Roy with son Mark and grandsons Nathan and Michael. Image Ashlea Brennan Photography

We’d like to thank everyone for their kind words and condolences from around the world following Roy’s passing.

We’ve lost a wonderful father, grandfather and father in law and the industry has lost a legend. A patriarch, a leader and a true gentleman. To hear the stories, the respect and the impact Roy had on so people’s lives gives us great comfort in this time of grieving.

Roy Purdon Talks About His Amazing Career

Dave McCarthy sat down with Roy on many occasions and produced this wonderful account of his illustrious career.

Dave McCarthy

Roy Purdon saw his first New Zealand Cup at Addington in 1937, won his first as a trainer in 1977 and in the following years carved out training records both in terms of winners and in premierships never matched in this country by a trainer in either code.

The Purdon name is famous in harness racing. How far does the horse tradition to back?

A My grandfather, Joe Purdon, came out from Scotland just after the first War. His first job was lugging chaff bags of coal around Lyttleton from a horse and cart. His sons were my father, Hugh, Alec later a well known trainer, Joe who had the Swamp hotel at Islington for a long time and Jimmy who worked for Vic Alborn at Addington and later trained Gantree which was a top pacer and won a Dunedin Cup. My father worked with James Bryce at Hornby for a while when he had a big stable there but when things got tough in the Depression we moved to Auckland. My brothers Sandy and Les also trained up here.

The Purdons, the Youngs, the Bryces the Kerrs-there seems to have been a lot of prominent horse trainers among those who came out from Scotland about the same time. Was there a trotting tradition there?

A I went back about 10 years ago and couldn’t find a trotting track anywhere. The only trotting horses were with the gypsies. I think they were just rural folk who had to look after their own road horses and draught horses because they were their only transport and they were too far out of town to call a vet. They learned their own ways.

Did you use any of the old remedies they brought out?

When I was 10 I came down and spent a year with my grandfather in Christchurch. It was a great time. He had a delivery business and we went everywhere in horse and gig. Once a month he would go out to Kempthorne Prosser at Hornby with his list and buy up the ingredients he needed and then go around and mix them up in a barrel at Jimmy Young’s stable just behind Addington. I got that recipe later from Alec but there were a lot of different ones around trainers had. My granddad used to supply quite a few people with his mixture including F J Smith.

What were they mainly used for?

Very good for legs and body washes. They could do some marvellous things for legs. Everyone guarded their recipes then. Probably nobody bothers now. They just call in the vets. You didn’t do that then unless you really had to or the owners would not be happy.

Was that when you saw your first cup?

Yes my grandfather and I went out in the horse and gig which we parked where the houses are now next to Addington. It was a big carpark then. There was a huge crowd. We could hardly move. I watched the race by the finish post sitting on his shoulders. Lucky Jack won it. I would never forget it.

How did your own training career start?

It took a while. Things were really tough in the Depression. Dad was delivering laundry up in Auckland. Sometimes I would come down and stay at Islington with my uncle Joe and bike down to Jack Pringle’s stables to help out. I always wanted to train but it wasn’t until after the (second) war that Dad and I had a go at it. We were at New Lynn then. It was hard going.

Not enough horses?

Not for two of us. I used to work night shift at the bus company cleaning out the buses, 11 pm to 7 am and then do the horses. We were breaking in for George Deyell a friend of my grandfather’s and then we did the same for F J Smith a leading trainer up here then.

He was the one who always looked so dapper with his American driving gear?

He had come out from England and was very particular. The boys who worked there always said that after they had groomed the horses F J would rub a clean hanky over them. Ifthere was any dirt showing at all they would have to do them again.

Presentation seemed more important then?

Yes and I think it is a pity the standards have fallen in some areas. We used to groom horses more than once a day and take great pride in it. We would watch others and compare ours and see how we could do better. It was good for their muscles and it also got them used to people being around them and helped their attitude. We don’t have the staff for that of course now. But everyone got dressed up on raceday, a jacket and a tie, and it is a shame dress standards on raceday for horse handlers have fallen so far. The Auckland Trotting Club says it will address that this season and it is overdue.

