Keeping Up With Willie Calder

18 September

As Avantage (Fastnet Rock) prepares to step out in the first Group 1 race of the season – The Tarzino Trophy – on Saturday, she will do so as the shortest priced favourite in the races long history. A host of Champions like Mufhasa (Pentire), Sunline (Desert Sun), Seachange (Cape Cross) and Melody Belle (Commands) to name a few, have all been successful in the season opening Group 1 event, yet none have done so as short in the market as Avantage.

Coming from the deep south and a 5th generation oyster fisherman, Willie along with his wife Karen are well known in racing circles as the breeders of Group 1 winners Avantage and D B Pin (Darci Brahma), so we took the opportunity to catch up with Willie to learn more about what drives his passion for the thoroughbred, how breeding Group 1 winners transpired from a foundation mare by Pins, Pin’s ‘N’ Needles, his Bluff oyster business and the undeniable effects of Covid-19.

Where did the interest for the thoroughbred industry come from & how did you first become involved?

My mother and grandfather were always into owning horses and it came through by going to the races with them. I got hooked on the punting side of things, and when they moved on my brother and I kept the interest going and continued to race a few.

In those days we were doing it more with the heart not the head, they were good horses, but it was costing us a bit and I decided to get something better bred. I would say running into a few more brains have helped us along the way too.

Was Pins ‘N’ Needles a product of “running into a few more brains” then?

Yes, we purchased her in 2002 from the South Island Sale. I selected 12 horses for John Parsons to have a look at, I remember he put a line through all 12! He asked me if I had any others, so I said I had seen two weanlings that I liked. John inspected them and said without hesitation, buy them both, which we did and one of them subsequently being Pin’s ‘N’ Needles.

Trained by Parsons, Pin’s ‘N’ Needles would go on to win six races for the Calder’s including the Group 3 White Robe Lodge Handicap and came a close second to Sir Slick (Volksraad) in the 2007 Group 1 Thorndon Mile. However, it was her efforts as a broodmare where she would prove to be most successful, as the granddam of Avantage and dam of Hong Kong Group 1 sprinter D B Pin.

Avantage is the result of a mating between Champion sire Fastnet Rock and your Zabeel mare Asavant, how did this mating come about?

The story dates back to breeding Asavant, we sent Pins ‘n’ Needles to Zabeel and I remember traveling to Cambridge Stud with Sid Taplin to see the foal. Pins ‘N’ Needles wasn’t a big mare and I remember the foal walking out from under mum’s legs and I thought gee she’s not that big! Sir Patrick Hogan then told me the best Zabeel’s were always a bit smaller, so that gave me a bit of confidence and made me realise he was a good salesman! She kept growing and ended up being  a really nice sized horse and a terrific race mare for us.

How Avantage came about was quite interesting, we were all set to run in the Foxbridge Plate with Asavant in 2013 when she picked up an injury during the week, we felt she had done her job on the track so with the help of Gordon Calder she was on a plane 3 days later to Coolmore Stud. The deal was she would go to Fastnet Rock and if she missed she would go to Excelebration on the proviso she would return to Fastnet Rock the following season. Unfortunately, she did miss that first season and ended up returning the following year and got infoal.

As the story goes she was then sold at the sale to Te Akau, I did actually try and buy her back as it was a foal share agreement with Coolmore, but the auctioneer didn’t see my bid! The rest is history and she has given us a thrill every time she runs.

You have experienced the highs and lows, and losing Pins ‘N’ Needles in 2017 just days after selling Asavant must have been tough?

Owen Glenn purchased Asavant which was the smart thing to do commercially for us. I remember when we lost Pins ‘N’ Needles, Rick Williams who has been such a great help to me was down at home, he took a phone call and I’ll never forget the look on his face. I immediately thought something terrible had happened to Rick’s wife, when he got off the phone and told me Pins ‘N’ Needles had died. I admit it was somewhat of a relief! I thought by the look on his face it was a human life.

Obviously it was a deep shame that we lost a great mare so early on, she was only 16 years old and still had at least a couple of foals left in her, but we have a 4YO daughter by Fastnet Rock from her called Puysegur, she is talented but has had some issues. We hope she can stay sound this preparation as the stable believe she has Group quality about her. We also have a So You Think daughter from Asavant called Asathought who won recently and was third in the Southland Guineas, so they are the future.

The nationwide Covid-19 lockdown struck right in the middle of Oyster Season! What kind of effect did it have on your business?

We had a short break during the lockdown, and it was certainly a bloody concerning time as it has been for so many businesses. Thankfully we have managed to sell our quota, it took longer than usual, and we rely on restaurants to be open so we’ve been lucky to get it done.

How are bluff oysters best served!?

Personally, I like them as Oyster Kilpatrick’s. Cook ‘em in the shell, a little bit of bacon and cheese then grill them until he cheese melts, bloody beautiful. 90% of people like them raw though!

What race would you most like to win?  

I’d love to win the Herbie Dyke or the Thorndon Mile, they are races we’ve come close to so it would nice to win them.

What is your favourite stallion of all time?   

Zabeel – The best.

What is your favourite stallion at Westbury Stud?

Reliable Man, I came very close to sending Pins ‘n’ Needles to him in his first season. The way he beat Dundeel was impressive and he is a very good stallion.

Best piece of breeding advice you’ve received?  

Raise your young horses in NZ – I like going to Aussie to get a bit of their blood, but they are best to come back here and be raised. We sell or lose so many of our best horses and bloodlines overseas yet we are still so incredibly competitive. It has to be down to our conditions and horsemanship.


Photo Credit: Michael Rist