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NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS VENET IA SHERSON PHO­TOGRAPHS JANE USSHER

New Zealand’s Lord of the Reins, Lance O’Sul­li­van, and his wife Brid­gette now pick their win­ners from a prop­erty in Piarere

LANCE O'SUL­LI­VAN WAS 10 when he first set eyes on the prop­erty he would buy more than three decades later. He was on his way to Cam­bridge with his fa­ther, then one of the coun­try's lead­ing thor­ough­bred train­ers. They drove past Piarere in the Hin­uera Val­ley near Mata­mata where, in an­cient times, the Waikato River cut across the plains to the Hau­raki Gulf. The river's course now lies to the west, al­tered by the su­per-vol­canic erup­tion that formed Lake Taupo more than 25,000 years ago, but its im­pres­sive legacy re­mains: a val­ley lined with tow­er­ing bluffs of vol­canic ig­n­imbrite that dwarf the graz­ing dairy cows below.

The grandeur of the stone cliffs en­tranced Lance (as it did Peter Jack­son when he later chose the val­ley as the site for Hob­biton), but he was also cap­tured by the beauty of a prop­erty reached by a long and grand steep drive­way, fringed with cot­ton­woods. “I thought, ‘I'll own that farm one day.'”

He had a sim­i­larly prophetic mo­ment when he met his wife, Brid­gette. It was 1990, and they were both at a race meet­ing at Te Rapa Race­course in Hamil­ton. Lance, then 27, was on his way to be­com­ing New Zealand's top jockey, and train­ers were clam­our­ing to have him wear their colours. On this day, he'd rid­den sev­eral win­ners and as he was leav­ing the track he caught sight of a beau­ti­ful young blonde woman danc­ing alone on the grass be­yond the bird­cage. He was en­tranced. She ex­plained she was a ballroom dancer, prac­tis­ing for a com­pe­ti­tion while she waited for her step­fa­ther. Lance laughed, but he told his brother later that day that he had met his fu­ture wife. She was just 16.

A few weeks af­ter that meet­ing, the pair met again at a breed­ers' award din­ner. Brid­gette says he gave her the glad eye. His ver­sion is she stalked him. They danced to the Blues Broth­ers and ro­mance bloomed. But, while her fam­ily may have been im­pressed by Lance's cre­den­tials at the race­track, they were con­cerned Brid­gette was still young and hadn't seen the world. Af­ter she com­pleted a two-year diploma in ac­count­ing, they or­ga­nized a job for her with an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing com­pany in Hong Kong. Co­in­ci­den­tally, Lance se­cured a con­tract to ride in the for­mer Bri­tish colony. They mar­ried in 1995.

Twelve years and two chil­dren later, Lance's sec­ond pre­mo­ni­tion came to pass. The cou­ple bought the farm he had fallen in love with as a boy.

The prop­erty, named Rock­spring, sits high above the val­ley with 360-de­gree views, in­clud­ing the mauve-tinted Kaimai Ranges to the east and the wildlife sanc­tu­ary Maun­gatau­tari Moun­tain to the west. Hob­biton, a place of pil­grim­age for hun­dreds of thou­sands of Tolkien fans each year, lies just be­yond a hill.

The 200-hectare prop­erty is a dairy farm with 550 cows, milked by farm man­agers. When Lance and Brid­gette bought it, the orig­i­nal home­stead had long gone, but there was a cen­tury-old red barn that once served as a liv­ery for stage­coaches, a her­itage-listed school (no longer in use), plus wide-girthed oaks planted by early set­tlers and kahikatea trees. There was also a splen­did ex­panse of prime pas­ture. Piarere sits plum cen­tre be­tween Cam­bridge and Mata­mata, New Zealand’s equiv­a­lent of Ken­tucky, where thor­ough­bred cham­pi­ons are bred and raised to run. In this part of the coun­try, Lance O’Sul­li­van’s name is still said with rev­er­ence, even though he re­tired from rid­ing win­ners 16 years ago.

Brid­gette says that with­out a main house (there were two farm­houses on the prop­erty), it was a blank can­vas. Their ar­chi­tect drew up plans for a beau­ti­ful south-fac­ing hill­top home, but when she was away one week­end, Lance phoned to say, “We’ve turned the house around.” What he meant was that they had worked out a way for the house to face north by re­con­tour­ing a large part of the hill be­neath it. Brid­gette says Lance is im­petu­ous and per­sis­tent. “I’m a big pic­ture per­son. I like to plan. Lance likes to jump in and do stuff.” Like the time he and a cou­ple of mates knocked down the wall of the red barn af­ter a chance re­mark by a guest that it would be an ex­cel­lent place for wed­dings.

