The Luptons are race-industry legends
LEON Lupton is the kind of man you want around the campfire.
He has more stories than he has time to tell – tales of horses, of underdogs, of family connections and of days gone by.
Now based out of Mansfield, the Luptons are still legendary in the New Zealand racing industry – salt of the earth farmers that happen to know a thing or two about bloodlines, and how to make a horse run.
Last week was the 156th running of the Melbourne Cup.
In 1983, Ewen “Snowy” Lupton shipped his gelding, Kiwi, across the Tasman in time to take out the race that stops a nation.
Snowy, Leon’s uncle, was just one of many Luptons cheering the chestnut on as he rounded the home stretch almost 40 metres behind the leader – with 150 metres to go, he charged from 10th position and took home the cup with a length to spare.
“That was a big weekend,” Leon recalled.
“It was the first owner-trained New Zealand horse to win the cup – I think he might still hold that record.”
In 1984, Kiwi returned to contest his title – but was forced to scratch just days leading up to the race.
“I tell you what, that’s a bloody story,” Leon said.
“Snowy only had Kiwi over a few weeks before the race, and he kept him boxed at night.
“One night, he knocked his leg – took off a bit of hair, so Snowy rubbed a bit of Vaseline on it to keep the skin soft.”
In a move that would ultimately seal Kiwi’s fate, the horse’s leg was wrapped in a red crepe bandage and then taken out for a public working at the Waverly track.
“Everybody wanted to see him, wanted to know what kind of form he was in,” Leon said.
“But when Snowy pulled off the bandage, the dye had soaked into the Vaseline – it looked horrible, like there was blood everywhere.
“The Channel Seven cameras were there, flashing in the dark, capturing what they thought was a leg problem.”
Within hours, t he racing world was on-fire with news of Kiwi’s injury.
Just days before the cup, vets assessed the horse and deemed him unfit to race.
“It was a joke – the vet was there tapping on his hoof for 15 minutes, and wondered why the horse was getting cranky,” Leon said.
To this day, the Luptons think their horse was robbed of victory.
So, too, does jockey Jim Cassidy, who was interviewed years later, saying “he would’ve pissed in - he would’ve won by further that year”.
But Snowy Lupton had no sour grapes – the farmers from New Zealand are not the kind to get caught up in racing jealousies.
“He paid $1000 for that horse – one Melbourne Cup was better than none,” Leon said.
Kiwi was not the only successful Lupton horse.
“All my family were horsemen,” Leon said.
“Dad was the best of them, though – there was nothing he couldn’t ride.
“He believed in making a horse earn its keep – they had to work on the farm as well as on the track.
“And we had to be back, ready to work by 8am on the farm – three horses was one too many, he always said; two you can use, three is a waste – you can’t work three horses by 8am.”
Leon himself was a renowned steeplechase trainer – his horses, Region and Contract, both winning numerous titles.
“Contract still holds the track record for jumps at Flemington – he won by 13 lengths in the Glamis Steeplechase,” he said.
Moving to Australia permanently in the late 1980s, Leon took a job training for Mitre 10 founder, Tom Danaher.
“I won 35 races for him in two years,” Leon said.
Eventually, Leon managed a farm at Coldstream with an off- branch at Swanpool – but never completely gave away his love of horses.
He recalls a horse that he had trained, but couldn’t run.
“He finished 100 yards behind the second last horse at the bloody Merton Picnic races – so I thought, that’s it, he’s out,” he said.
“A woman from Mansfield asked to take him on trial – two years later he was in Atlanta, jumping for the Australian Olympic team.”
Now settled with his partner, Roseanna, on a farm out of Bonnie Doon, Leon should be thinking about retirement.
Instead, he i s bui l d i n g shearing sheds, breeding sheep, finishing his home, and – he hopes in the not too distant future – putting in a track for race horses.
“Of course I’ll get another horse, but I want to have everything right first,” he said.
To the shock of locals, Leon named his property Isis Ford.
“People have the wrong impression – Isis Ford was the best horse my father ever owned,” he said.
A home-grown champion, the gelding won just about every race in New Zealand – some of them many times over.
“He loved that horse, he loved all of them – and that’s something he t aught all of us right from the beginning,” Leon said.
“No matter what, the animals come first.”
CUP WINNER: Kiwi raced three times in the Melbourne Cup, and won the big event in 1983. He is pictured here with trainer, Snowy Lupton.
STORY-TELLER: Leon Lupton has more stories than most after a long and colourful history in the racing industry.