End of an era for Charlie Hunter
By Joshua Smith, Harness News Desk
August 1 will mark the end of an era for one of harness racing’s most loyal servants.
Legendary horseman Charlie Hunter has elected not to renew his stable hand license for the upcoming season, bringing down the curtain on nearly 70 years of holding a harness racing permit in New Zealand in some capacity.
Starting out as a driver in the 1950s, Hunter has held many roles in the industry, including trainer, owner, bloodstock agent, and administrator, and few have contributed more to the sport in that time.
His youth was spent trackside at Hutt Park in Lower Hutt cheering home his father Jack Hunter’s horses, and he was immediately hooked.
While Jack Hunter started out training in an amateur capacity, his involvement soon escalated through his association with Sir Roy McKenzie, principal of Roydon Lodge.
“My Dad always seemed to have a horse around and was part-time training,” Hunter said.
“Roy McKenzie gave him a horse to train when he came up to Wellington to the head office of McKenzies Department Stores. Dad had success with the horse, so he gave him another one.
“We were up in the suburb of the Hutt Valley called Taita, which was several miles from Hutt Park. There was a bit of a drag driving the horses down there to do their fast work.
“Dad had a jog track around our place, but said to Roy McKenzie he was going to have to give up and he said ‘don’t do that, let’s find a property’, so he found a property and set Dad up training for him as his private trainer in Trentham.
“That started a great relationship between Roy McKenzie and the Hunter family, and it built from there.
“Roy encouraged some of his local friends and businesspeople to put a horse in the stable to build up the number of horses in training in the Hutt Valley.”
With Jack Hunter’s stable blossoming, he was shortly joined by his son Ian, while Charlie initially elected to follow a different career path after high school.
“I thought I was going to be an accountant and I went to Victoria University, studying accountancy part-time and working for Feltex,” Hunter said.
“I was one of three guys they (Feltex) sent to Australia to train in engineering, and I finished up in Christchurch working at the carpet factory in Riccarton.”
While in Christchurch, Hunter succumbed to the calling of racing and returned home to join his father’s barn.
“I was still driving part-time but I made a decision that I wanted to be in horses full-time, which seemed a foolish decision at the time,” Hunter said.
“I left Feltex and went to work for Dad and things went from there. I came home and met Annette and we married in 1959 and subsequently had two daughters – Michelle and Fiona.”
Hunter’s career went to another level when he became the principal stable driver for his father, following Ian’s decision to change career path.
“Ian won the Auckland Cup (in 1959) with Scottish Command, who Dad trained for Roy McKenzie,” Hunter said.
“Just after that he decided he wanted a change in vocation. He had been working for Dad since he left school, so he made a change and that led to me doing all the driving for the stable.”
Things went from strength-to-strength for Hunter and he picked up his first Group One driving victory behind Min Scott in the Dominion Trot (3200m) at Addington in 1963.
While he was overjoyed with his first elite-level victory in the cart, Hunter said the win was made even sweeter by his family’s strong association with the victor.
“It was a family affair because Mum owned her, Dad trained her, and I drove her,” Hunter said.
“Min Scott was also a daughter of Royal Charge, who was my first win as a driver in 1954.
“It was marvelous. There was a huge crowd in the massive public grand stand they had in the sixties. The crowd was packed right to the running rail. Cup Week was such a great week and it was always nice to go to Addington and win. To win my first one at Addington, being a Group One, was pretty special.”
Hunter was enjoying his career in the bike, but the opportunity arose to join his father in a training partnership, and he jumped at the chance.
“Dad took me into training partnership with him in the 1964-65 season,” Hunter said. “We trained in partnership for three years and became the first training partnership to win the premiership.
“We won the premiership in 1966-67. Dad was not well at the time and he retired, and that’s when I took up training for Roy McKenzie full-time and won the premiership again the next season.
“I subsequently won it a couple of times in the early seventies. The last time was first equal with Roy Purdon, we shared the premiership in what was a record number of wins at the time – 67 wins each.
“Roy Purdon then got underway through that time. I was five times runner-up to either Roy, or Roy and Barry Purdon.”
Hunter had a long and distinguished career as a trainer and had a particular affinity with the Inter Dominion series.
