A seldom-used racetrack in Central Otago’s dustbowl is an unlikely haven for one of racing’s bluebloods.
Tom Sidey won’t be making the half-hour journey on Sunday from his Arrowtown home to the twice-yearly Cromwell races – daughter Susan’s 50th birthday party in Christchurch wins in a photo finish.
But at some point on Sunday this longtime racing owner, breeder and administrator will slip away to a TV to take in a race or two from this little country venue.
From teetering on the edge of extinction less than a decade ago, Cromwell is now the most successful Sunday race meeting in New Zealand.
It’s also where Sidey found racing during a summer break from studying medicine at Otago.
Home alone on the family orchard, he decided to train one of his father’s horses roaming about the place and line it up at the annual Christmas gymkhana.
“The horse was as fat as a pig.
I caught the beast and dragged it all the way to Bannockburn so it could get shoed.
“Come the gymkhana, it wasn’t until I was on the horse around at the start that I discovered they were all being ridden by ex-jockeys – all in their racing silks.”
The part-timer could feel the pressure.
“Anyway, we got out and this horse wouldn’t start. So someone gave it a crack on the backside and it took off after them into the dust.
“We hurtled past a horse which I recognised as Western Winner, the top two-year-old of his time.”
In having the beating of the favourite by the home turn, he urged his hack to glory.
But there was to be no fairytale. The horse started to pant well short of the line and, being kind to himself, Sidey says they finished in second-last spot.
“It turned out Western Winner had broken down – so we passed a horse near to walking pace.”
Four decades later, Sidey would be back at Cromwell collecting the winner’s cheque in a nondescript hack race in 1994 with a horse named Cockatoo. It would be the first and only horse he’d race with his father, former Dunedin mayor and Otago University chancellor Stuart Sidey.
There was a fond rivalry on the track with his father, who had firm links to the Wakatipu. From his base at his Turner Street holiday home, Stuart Sidey would continue to ski Coronet Peak and overseas well into his 80s.
“He beat me once (in 1990) on the track,” Tom says of his father, who died last year aged 99. “And
I was the president of the Otago Racing Club. Prince Kumai beat my horse Bloodstone by about a head and I had to stand up and present him the cup.”
Tom Sidey is happily retired in Arrowtown with wife Diana after a lifetime delivering babies in Dunedin.
His aversion to Latin meant he didn’t follow the well-worn family path into law. He found sciences to his liking and studied medicine at Otago University, specialising in obstetrics.
He took off to London for further study and ended up in placements in Zambia – “as you did back then” – and Texas on a long trip home.
The mums of Otago and Southland were thankful.
While Sidey conservatively estimates he’s probably delivered a couple of thousand babies in his time, he also set up the South Island’s first IVF facility in Dunedin. The oldest child through his IVF programme is now 21.
A heart attack eight years ago forced a rethink for the gynaecologist and his family – Tom retired away from Dunedin, sold up a lifestyle block on Lake Hayes they’d had for 30 years and moved permanently to Arrowtown.
At age 74, you’ll find him pottering around the two-storey stone house they built in 2004, working on ways to drop his golf handicap below 18.
On a wall in the downstairs garage hang the spoils of victory for the Sideys after more than three decades breeding and racing thoroughbreds – from the barns of Brian and Shane Anderton outside Dunedin and latterly John Wheeler in New Plymouth.
Behind the glass is a photo of Burton, the Sideys’ best winner of “a couple of dozen we raced”.
He won a Canterbury Gold Cup and Anniversary Handicap, one of NZ’s premier mile races, while Bloodstone was a mudlark thought good enough to run in the Two Thousand Guineas as a youngster, later contesting the Grand National Hurdles and Grand National Steeples.
Both descend from the family of his father Stuart’s magnificent racehorse Kumai. He won 34 races on the flat and over fences – including the Winter Oats (three times) and Parliamentary Handicap (twice) at Trentham, Trentham Hurdles and Waikato, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and McGregor Grant Steeples, and remains NZ’s greatest allround winter galloper. Bymai, Grand National Steeples and Hurdles, was another big winner he raced.
The very last of the Kumai breed in the Sidey family ruptured a bowel (“Undiagnosable,” says the good doc) and was found dead in his New Plymouth paddock last year. Stumai had been transferred to trainer Wheeler and was about to emulate his forebears over fences.
With none of Sidey’s three daughters interested in racing, this was to be a cruel curtain drop on a family’s racing dynasty.
But like those accustomed to the highs and lows of the Sport of Kings, Sidey doesn’t look backwards.
He and Diana, herself from strong racing roots – the Austins of Canterbury, have a promising sort in Magnifique in Wheeler’s Melbourne stables who’s already won in Australia.
And at the Karaka sales last January, they paid $75,000 for a Golan-Lady Genesis filly. In human parlance, she’s a cousin of some of NZ’s finest—such as Eurostar (fourth in a Melbourne Cup), NZ Cup winner Smiling Like, dual Group I winner and Filly of the Year Nimue and Group I sprinter-miler Sirstaci.
If you’re a racing man, you’ll know where the pencil is for the little black book. It’s no help for picking a winner on Sunday but it seems Tom Sidey is about to deliver once more.