Racing: Horses labour of love for Omakau trainer

Charlotte Neilson, Charley (17 months), Harry (2) and trainer Alex Freeman. Photos by Matt Smith.
Charlotte Neilson, Charley (17 months), Harry (2) and trainer Alex Freeman. Photos by Matt Smith.
When Alex Freeman was putting shoes on the likes of Weekend Hussler and El Segundo at the busy Caulfield racecourse in Melbourne, he never expected his first training win would be in the Central Otago town of Omakau. He talks to Otago Daily Times racing reporter Matt Smith.

Alex Freeman (28) ended a frustrating run of near misses when Ustibecasual - a horse who has clocked up almost as many miles as Freeman - scored in the rating 65 1400m at Omakau earlier this month. It was love and a family lifestyle that drew Freeman to Central Otago after he had set himself for a life with horses in Melbourne.

Freeman was ''bred'' into a racing family, and not a bad one at that.

''My mum's sister married Robert Smerdon. I was his main farrier for a long time in Caulfield and Ballarat,'' Freeman said.

Smerdon is known throughout Australasia for his success with a wide range of horses, ranging from former Victorian Oaks winner Mosheen to jumpers such as Black And Bent and recent star Brungle Cry.

Freeman met Otago woman Charlotte Neilson (27) in 2007 when she was riding track work for Ross McDonald's team at Caulfield, the same stables where Freeman happened to be working at the time.

As love blossomed, and son Harry - now 2 - introduced himself to the world, the couple made the decision to head back closer to Neilson's family.

''Charlotte's parents are here in Alexandra,'' he said.

''Where I was, we had no relatives within an hour and a-half of us so it wasn't very fair with me working six days a week, and Charlotte sitting at home by herself with little Harry the newborn.''

Freeman continued his farrier work when he arrived in Central Otago, shoeing Murray Hamilton's horses for some time before spreading his work around the equine industry in the area, working with showjumpers and a wide range of horses.

''That's my main source of income; it's funding the racehorses, really.''

Ustibecasual (Ross Doherty) brings up Alex Freeman's first training win at Omakau earlier this month.
Ustibecasual (Ross Doherty) brings up Alex Freeman's first training win at Omakau earlier this month.
The racehorses have become a labour of love as each galloper has thrown a challenge at Freeman.

The first horse he tried was Theatrical Affair, who was out of Office Affair, one of the last Secretariat mares still producing offspring. While Theatrical Affair showed the occasional hint of talent, Freeman had to give up on her.

''She had the ability but wouldn't show it on race days,'' he said.

''She was a bit allergic to the rest of the field.''

The next horse to make it to the races was War Paint and, while success was not forthcoming with the Lord Of Warriors gelding, it did give Freeman and family a good chance for a look around.

''He had bad conformation so we just tinkered around with him, drove around to six or seven different tracks and got a feel for the area and the way they do it in New Zealand,'' he said.

Volksraad gelding Compensate gave the team hope of a first success, before a tendon injury ended his career.

''We had a lot of trouble keeping him sound. We fixed his feet and he came out and went fifth, fourth, ran two seconds, getting beaten half a nose on his fourth start, then unluckily broke down at Riccarton.''

Finally, Ustibecasual came along, courtesy of a friend, Vicki Bonham, who had ridden for Rex Cochrane and knew the owner and breeder, David Lees.

Freeman's training career had lasted almost as long as Ustibecasual's losing streak. The Ustinov mare's last victory had been at Trentham during the 2011 Wellington Cup carnival and she had been tying up, or cramping badly, in her work.

''She lost a bit of form in the North Island,'' he said.

''The only thing we've done is got her away from the race track, trained her a wee bit different and got her feeling good. We changed her diet around and got her over all those little problems now, and she's loving it.''

Luck continued to desert Ustibecasual in her first five starts for Freeman, but it all fell into place at his home track of Omakau - even if there were some nerves in the grandstand as jockey Ross Doherty settled her near the back.

''It made us a bit nervous though, because we were all sitting there saying 'she's out the back, you're going to leave it too late, Ross','' Neilson said.

Freeman will now plug on with his racing team of Ustibecasual, Nancho Lass and Vindication, while he has got a big Ekraar half-brother to Nancho Lass waiting in the wings for Lauder owner Clive Booth.

''He's a big 17-hand monster that will take a bit of time - he'll be a two-miler."

Don't be surprised to see Harry, or younger brother Charley (17 months), in the saddle in the future, either.

''They can both go on the rocking horse and Harry has made it on to a few horses.''

While the long-term plan may include setting up a training establishment in Canterbury or further afield, Freeman is enjoying the idyllic surroundings at the moment.

''It's a lovely part of the world down here - the people are nice and it's a good place to bring up kids.''