Groom For Improvement?

Some may take to their high horse when it comes to the sport of kings, but Bevan Smith is not one of them. Instead, the former groom understands that, even in the high stakes world of thoroughbred racing, it pays to remain grounded. JON RAWLINSON reports.

Thoroughbred ‘fan boy’ Bevan Smith meets up with race track great, Frankel.
Photo supplied

Although he may have attained a top job with New Zealand Bloodstock (NZB) in Karaka, it seems Bevan Smith – a former groom and NZB marketing guru – was born to be a globe trotter. Thanks to obtaining the Sunline Trust Scholarship from the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders Association (NZTBA), the world is now his oyster.

By working at top stud farms and visiting racing stables in England, Ireland and the USA, Bevan hopes to gain valuable knowledge. During the first stint of his overseas adventure, he has already discovered that there are differences to managing thoroughbreds the UK way although some things are always the same.

“Mucking out is mucking out, it is the same everywhere, so I’m well used to the ‘shit’ jobs! However, there was a lot more mucking out to do here because most of the horses only go out during the day (except young foals) and live inside at night during the winter. The English also foal down inside. This is all simply to do with the colder climate, but that’s changing as the weather warms,” he explains. Luckily, the experienced groom is quickly catching on. “I have definitely learnt a lot so far. On my first day, I was asked to bring a horse inside and handed a ‘rope’ which, to us, is more like a lead, only without a clip on it. I thought I had been handed a broken lead, but I quickly got to grips with (literally) learning the… ropes!”

Despite extensive experience, Bevan has been impressed by the scale of the bloodstock industry in the UK.

“I’ve been based in Newmarket, known as the birthplace of racing. It is amazing to live in a town where everything revolves around horses. The foal crop here is actually similar to home but it is produced in a much more concentrated area.

“Cheveley Park Stud (where I’ve been based) is the oldest stud farm in England. It’s stood the test of time, largely because every year they produce horses of the highest quality and have bred a large number of winners. And yet, New Zealand is as good as any country at producing 12 — Rural Living — June-July 2016 Group 1 winners which punch above their weight on the international stage.”

Owning a potential champion may be beyond the average punter in both countries, but change could be in the wind, and raising the stakes should help improve industry fortunes. “UK racing is ruled by a few, extremely wealthy owners. It’s a great sport, but there’s a bit of a barrier to participation as it’s often seen to be the reserve of the elite. Having said that, back home we seem to be heading in the right direction, making it more affordable to become involved in ownership. I want to see this continue,” he says.

“We need to increase prize money in New Zealand so owners can be richly rewarded and we can keep our best horses in our own stables. Racing in the UK is facing similar challenges as they try to increase prize money. There is plenty for the best races but it drops away for the ‘middle of the road’ events.”

Although UK studs may be breeding plenty of champions of their own, Kiwi horses are widely respected and valued. Bevan says recent Kiwi success at the Melbourne Spring Carnival and Sydney Autumn Carnival are being recognised.

“People are well aware of the capabilities of New Zealand horses. There is interest in how our sires are going – everyone seems to know what a brilliant sire Tavistock is becoming, for example, so he is a great advertisement for our breeding industry.

“With stallions shuttling to New Zealand, there is plenty of interest in how they are doing, and people have been impressed with how such horses as Showcasing and Iffraaj (both of which stand at Haunui Farm) and Makfi (Westbury Stud) are doing down under.”

Bevan Smith
Bevan Smith

Despite thoroughbred racing often being referred to as the sport of kings, Bevan is yet to mix and mingle with royal sorts, but he has come close. “I haven’t personally met any of the ‘royal riders’ as yet. I have seen horses owned by the Queen working at the gallops, and the farm where I’ve been working is surrounded by three different Sheikhs’ farms, so they are out there, that’s for sure!”

In terms of career prospects, he is not ruling anything out career-wise and looks forward to seeing what opportunities will be available on his return to New Zealand.

“In whatever role I end up attaining, the experience and knowledge I’ve gained here will be invaluable for me and, hopefully, the wider New Zealand industry,” says Bevan.

“I’m ambitious and passionate about thoroughbreds and I aim to use my skills to support our industry in any way I can. I’m sure the experience I’m building will stand me in great stead in any role.”