Neville Cleaver : 86 wins and counting

By Dave Di Somma, Harness News Desk

It seems only right that Riverton-based fisherman and well-known harness racing identity Neville Cleaver's latest winner has a name with a strong nautical theme.

A $110,000 purchase, Franco Sailor broke maidens at his fourth attempt at Winton on May 11. In the end it was a comfortable victory as he scampered away by four lengths.

"He's quite a nice horse but a round colt," says Cleaver, "he's always got his head in the bin!"

It was Cleaver's 86th win as an owner since his first in the late 1980s.

Away from the racetrack he makes a living from fishing, catching crayfish to be precise. He started out in the fishing industry in the early 1980s. Now he has own Riverton-based fishing business with his boat Hustler, and a crew "of a couple of jokers". His business is landing crayfish in Milford Sound on contract for the Fiordland Lobster Company.

Living in Invercargill, he's been self-employed since 2007.

His involvement in racing goes back a lot further than that.

Initially it was thoroughbreds with a family involvement in top race mare Shangri-La in the 1960s, trained by his father Jack Cleaver. Among her top victories were the 1961 Winton 80th Anniversary Cup and the 1962 Wyndham Cup.

The first standardbred Neville Cleaver owned was Wreleys who won four from 38. She was good enough to finish second behind the great Blossom Lady in the Group 1 Standardbred Breeders Stakes at Addington in 1991. At the time she was trained by Doody and Kevin Townley and driven by John Hay.

"They ran 1:56 that night - it was a New Zealand record," says Cleaver.

Around this time Cleaver started "studying pedigrees" and was hugely influenced by one of the industry's more flamboyant characters and corporate high flier at the time Dave Phillips from National Bloodstock.

Over the years Cleaver has developed his own theories as to what works in the breeding barn.

"I really like Direct Scooters on the dam line."

Dual New Zealand Cup winner and multi-millionaire Lazarus is on that dam line through his mum Bethany while stallions such as In The Pocket, Christian Cullen, Courage Under Fire, Mach Three, Somebeachsomewhere, and Captaintreacherous all descend from Direct Scooter.

By his own admission Cleaver likes compact horses.

"Not too big and not small - and I don't like giraffes."

And when the sales catalogues come out Cleaver gets to work.

"I pick on pedigree, Nathan (Williamson) has a look at them and then Peter Gillespie the vet has a look too."

And he's had a few success stories along the way.

A $21,000 purchase at the 2012 Yearling Sales, Onedin Mach was exported to the United States, after winning 10 races here for trainer Graeme Anderson, while Ragazzo Mach (Mach Three) won seven from 13 in this country for trainer-driver Nathan Williamson before being sold for big money to Australia in June 2021.

He was purchased from the 2019 sales for $60,000.

A $55,000 purchase, Franco Santino (pictured above) was another good winner for Cleaver. He won nine from 40 and is closely related to Cleaver's latest winner. Franco Sailor is out of the four win McArdle mare Selina Franco. Her dam San Rafaella produced the likes of Franco Santino and Franco Sinatra.

More recently The Black Flash (pictured above) was an inspired purchase. He is by Bettor's Delight and out of Simply Devine (by In The Pocket-Direct Scooter).

Cleaver bought The Black Flash for $140,000 at the 2021 National Yearling Sales in Christchurch and he only raced twice here, as a two-year-old. He had a fourth and a second to Don't Stop Dreaming in the Kindergarten Stakes and 2022 Diamond Creek 2YO Classic before being sold for big money to Australia. He's since won 10 from 22.

At this year's sales in Christchurch he doubled down by buying The Black Flash's full brother Simply Amazing for $75,000. He's a three quarter brother to Don't Stop Dreaming.

Not that all his purchases have come up roses. In 2023 he bought Ragazzo Art, Ragazzo Mach's half brother, at the 2023 National Yearling Sales for $100,000 - but he never made it didn't work out.

"It had the wobbles - which affects their spine and pelvis," says Cleaver, "but I had insurance on the horse so it didn't work out too bad."

Cleaver isn't only about buying impeccably-bred horses at big money at the sales. he's also keen on the odd cheapie. Stella Bay for instance is running around in maiden trot company in Southland, after being bought at the Christchurch sales in 2021 for $15,000.

Overall Cleaver says the game has been good to him.

"I'm cruising along alright - from the money I've made I've bought some rental properties and reinvested in some horses."

He's also been a big sponsor of races at Riverton and throughout Southland.

"If everyone supports the game, that's the best way to ensure its future."


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