When did you actually start training racehorses?

There were five Ogilvy brothers who had a big farm at Mangere, close to the airport. They offered us a grass paddock big enough to put a track in and we converted an old hay shed for stalls.

Success came quickly?

No. In those days no bugger knew you. You were lucky to get a drive even at a matinee meeting which they had a lot of in those days. There was no totalisator. Horses were hard to come by and we had other people’s rejects. I suppose we handled 12 horses.I loved driving. I started driving the odd winner at the matinees and that helped. You have got to remember there were only 11 meetings a year at Alexandra Park then and there was a lot of travelling if you wanted to get the opportunities.

What happened then?

We decided to shift to Pukekohe. We got to know more racing people there and we had a bit of success and at last we started to get more horses. It was a learning curve though. We had six cast offs when we got there but we got up to about 25. We used to charge six pounds a week ($12) then. Now they count the cost by the day. It was another learning curve but it was better than it had been. Then I was offered a property in Te Awamutu next to the racetrack. I was doing well in the driving then and got to know a lot of locals and we did pretty well there. My dad stayed at Pukekohe with my brother. My first winner was a good stayer called Te Koi at Alexandra Park. My dad had trained him and told the owners they should give me a go and they did.

The first big winner?

Call Boy won the Great Northern Derby about 1958. He didn’t really win it but was promoted on a protest by the stewards. The horse first past the post was driven by Maurice Holmes who often stayed with us when he came up. I was pretty embarrassed but Maurice didn’t mind at all.

Sole Command’s Cup (1977) must have been a big thrill after seeing the race as a ten year old and you part- owned this one as well. Were you confident before the race?

No, but I was never too confident before a big race. You can’t be. I had brought Governor Frost down for the cup (1968) and Barry (then in training partnership) drove Final Curtain the previous year and in this one. Mark used to look after Sole Command and got on real well with him. Peter Wolfenden was the stable driver in those days.

You were a top driver and you seemed to give it away. Why?

When I was a kid I injured a hip in a school game and it always bothered me. It made shoeing the horses-and we all did our own shoeing then-a bloody tough job. There were a lot more accidents in races then. There were no wheel discs and horses got hooked up all the time. You could have 37 horses in a race at Cambridge with 20 across the front. I had quite a bit of time off from smashes. I just loved driving but I was having trouble keeping my foot on the bad side in the stirrup with the hip problem. Beside why should I go out and get beaten by Wolfie when I could have him in my cart? He was a very relaxed driver, a natural, never lost his cool in a big race.

In your younger days the southern horses went up to Auckland and won a lot of the big races. It must be good from your point of view to watch how that has turned around?

A It has certainly changed. It was all one way traffic then. What happened was that the breeding improved up here. People like Sandy Yarndley were buying into good families and we were getting better sires. We got Vance Hanover up here when nobody down there wanted him. He changed the whole game.

Your family has been heavily engaged in harness racing over the years. Did you marry into a harness family?

A I met Margaret through Jack Hughes who was a fellow trainer. Margaret was his sister and a champion golfer. At the time we were going out she had been selected for a New Zealand team to play in England and was going to be away six months. We married after she got home. Margaret still played twice a week and on a 17 handicap when near 80.

Were you a golfer?

A As a golfer I was an excellent caddie. I used to say I walked around the stables enough without walking around a golf course afterward.

Margaret was a terrific person

A I always say my wedding day was my biggest win. She was a real lady but her priorities were always about family.She gave up golf for that when still top class. We were husband and wife and best friends for 60 years. It was very hard when she died. Until a short time before she hardly took a pill for anything. A great mother to the boys who never caused us any problems. But I had to stay active and get on with it

You spoke last week of old recipes and I believe you used one on Luxury Liner when he had a problem just before he won the New Zealand Cup?

Yes that was one of the treatments which came out from Scotland. He was at Jim Dalgety’s and while he was working fine he had a dry cough they couldn’t get rid of. I told Jim to use Stockholm tar, putting some on a a stick and putting it down his throat. Jim was a bit surprised because the tar was normally used for other things such as crib biters. However he did it and the cough cleared up straight away. I used to use that Stockholm tar for a lot of things.