“The first Inter Dominion I won was in 1971 at Addington with a horse called Geffin, who Roy McKenzie owned,” Hunter said.
Four years later Hunter would create history by becoming the first trainer to win both the Inter Dominion Pacing and Trotting Finals, a feat that wasn’t equaled until 2019 by Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen.
“At Auckland, in 1975, I won the trot again for Roy McKenzie with Castleton’s Pride and Young Quinn won the Pacing Final.”
The series wasn’t without its drama, with Hunter having to hand the reins to stable foreman John Langdon after he was injured early in the series.
“On the second night, in one of the support races, my horse went down in front of me and I finished up with plaster on both of my hands,” Hunter said.
“I broke a bone in my right wrist and I broke a knuckle on my left hand, so I was laid up for a little while.
“John was working for me as my foreman. He got the role (as driver) and John is a good horseman and he did a great job.”
Hunter wasn’t on the sidelines for long, heading to Australia just weeks later with Young Quinn.
“I got back to take Young Quinn to Sydney to win the Miracle Mile five or six weeks later,” he said.
“That year he won 19 of 22 races in New Zealand and he won two races in Australia – the Miracle Mile and Hurricane Stakes.”
While Hunter rates Young Quinn as the best horse he has trained, he said he has been fortunate to train several topline standardbreds over the years.
“Min Scott won the Dominion Trot, French Pass won the 1967 Dominion Trot, Jenner won over 30 races for us including the Rowe Cup,” he said.
“Scottish Warrior won The Messenger in 1972, and Golden Sands won the Great Northern Oaks in 1967, which was its inaugural running.
“Disco Dancer went 1:58 against time at Alexandra Park and that made him the first sub-minute two-year-old in New Zealand, and Directorship was another good trotter we had.
“We had a lot of good horses going through our stables in the 1970s because Brian Meale and I were so heavily involved with the United States.”
Hunter became a pioneer in trading horses to America in the late sixties, a business venture he began in partnership with Peter Meikle, an associate of Roy McKenzies.
“In 1966 Peter Meikle said to me ‘why don’t we take some horses to the States in a partnership?’,” Hunter said.
“We took seven or eight horses into Hollywood Park in California late that year, and Peter and I did that for a couple of years. He then got heavily involved in business, so he dropped out and then Brian Meale and I took over and started sending 100-plus horses a year to the States for a few years through the seventies and into the eighties.
“I spent a lot of time there between 1975 and 1980. It was rewarded in that I trained 104 winners over there through that time over a number of locations. I didn’t drive them all, but I did have 64 driving successes over there. I really enjoyed it, it was a great time in our lives.
“At the same time, I had the stable ticking over here with the likes of Gary Smith, he was in training partnership with me for six years while I was moving backwards and forwards from the States.”
During this time, Hunter moved his family north to Cambridge and subsequently took them on a trip of a lifetime to North America.
“Brian and I commuted a lot to America but in 1976, I think based on the fact that Young Quinn was over there, my wife, two daughters and I spent the year in the States,” Hunter said.
“The girls were at Cambridge High School, so they did correspondence and Annette was the teacher. We started in California and we drove from Los Angeles to Chicago and we spent five months in Chicago racing at a track called Sportsman’s Park.
“Brian would send the horses to me there and I would then qualify them and sell them on.
“The later part of that year we went back and spent time at Hollywood Park, in California, from September to Christmas. We came back (to New Zealand) for Christmas-New Year and then went back in February to do the process again.”
Hunter said it was a very influential time in his family’s lives and helped build the strong bond they retain today.
“They gained a lot out of it – meeting different people and travelling,” Hunter said. “As a family, we got a lot out of it because it was the four of us on our own living and travelling in the States. We looked to each other quite a lot and that is a bond that has carried right on through.”
Hunter said his time at Hollywood Park was particularly memorable.
“You would go to a place like Hollywood Park, which would start racing at the end of August and would race five times a week right through until Christmas,” he said.
“There would be 1,000-plus horses stabled on the track and in those days you went there and stayed there and rented apartments. The secretary would try and get each of those horses to race each week if they could.