A strik­ing as­pect of the house, in ad­di­tion to its el­e­va­tion, is the size of the doors through which even bas­ket­ball ex­port Steven Adams would not have to stoop. “It’s in case we grow,” says Lance, who is jockey-sized and still weighs 55 kilo­grammes – lit­tle more than his rid­ing weight. Brid­gette, also pe­tite even in her high­est Jimmy Choo stilet­tos, says he of­ten for­gets to eat.

The main hall­way is wide and paved with Ital­ian lime­stone tiles. That’s not pre­ten­tious, but prac­ti­cal. Two dogs have the run of the place, and they have scratchy toe­nails.

In this part of the coun­try, Lance O’Sul­li­van’s name is still said with rev­er­ence, even though he re­tired from rid­ing win­ners 16 years ago

One of them, an ex­u­ber­ant golden cocker spaniel pup named Fred­die, ar­rived three months ago and has still to win over Austin, a stately long­haired dachs­hund who has been a pet for 13 years. Austin went into a steep de­cline last year when his for­mer com­pan­ion, Jack, a labrador, died. Fred­die was bought to cheer him up. “They’re get­ting bet­ter with each other,” Brid­gette says.

Rac­ing con­sumed the cou­ple for more than two decades of their mar­ried life. When Lance was at his peak, they were at a race­track some­where in the world most weeks. In 2005, Brid­gette, who also has a rac­ing pedi­gree (her grand­fa­ther was a book­maker and her step­fa­ther a trainer) was ap­pointed an am­bas­sador for Eller­slie Race­course, a role she held for five years. She says it in­volved talk­ing up the in­dus­try which, by then, was in de­cline. Her wardrobe, un­sur­pris­ingly, is still filled with el­e­gant race-day dresses (“no spe­cial la­bels”) and hats, 80 pairs of shoes (“Lance counted them once”) and Gucci and Chanel bags, which are her weak­ness. For Auck­land Cup week alone, she needed five out­fits. But she’s just as happy in ripped jeans and a sweater.

Her life now is en­tirely fo­cused on the Red Barn wed­ding and func­tion cen­tre, which she and Lance be­gan 10 years ago. The for­mer liv­ery where stage­coach driv­ers changed sweat-drenched horses for fresh steeds, has been given a mod­ern makeover, but the orig­i­nal build­ing is its heart. Brid­gette has al­ways en­joyed throw­ing par­ties and hav­ing guests to stay. The idea of host­ing wed­dings ap­pealed. “I love see­ing peo­ple have a good time. It seemed like a good fit.” There were 71 wed­dings last year, plus other events, which means her pace of life is hec­tic. If a staff mem­ber falls ill, she is happy to step in.

The cou­ple’s two daugh­ters, Ge­or­gia, 20, and Caitlin, 22, who are at Vic­to­ria and Waikato Uni­ver­si­ties re­spec­tively, also work at the venue dur­ing the hol­i­days. The sis­ters love the rac­ing in­dus­try, and Caitlin helps out with so­cial me­dia at Wex­ford Sta­bles. Both are pe­tite like their par­ents, and they were skilled rid­ers when they were younger.

Would the girls have ever con­sid­ered be­ing jock­eys? “Not ne­go­tiable,” says Lance. “I don't dis­like my kids that much to let them do it.” What he means is, the life is tough, and the re­wards these days aren't great.

It is said that top jock­eys are born to ride, which gives them an edge over the thou­sands of jour­ney­men who never make the premium grade. Lance had the pedi­gree, even be­fore he rode his first pony. But his fa­ther dis­cour­aged him from hang­ing around the sta­bles, prob­a­bly be­cause he knew the life was tough. “The fam­ily was pretty poor back then,” Lance says. “There were four kids un­der five. I re­mem­ber a wheel once fall­ing off the fam­ily car.”

He orig­i­nally wanted to be­come a lawyer (“they had sports cars and good-look­ing girl­friends”), but once he started to work for his fa­ther, he was hooked. When he told his mother, Marie, who died in 2015, that he wanted to be a jockey she said: “I don't mind if you are a garbage col­lec­tor as long as you are the best you can be.” He didn't let her down.