Luxury Liner was by Mercedes who had a reputation as a man eater. What was he like to handle?

No, pretty good. He hated the fuss of raceday and people coming along and patting him all the time made him a bit grumpy, but he was not mean. He was a great staying horse and would probably match most of them today.

About that time Chokin came along. How good was he?

A He won two Miracle Miles and a New Zealand Cup and a lot of other good races. Brian Hughes (son of Jack) had him originally and we took him over when he changed hands. He went just over 1:56 at Cambridge as a two year old (1990). They don’t go much faster than that now.

The best you trained?

A Yes. He had a heart fibrillation issue toward the end of his career but he was a great horse. A filly we had, Pacific Flight, had the same thing and won an Oaks (driven by Mark). She went 1:51 in America. Close behind Cholin was Holmes D G. The only race he couldn’t win was the New Zealand Cup though he went close and it probably gave his reputation a knock it didn’t deserve. He won everything else including a Miracle Mile. He was a lovely horse to train and drive. Sole Command won an Auckland, New Zealand and Easter Cup.

The bonus was you had a share in him?

A I didn’t take many shares in horses. You can end up not being able to pay your own bills. But Mrs Walker had bred Sole Command had quite a few horses with us and hadn’t had a lot of luck. I took a share in him before he was broken in.

You were going great guns at Pukekohe and then shifted to Clevedon. Why?

We were about 300m from the Pukekohe track. The increasing traffic along the road made it difficult to walk the horses there and there was a railway line which meant you had to beat the trains to the track. Monty Baker and his brother had developed this place at Clevedon and when they split up we had a chance to buy it. It had its own track which was a huge advantage. We built up to 60 horses in training there.

Did your training methods change with a team twice as big?

A Not really. Barry and I pretty much stuck to the old ways. But we had always done a lot of cantering with the horses and at Clevedon we found we were having a few hock problems. We cut back on the cantering and jogged them 40 minutes instead.

What about feed. Did you make any major changes?

A Once again we pretty much stuck to what we knew. The man made feeds like Mitavite were just sort of coming in then. We fed chaff bran and oats though these days chaff seems to be on the way out.

Why is that?

A People just don’t make it like they used to and it is hard to get. It is only a filler and the bran and molasses mixed with it gave it a taste. Horses love molasses.

You must have had to make changes going to a large glamorous team full of stars compared with your earlier days?

A Probably but a lot of them are gradual. You adjust as you go along. I got to meet a lot more people though who were either outside racing or inside but experts in other fields and I learned a lot from them about a lot of things.

You had Barry Owen and Mark all wanting to drive and you son in law Tony Herlihy came along too.

A That was quite difficult to manage at times. That is why after we had been at Clevedon for a while I bought another property which was in Ardmore but only about a mile and a half (2.4km) from Clevedon. Barry managed the Clevedon operation on his own then.

Tony must have been a natural?

A His uncle Arnie Gadsby was my foreman and Tony used to come up to Pukekohe in the school holidays. Then Arnie, a great bloke and a fine trainer (Captain Harcourt) went out on his own and Tony left school and went to work for him. It started from there and then he and (daughter) Suzanne were married. Tony had a great temperament for it and became the stable driver after Wolfie with Barry going well too.

What were your feelings when Mark decided to come to the South Island to train?

A I supported him and John Seaton was a great friend of his. But I suppose I was also a little bit envious. I always wanted to go south to train. When you are married with a family and have commitments you can’t always do what you want. I am not complaining but I wouldn’t have minded doing what Mark did myself if things had been different.

You said before the Trotting Cup you favoured long walk up starts for those sort of races. Any change now?

A In places like Europe they walk in about 25m to a start and they all hold their place all right. Over there too a friend of mine was telling me he saw a mobile race run as a handicap with 10m and 20m positions the drivers had to stay in. I think it needs looking at.

You won more training premierships (21) than anyone else in harness racing here. Does one of them stand out?

A I think the first one (1971). I was a great friend of Derek Jones and we were also great rivals in good way. He had knocked me off a couple of seasons before and there was a lot of banter going back and forward. I had the say that year and it felt good.