“We had horses going in there and we would try and qualify them and sell most of them off qualifying races, but we did race some and we had some American owners who bought them on the basis I would carry on training them. They were the likes of Tricky Dick, who was a very good horse over there.”
America also posed some of the most challenging and rewarding times in Hunter’s career, most notably through campaigning Young Quinn.
“One of the hardest experiences was when Young Quinn got invited to the international series at Yonkers after the Miracle Mile,” Hunter said.
“We got there and we were in a situation where he wasn’t as good a horse on a small track and we were on a farm that had a beautiful set-up but a very small track. I had trouble getting Young Quinn up to top speed on that track.
“We tried coming into the racetrack to give him a final strong run, but he went into that series slightly underdone and then he drew badly in the initial four races.
“When we got to Chicago they put on a race over a mile and 3/16th (1900m), in their terms, and he drew good and won it, and won it well.
“From then on he was away. He got to a point in his fitness where he was back to somewhere near his best and he went on and won the American Pacing Classic at the end of the season and the US Pacing Championship, and went to Canada and won the Provincial Cup.
“He won all the big free-for-alls before the year was out, but the pressure was on in that early part, and that was one of the toughest periods I went through trying to get him back into shape because New Zealand were all looking for him to do well, as were the Americans.
“It was great when he turned the corner and we got him right again.”
Back in New Zealand, Hunter continued to train until 1996, with another training stint between 2003 and 2004, but from there he elected to entrust his horses to the care of other trainers, to which he has experienced plenty of success as an owner.
An active owner, Hunter would maintain a stable hand license so he could drive his horses in track work at Cambridge Raceway, a pursuit he enjoyed until recently.
He has had plenty of success with star trotters Sovereignty and Lemond, who were trained by Sean McCaffrey and Ross Paynter respectively.
Both horses would go on to Group One glory, but it was Sovereignty who proved to be a bargain buy for Hunter after he purchased him for $7,000 as a yearling and he went on to win nearly $800,000 in prizemoney on the track.
Over the years, Hunter has been a great believer in giving back to the industry and he gave up plenty of his time to administrative roles, both local and national.
“I have really enjoyed my time in administration in harness racing,” he said. “I got involved in that right from when I left school. I was secretary at the Wellington Owners and Breeders Association and that continued right through and eventually led to being on the committee at the Cambridge Trotting Club and President of the Club.
“When they formed the New Zealand Racing Industry Board, I was appointed as the harness representative, and I spent six years in that role.
“I spent four years on the Harness Racing New Zealand executive, and I really enjoyed that.
“It took up a lot of time, but it was rewarding.”
Spending his entire life involved with standardbreds, Hunter has witnessed the development of the breed, particularly with trotters.
“When my father was breaking in horses, they could be anything. He has a great affinity with the straight-out trotter, as did I and my brother Ian,” Hunter said.
“French Pass, who won the Dominion Trot, he was by Stormyway, who was a pacing stallion, and a lot of the trotters were manufactured from pacing breeds.
“My father had a horse called Safety Catch that won several pacing races, including the Wanganui Cup, which was a feature race at the time. Before his career was finished, he placed in the Rowe Cup in Auckland.
“The trotting breed has come on a lot, especially when they started importing shuttle stallions out of the States.
“Racing has changed so much and the way they are run. When Young Quinn was in the States he went to the Meadowlands when it opened and won the feature there in 1:55, which was a world record for an aged pacer at the time, and now they are going 1:46 and change. The style of racing and the breed have all contributed to it.”
With a few physical ailments and surgeries in recent times, Hunter has taken a backwards step from stable life and has decided not to renew his license for the coming season.
But he will keep a keen interest in the sport, particularly through the deeds of his trotter, Reign.
“I had back surgery a few years ago, which slowed me up for a good while, and then I had bowel surgery,” Hunter said.
“I was driving Sovereignty and Lemond in most of their fast work, but I haven’t been able to drive Reign.
“He is a well-bred horse and has won one, but he is on a bit of a short string at the moment.”
Hunter has enjoyed a notable career in harness racing and from time to time he finds himself glancing up at the plethora of racing photos that decorate his office wall and reflects on the fond memories of his time in the sport, and the great horses he has had the pleasure to train.