussed the races and tactics with me beforehand and afterward and their tips and support that gave me confidence.If you are getting advice about driving it is hard to go past Mark and Nat. And after Natalie stepped back Mark gave me his full backing with Akuta and others. That sort of confidence in you helps the nerves”

For the record Olivia  has won 8 Group races with such high class horses as  Oscar Bonavena (Banks Peninsula and Canterbury Park Cups) Don’t Stop Dreaming (Kindergarten Stakes): Chase a Dream (Sires Stakes)  and Akuta (Flying Stakes and Kaikoura Cup), as well as Millwood Nike and No Matter Wat.. She has won four races from four drives behind Chase a Dream and three from three including a Group 3 with Millwood Nike. Not a bad record then for someone who has only had 507 drives.

Beyond Words Another Studholme Bloodstock star,returns to Scale at Addington in 2020

 In only one season,2023,has she had more than 100 drives and she won  21 of them.There are many well  promoted Juniors who would love a record to match that, even allowing for the quality of her drives- though that aspect is  a point Olivia,always the realist, makes herself.

What must be two of her most memorable wins-for different reasons-were her Group Ones with No Matter Wat (NZ Oaks) and Chase a Dream. 

No Matter Wat,co-owned by fellow staff member Michael Purdon-was not the best gaited horse and she could make any  driver look awkward  with her at times rocky progress.

“It wasn’t as bad as it looked. She always gave you a little warning when she was going to go off stride so if you knew her you knew what was coming. The main worry in the Oaks was her stamina and whether she could go on like she did. A great effort.


The secret to Group Triumphs ? Treat them as just another race

Nobody thought Chase a Dream could win the Sires Stakes from so far back at the top of the straight and that included me.He just kept  increasing speed.It was a great win but I probably got as big a shock as anyone”

“ The Ashburton Flying Stakes with Akuta was another one to remember mainly because Ian Dobson had just passed and Akuta  was the sentimental favourite. Mark had put his faith in me to drive. To get that one home was a relief but also a good memory”

“I love the  trotters. They take a lot more work but you get greater satisfaction when you get one right with having hopples to keep it there. Oscar Bonavena has been a great experience. He is just so fast when he accelerates.Faster than many pacers. To experience that in the cart was something special.”

Olivia has  had her homebred  qualified two year old trotter,Starstruck (Volstead) raced with her mother, Jackie,a librarian at Lincoln, and prominent owner,Peter Baken, ready to race.

“But the one I was aiming for didn’t go ahead for lack of numbers  I have put her aside for a while and will bring her up in the spring. I like training but I want to concentrate on my driving at this stage”

That should be good news for a lot of horses and people.There is a long road ahead and it is looking more and more like being well paved with success,


Olivia’s Favourite Millwood Nike. Don’t you love it when your judgement is proven right ?

No Matter Wat in her last win in the Canterbury Breeders.She was Olivia’s first Group 1 winner



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