Things changed a lot working 20 or 30 horses to the big teams you had in your heyday. How did you cope with all the paperwork?

A Margaret always did the books and I did the nominations. Nominations were a hell of a job back a few years ago. You had to fill out the particulars of every horse every time it started. Its breeding, all of its owners with the joint interests, the form and all the rest of it. You posted that off to the club secretary and had to make sure they arrived in time . Sometimes I would have 30 sheets of paper to fill in. I hated that part of it. Nobody was more pleased when they brought in phone nominations than I was.

The carbon fibre wheels are the latest new thing in harness racing. Quite a lot of things changed during your time. Did they have a big impact?

A Yes, some of them did. But one thing has never changed-how much horsepower you have got between the shafts. Nothing can change that.

Auckland have introduced different sets of colours for stablemates in a bid to spark public interest. What do you think of that?

A I can’t see it working quite honestly. People feel quite strongly about colours. It is not just their own. They like to be able to pick the stable colours out in a race. Changing them around all the time is not the answer.

Q You did not want to do it with your stables?

A No. I really liked the system in America where the driver has his own colours. It makes it easy to identify where the horses are in a race.

Some people, Mark Jones is one, have advocated that here. Can you see it coming in?

A No, for the reasons I said before. Stable and owners colours are a touchy point with people still.

You trained a huge number of top horses. What was the best horse you have seen?

A Highland Fling (NZ Cup 1947-48) He was an excitement machine. People would watch him to see if he would go away with the field-he never did -then watch him make up these huge stretches of ground. I remember one day Leo Berkett took him out for an attempt on the mile record at Addington He jogged once around, Leo Berkett yelled out “right” and off they went- no pacemaker. He ran about 1:57 that day which was phenomenal then. Cardigan Bay broke his record with a pacemaker but it was about 20 years later. He was a freak Highland Fling.

Talking of Auckland you were under pressure at one stage to dissolve the partnership between you and Barry?

A It wasn’t Auckland’s doing, it was the Trotting Conference (Harness Racing New Zealand). They came up with t went out while you were at the top?hidea that because we were working out of two different properties, even though they were fairly close, that we would have to have two separate licences. It was silly. There were other trainers then in partnership much further apart than we were. I would probably have gone along with it to keep the peace in the end to be honest , but Barry dug his toes in and said they couldn’t do it and he and I were going to stay together. In the end they dropped it.

Bracketting horses

A I think I might have had quite a bit to do with that. Sometimes there would eight horses nominated at Alexandra Park and four of them would be ours. If one was part-owned by Jim Dalgety for example and another one was leased off him they had to be bracketed and all the horses ran for one ticket. That meant instead of having eight horses to bet on they might only have four or five. Some other big stables were in the same position. So they dropped the brackets and I think the pressure from some of the clubs did it.

You have trained far more winners than anyone else in the history of racing in New Zealand. How much did the records keep you going?

A Not really at all though I was talked out of retiring earlier because the 2000 winners was coming up. Records are made to be broken and so will that one one day. I have no doubt about that.

Does any special win stand out?

A Yes, I got an enormous amount of satisfaction out of Comedy Lad winning the Auckland Cup (1986) for Max Harvey.Max had put a lot into trotting and had been trying to win the Auckland Cup for years,spent a lot of money.Comedy Lad was on the right track to do it but 3 weeks before he knocked a hock.

What happened then?

A Well we could only canter him on the track and swim him. I did it every day but we were up against it. Then we had to hopple him close to

raceday and he thrilled me with the way he worked. I was on a high for a few hours

A few hours ?

Jim Sullivan was staying with us with Quite Famous. He came out from town later and worked his horse and he not only beat our time easily but came home in 56.5 That rocked me

But all right in the end ?

A Tony drove him so well. We didn’t want to work him too hard early-I always told the boys anyway that horses who work too hard early can’t work as hard late and there would be another Cup next year-but it was needed this time.Tony is like Peter Wolfenden-never lost his cool in a race-and I got a special thrill out of doing that for Max. He had done a lot for trotting up here. It might have been my highlight =but there have been a lot of them

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