Di jumps from show ring to racecourse
Monday, 20 February 2012
By By Helen Perry
Last month Rural Living featured part one in a two-part series on businesswoman and horsewoman Di Bowbyes. Today Rural Living delves further into the thoroughbred interests of this breeder and former trainer.
I knew one interview with Di Bowbyes would never be enough but by the time I was onto my third, I was reeling from this woman’s intoxicating life.
Our last meeting ended with Di’s account of heading to London with her husband, eye surgeon John Bowbyes. At that stage I rather thought the rest of her story would be a doddle – Di doing a bit of riding, perhaps having a baby and generally enjoying London life.
Well, yes, she did all that. But the baby was in fact three babies and the ‘bit of riding’ was a lot of riding. It seems Di rode full on into the English hunting season and embraced motherhood at the same time.
“When it came to riding I was very lucky,” she explains. “By chance I was introduced to comedian Jimmy Edwards… I suppose you mightn’t know who he is?”
Actually, I do know. In fact, I remember seeing him in movies when I was a young girl and I am immediately agog at her connection with the man.
Anyway, she tells me that before she knew it the 1950s/60s actor had offered her his horse to ride which she accepted with alacrity.
“As a result I met the most wonderful people and was privileged to ride on estates not generally available to the public,” she says. “I rode mostly on winter weekends and fortunately had great friends who would care for the children if John was working.”
Eight years in England passed quickly and before they knew it the Bowbyes were back in New Zealand.
“John had accepted a post in Dunedin and the first thing we did was to buy a property with land. After London we wanted space for the children, their pets and, naturally, horses.”
But if anyone thinks Di was about to succumb to a life of domesticity, then think again. It wasn’t long before she was back in the saddle, show jumping and eventing.
“My first horse was Exceed, I then purchased Melaka. He was a good show jumper but also won a 50-mile endurance race, then a fortnight later won his first race on the track.”
| Di gives her sister riding lessons on first pony: Minty. |
About that time Di realised her life of weekend riding with the family in tow was, in her words, “somewhat selfish – we travelled all over the country to show jumping events, camping mostly; John, the children, me, even the dog.”
By this time Di was becoming interested in the racing arena and had great mentors such as Arthur Didham and Hector Anderton who gave her a programme to train her racing horses.
“Seeing Melaka’s potential, the idea of breeding, training and racing was looking very attractive especially after Melaka’s first big win.
“I’d taken him to Riccarton and after a couple of steeplechase starts I put him on the flat and he came home. But next thing the jockey went to the weighing room; the horse went to the swab box and I went and hid…in the barn.
“But all was well. The protest was dismissed and I had my first lucrative win together with a bottle of Dimple Whiskey. I was elated.”
But it was with her next horse, Nirene, that Di was able to prove a point. She wanted to show the pony club movement that a thoroughbred could be a safe and skilled mount for pony club riders. Nirene was perfect for the job.
“For example, one weekend I entered her as a show hack in the Dunedin AMP Show where she won reserve champion but I couldn’t wait to see if she would make champion as we had to put her on a float and head for Gore where she was racing. She won!”
That wasn’t the end of it. The following Saturday Di’s Nirene took out the championship at the Milton AMP Show, proving her worth in both equestrian arenas.
After going on to win several races and to perform in the show ring, Nirene eventually became Di’s first brood mare.
It was soon after that the Bowbyes decided to attend the annual Trentham sales to buy one staying bred filly each year from the best staying families.
At that point I tentatively ask Di about funding this new direction. I surmise it must have been costly. I should have known she would have it covered.
“Oh, I just decided to do one night duty a week at Dunedin’s Mater Hospital and then, at weekends, between racing, I had a regular spot on the panel of Beauty and the Beast, a television advice show fronted by Selwyn Toogood. It was such fun.”
But there’s more. Having also completed a Polytech design course she also taught interior design via the Women’s Education Association.
Just when things were looking settled down south the Bowbyes were on the move – to Auckland.
“The boys were at university and John had the chance to buy a practice in Auckland. He came north and I stayed behind to sell the farm and pack up – it took 18 months.”
And during that 18 months of part-time jobs and selling the family home, Di also opened the first wine bar in Dunedin which operated downstairs in the Robbie Burns Hotel.
“Opening hours were from 7am in the morning to 3am the following morning and everyone pitched in to help,” she recalls. “The boys were there to open up and start the food, the publican helped out and so did others. It was a hoot – we had great musos and great times.”
Finally, Di was ready to go north where the Bowbyes purchased 10 acres at Flatbush. Eventually they increased this to 30 acres and were thinking of building when architect Ron Sang suggested they look at a Whitford property which had a house along the lines of what the couple wanted.
“It was on the market so we whipped off to see if we could glean any ideas,” Di says. “Two days later we were at the auction and before I knew we owned it! But, of course, nothing runs smoothly when you want it to.
“On the day we moved to the new house I had to be on a plane heading to Australia with one of my horses – thank goodness for friends!”
With the head count of horses increasing all the time the new 50-acre property gave Di enough land for about 30 horses.
“Because Whitford was a fair way out I also bought a yard at Takanini from where we could train and transport the horses more easily.”
That was 20 years ago and since then Di has not been idle. Having a public training license meant she could race her horses in Australia and was often back and forth. However, these days she concentrates on breeding and racing.
Di’s story would not be complete without mentioning her involvement in racing administration which began in Dunedin.
“Being one of only three women trainers in New Zealand at that time, I found myself in an industry where women were not always taken seriously so I became involved in the Otago Owners and Trainers’ Federation.”
Di was then nominated to be the organisation’s representative at monthly meetings in Wellington and was later nominated to the position of vice-president of the New Zealand Owners and Trainers’ Federation.
“This ultimately led me to present a racing policy to the Government which was embraced by Winston Peters and the New Zealand First Party in its inauguration year.
“Later that policy resulted in the establishment of a Minister of Racing and, importantly, put racing on a level taxation playing field with pokie machines. This immediately put
$93 million into the racing coffers.”
In turn, Di has become a champion of women in racing and has travelled the world presenting papers at racing conferences, even though in some countries, where women are still not recognised in racing circles, she has had to speak through her husband.
Despite her many and varied interests (her shop in Botany south is her second Auckland retail venture) Di is still a racing enthusiast but says: “I am presently very disappointed in the off-hand attitude of the current administration to race horse owners – without owners, no racing!” But if readers think her disappointment might drive Di in another direction, they would again be wrong. She just sees the situation as a challenge!