MacKenzie back in winner's circle
by Brad Reid, for Harnesslink
Waikato horseman Rod MacKenzie might not be a household name in New Zealand harness racing, but he should be.
Perhaps not from a statistical point of view, as 73 winners over 41 years of training standardbreds won’t exactly see you prominently featured in the Noel Taylor Trotting Hall of Fame. Nor will it get you featured in many articles in The Herald.
But after spending 20 minutes chatting to the affable bloke from Tuhikaramea, you can tell he has lived a life worth living and would be a bloody good sort to pull up a pew and have a beer with.
MacKenzie is part of a rare breed who enjoys his hobby of harness racing from a unique perspective by having a license to train the stock he breeds, rears, and races.
His 73rd training success came last Thursday night at Cambridge when Questro Queen (Bettor’s Delight – Averil’s Quest) broke maidens in the fourth on the card in the hands of James Stormont.
She had been void of luck in her three previous race day starts but got the dream trip in transit following out race leader, Ronda (American Ideal). The Bettor’s Delight three-year-old didn’t have to cover an inch of extra ground and scooted up the passing lane, much to the delight of MacKenzie.
“It was quite a good draw for her because in her last start, she was pulled up to a walk by a horse who stopped in front, and by the time she got going again, she was unlucky not to win that night,” he said.
“She’s just a typical Bettor’s Delight, lazy as hell at home but has improved every week for the last couple of months. She is still learning to race and is a January foal so she has a bit of filling out to do and should hopefully go on with the job.”
Sharing in the spoils of Questro Queen were two fillies MacKenzie sired himself with two other MacKenzie’s in the racebook as winning owners.
“They’re my two daughters and the worst paying owners you could have,” he laughed.
MacKenzie had the added satisfaction of having trained the dam, Averil’s Quest (Badlands Hanover – Averil’s Atom).
Again, not a name not synonymous with the casual follower, but she could well have been if not for a couple of injuries along the way.
“I sent Sean McAffrey to go and look at her at the yearling sales after seeing a photograph of her in the Harness Racing Weekly. He told me she was a beautiful-looking mare and that I would probably have to spend a penny to get her. I gave him a budget of $25,000, and he bought her for $14,000,” he laughed.
“Not many people will realise how good of a race mare she was aside from the guys who drove her. She overcame a lot of adversity to get to the races, having cracked her pastern as a two-year-old. If it weren’t for that, she would have been a very competitive juvenile,” he said.
After recovering from that injury, Averil’s Quest won four of her first six starts as a three-year-old before cracking another pastern bone and having another 12 months on the sidelines. Showing her class, she came back and won fresh up a year later and ran second to the champion mare Bettor Cover Lover in the Group Three Northern Breeders Stakes second up.
“She got over that as well and had very limited racing but should have won a lot of money. She ran third in the four-year-old diamond at Ashburton and was beaten a nose three times but still won nine races. We never saw the best of her,” he mused.
While it was a case of what might have been with Averil’s Quest, there was never any doubt that MacKenzie would be involved with racehorses in some capacity.
“My family were all into thoroughbreds, and I used to ride trackwork and ride at all the shows when I was young. When I got too heavy to ride, I thought I’d get a trotter and give that a crack.
“I started training in 1982 and went through to the 90s and had ten years off before starting again. The first mare I ever bred from was a mare called Guipure (Good Point – Chiffon), and she left me ten foals.
“The first six or seven were all race winners, but nothing special. As luck would have it, her 10th foal, Nicola Mary (Smooth Fella), won the 2YO Sires Stakes fillies final at Addington (1991). It’s a big thrill when you’ve bred them, broken them in, and done everything with them yourself.”
Breeding, owning, and training a Sires Stakes winner as a hobby horseman is no mean feat, but it’s not enough to put food on the table, and MacKenzie has been successful in his other ventures throughout his lifetime.
He spent 25 years as a publican and, more recently, has spent his days working as a cattle dealer, where he trades and sells livestock to some of New Zealand’s most prominent corporate farmers.
It keeps him busy and doesn’t leave him a lot of time for working horses; however, he has a few more pacers out of Averil’s Quest at home on the farm.
“I only work two or three at a time, and that’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve got a track at home, and Graeme Rogerson is right next door. We are right on the Hamilton city boundary, and it’s an open house policy there all the time, which is very good,” he said.
“El Questro is a six-year-old full brother to Questro Queen. He won his first start and was a really promising horse but, for some reason, was never the same after. I haven’t given up on him completely, but I’ve tipped him out and will give him a full 12 months before I try him again.
“I’ve also got Red Questro (Mach Three), a four-year-old half brother, and he’s in work and had a couple of starts over the winter. Over a couple of years, he was unbeaten in eight trials, but the problem with him was he cracked a pastern as well, and since resuming, he’s been a victim of bad draws. He’s got some ability also,” he said.
“I have a yearling half-sister by A Rocknroll Dance who is broken in and paces free-legged everywhere, and I also have a nice big chestnut weanling by Always B Miki to keep me busy,” he added.
Over the years, some seasons have proved more fruitful than others, and Mackenzie was able to derive more than half of his 73 winners from just four horses (including Averil's Quest), all with a short story worth surmising.
Matai Jewel (1986 Nero’s BB – Matai Bromac)
“She was a beauty. She came to me from John Langdon and had 14 starts and won one race. They told me she was weak and hadn’t been eating her food. I decided to work her a bit harder, and as a result, she started eating up her food, and I think she won about nine of her next 14 starts.”
Rocket Averil (1980 El Patron – Carmen Averil)
“He came off the pet food truck, and he was a big tough rough going horse, but he had a great ticker. He’d been to about seven or eight stables before coming to me. I probably got him at the right time as he was about seven, and I just started working him harder than he probably was used to, and he never stopped winning either. He won seven races in my care.”
Fizzi Lizzi (2010 McArdle – Averil’s Atom)
“She is a half-sister to Averil’s Quest, and because she (AQ) started to show real speed right from the word go, I thought I better find out what else was around from the family. The guy who bred her had passed away, and they had this filly down there that they told me was by Mach Three that I purchased. When she got to my place, I found out she was actually by McArdle, not that it worried me very much. She wasn’t as good as her sister, but she had similar speed and won eight races.
“I sold her to Alabar because I didn’t want to get too many mares. At one stage in my younger days, I ended up with 35 horses breeding them. Alabar put her first foal in the weanling sale, so being a silly bugger* (used a different word), I went and bought her, didn’t I? She’s a great big filly by A Rocknroll Dance who’s qualified and due to come back into work now.”
As you can see, MacKenzie’s story is one with many chapters. While this article may be lacking in some of the colourful detail, it hopefully captures the passion and commitment he continues to bring to the sport.
Sadly, the Rod MacKenzies of this world are a thing of the past, and God knows we could do with a few more like him.
“We’re a pretty scarce commodity now (breeder, owner, trainers). People say the game is buggered, and the money is no good. Well, to me, it’s never been about the business because it’s never really been much chop as far as costs go, but it’s not all bad.
“The enthusiasm of my two daughters is probably what spurs me to keep going. I’m 73 now and don’t intend to give up unless I have to.”