His track record is im­pres­sive even by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. It in­cludes 12 pre­mier­ships and 2478 wins over his 23-year ca­reer. In 1989, he won the famed Japan Cup in world-record time on Hor­licks, still one of his favourite mounts, along with Mr Tiz, the only horse to have three con­sec­u­tive wins in the Rail­way Stakes, the coun­try's pre­mier sprint race for thor­ough­breds. He says some horses stand out.

“They are old war­riors. If you go to war, you want to be on one of them.” For two decades, he was the coun­try's lead­ing rider; no one has come close. When he re­tired, aged 39, he said there was noth­ing else to prove.

He puts his suc­cess down to re­silience and the abil­ity to per­form un­der pres­sure. “You have to be men­tally tough. You also have to be a bit of a mon­grel. Good guys never win.” He used to have a bumper sticker say­ing, “It doesn't mat­ter if you win or lose… un­til you lose.” Dur­ing one race, when he dropped his stick (whip), he snatched an­other jockey's. “It was never picked up. Back then other jock­eys would never tell tales on each other.” But he has an­other side that has con­trib­uted to his suc­cess. “I love horses and have huge re­spect for them. A horse has to know you be­fore it gives its best. I'd al­ways take the time to pat them be­fore I got into the sad­dle. Many jock­eys don't do that.”

To­day, he still rises at 3.40am (“It used to be 3.35am, but I give my­self a lie-in these days”) and heads to the sta­bles and race­track 10 min­utes down the road where he watches am­bi­tious young ap­pren­tices put horses through their paces. But, at 55, he's look­ing to the fu­ture when he can spend more time work­ing on the prop­erty. He in­her­ited his mother's love of gar­den­ing and sees his role as a care­taker of the land for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

In 1986, when he bought his first prop­erty, there was a sin­gle “dirty old pine” on a hill. He thought, “how can I im­prove this? So he be­gan plant­ing trees. He's now planted more than 12,000 on prop­er­ties he's owned, in­clud­ing english oaks, dawn red­woods, kauri and kahikatea. At Rock­spring, some trees are 600 years old. “I'd like to be re­mem­bered as the old guy who planted trees.”

He's also brought back bird life by declar­ing war on rats and pos­sums. “When we bought this place there was no bird life. There was a beau­ti­ful stand of kahikatea, but it was deathly silent.” Re­cently he spot­ted seven kereru (wood pi­geons) in a sin­gle tree.

Brid­gette and Lance look back on their early days of rac­ing with af­fec­tion, but not nostal­gia. In the golden days, when the in­dus­try dripped with high stakes, Bollinger and BMWs, they were the per­fect fig­ure­heads: he, New Zealand's Lord of the Reins; she, the sport's glam­orous am­bas­sador. She still re­mem­bers win­ning her first Fash­ion in the Field in an out­fit she de­signed her­self made from a Ver­sace fab­ric. “I wore a hat that had a sort of an­ten­nae at the front.” But they don't crave the lime­light or flaunt their suc­cess. There is no he­li­copter parked on the lawn that stretches to a ha-ha with vast views of the val­ley. Brid­gette once took part in some­thing called Celebrity Wives, which she says was em­bar­rass­ing. In 2005, she and Lance won Trea­sure Is­land: Cou­ples at War. (Brid­gette says they won be­cause Lance is com­pet­i­tive; he says it was be­cause Brid­gette could hang up­side down on a trapeze and re­mem­ber hi­ero­glyph­ics.) Lance was also asked to do Danc­ing With the Stars, which he turned down. “We live pretty dis­ci­plined lives,” Brid­gette says.

She says when he de­cided to quit rid­ing, she was pleased. She wor­ried dread­fully about in­juries, es­pe­cially if she wasn't at the track to see him ride. When 500 kilo­grammes of horse­flesh stum­bles and falls, the jockey rarely walks away un­hurt. Lance has bro­ken al­most every bone in his body, in­clud­ing his fe­mur. But she loved the loved ex­cite­ment of the win­ner's cir­cle. The day be­fore the in­ter­view, she turned 44. She and Lance went to the an­nual rac­ing awards where Charles Road, a five-year-old bay geld­ing trained at Wex­ford Sta­bles, won Stayer of the Year. She says: “The thrill never dis­ap­pears.”

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