Bruce Barlass - "I've been lucky"

By Dave Di Somma - Harness News Desk

In 36 years as a Bloodstock Agent Bruce Barlass has seen some massive highs but also experienced grief that still brings him to tears.

A high profile figure in the industry Barlass has literally been involved in the sale of at least 20,000 horses since the 1980s. He's seen the industry go from hand-written pedigrees to on-line auctions.

Now the 65-year-old is retiring - “I’m moving on, I’m a bit sad about it sometimes but the time is right”.

Over the decades he worked for various incarnations of Wrightsons and Pyne Gould Guinness, before moving to New Zealand Bloodstock three years ago. Based at Harness Racing New Zealand's offices in Christchurch, Barlass worked for NZB as a Standardbred Adviser.

James Jennings, director and operations manager NZB Standardbred, wrote, "We, along with all of the New Zealand harness racing industry, take this opportunity to offer an immense thank you to him for the remarkable contribution he has made to the standardbred industry.

"We will sorely miss his great eye for detail and zealous personality."

February 22 2011 was a day Barlass, like many New Zealanders, will never forget. He was involved in the PGG Wrightson's NZ Premier Yearling sales in Christchurch when the 6.2 earthquake hit.

“We thought ‘that was a decent one’ but we didn’t realise the devastation of the day…”

Only later did he find out that among the victims were 18 people from the Pyne Gould Corporation building in Cambridge Terrace. It chokes Barlass up just thinking about it.

“Part of our building had fallen down…people died in our building, people lost their legs in that building…and we didn’t know....I remember driving home at 10 o’clock at night and it was like a war zone.”

Nine years earlier Barlass had had his own close encounter with death.

“18 years ago I died, twice”. It was Waitangi Day and he’d spent the day hosting clients.

“My chest started hurting and I thought this isn’t going away” and I died. Fortunately they sent an ambulance with a defibrillator and they got me going again.” An operation and some stents later and he’s still going. “It took two years before I could walk around the block, that’s how stuffed I was”.

Barlass first tipped his toes into harness racing when he was still a teenager.

“It started off with Graham Holmes, I went to school (Christchurch Boys High School) with his son, and another boy Zane Gregg and we were all mates and we used to go to the Holmes farm at Templeton at the weekends and that’s where it all came from.”

On leaving school he started studying for what he thought was going to be a banking career. “But I loved the horses too much” After a five-year stint with Sam Ballantyne at Eastwood Lodge he got offered a job by Paul Davies at Wrightson Bloodstock.

For as long as Barlass has been involved in bloodstock, so too has his sidekick, Peter Lagan. They are a tag team.

“Peter and I are very different people, we have disagreed but never had an argument.”

And Barlass jokes that Lagan is fastidious about two things, “mowing lawns and horse pedigrees. He also had a photographic memory".

With his accountancy background Barlass was his perfect foil.

Together they set up Pyne Gould Guinness Bloodstock (after the Wrightson’s arm of the business was sold) and then moved to PGG Wrightson .

Prior to 1987 there were seven organisations selling Standardbreds in New Zealand. In 1991 Barlass and Lagan sold horses for the first time at Karaka. They would run two sales, the NZ Premier Yearling sales in Christchurch and the Australasian Classic Yearling Sales in Auckland.

“We were southerners, we were from Christchurch trying to run the North Island sales and the thing we did that they didn’t was that we drove up driveways.” Relationships and networking were their hallmarks. “The whole thing is people. You never burn a bridge because one day you may need to go over it again.”

In 1988 their sale produced a chart topper that hasn’t been beaten in the more than 30 years since. A filly Roydon Reign (Smooth Fella – Roydon Dream) sold for $340,000.

It was about the time of the sharemarket crash, and Barlass remembers some purchasers getting into big trouble.

“I had to regularly go round and collect money to get paid and one of them had a great big Alsatian …. That was the most nerve wracking.”

Nowadays he says things are different to how they once were.“People get ready for the sales a month out rather than turning up on the day and saying that they look nice in the ring, that’s what they used to do.”

Over the years Barlass has seen super sires like Smooth Fella “he changed the game” to Vance Hanover, Christian Cullen and Bettor’s Delight – “people thought no sire could replace Christian Cullen, Bettor’s Delight has done it."
As for the future Barlass is expecting changes.

“People want instant results ..who wants to own a block of land, get a broodmare, send it to the stud, wait 11 months, and hopefully get a live foal, it’s not the psyche of many people these days.

More of the studs will breed and provide the numbers because they have the land and the stallions.”

From now on Barlass is scaling down on what’s been his life for nearly four decades. As to his future, “I haven’t got to where that’s going to get to yet,”

But it will involve some dancing. He is a competitive ballroom dancer - "It’s a lot of work, it’s frustrating but it’s very good for your mind.”

And he will still be involved in some parts of the industry. He'll continue his 30-year-old involvement with the Sires Stakes Board (20 as treasurer), helping with its transition following the recent retirement of Doreen Graham, who'd been the secretary for 37 years.

"I've worked with wonderful teams of people over the years and made lifelong friends, it's been a tremendous ride."

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