Racing takes hold for former Highlander

Former Highlanders rugby player Matt Saunders with 2yr-old pacer Franco Santiago at his West Plains stables in Southland. Photo by Matt Smith.
Former Highlanders rugby player Matt Saunders with 2yr-old pacer Franco Santiago at his West Plains stables in Southland. Photo by Matt Smith.
Rugby and racing were foremost in the psyche of many New Zealand males for much of the 20th century, and former Highlanders rugby player Matt Saunders is reforging that link by plunging headfirst into harness racing ownership and training. He talks to Matt Smith about how he got involved with the pacers and trotters.

Matt Saunders is immersed in the world of harness racing, though how he got there is a bit of a mystery.

''I don't know how I got into this, to be fair. It just happened.''

He is mixing a future in rugby coaching with the rigours of working at a harness racing stable.

Saunders (30) bought a training property at West Plains, just west of Invercargill, 18 months ago as he contemplated a career after rugby. But that time has gone by in a blur as Saunders has set about getting horses into the stable and learning about the industry from pretty much scratch.

''I always had a slight interest - the old man [father Mike, who died in March 2011] was a thoroughbred bloodstock agent before my time,'' he said.

''He was keen but [he was] never working with them, just betting on them.''

The utility back got pulled into the industry as one of several Southland Stags in the Sue Ping syndicate which raced the pacer Justa Jackella for a few placings with Invercargill trainer Tom Kilkelly before having more luck with The Guardsman (three wins).

Saunders was hooked and he bought the property - largely for the land but with the added advantage of a training track. He teamed up with Southland driver Andrew ''Archie'' Armour who was looking to get a foothold in the training ranks.

''I bought [the property] and asked Archie if he was keen to come out,'' Saunders said.

''First thing, I grabbed a saddle and had to chuck it on a horse and I didn't even know how to do that.

''I didn't know anything. I still don't know anything, but I'm getting there slowly.''

With Armour training and Saunders providing the stables, the partnership has worked well. They have collected 10 wins in their 18 months together.

''I couldn't have done it without him and it works both ways. He couldn't have trained without me, and I can't learn without him,'' Saunders said.

''We've got a good arrangement.''

One horse who thrived in the West Plains setting was Wot The Owl.

The 8yr-old son of Riverboat King came south after Saunders put in a claim for the horse when he raced in New Plymouth in April, and had instant success for the Sue Ping syndicate and a bunch of other owners, winning at Forbury Park in May. He won a further four races in Armour's colours of silver with black horse shoes before he moved on, as is the nature of horses racing in claimers' races, but it all helped raise the profile of the new stable.

''Most of the ones we've had going so far are cheap purchases just to get some horses racing,'' Saunders said.

''Wot The Owl somehow turned to gold for us, as have a few others, so it's been quite good, really.''

Their most recent success was with Zara P. The mare was bought by bloodstock agent Justin Le Lievre and a group of friends, and provided a return on their investment almost immediately when she won at Forbury Park earlier this month by 6 lengths.

The progress may have pleased Saunders, but there are two chances of seeing him in the sulky on a race day soon - slim and none.

''I'm slowly getting better at driving, but there's still a long way to go.''

Saunders and Armour will head to the yearling sales next month, prepared to go beyond the $12,000 maximum spend they had at last year's sales.

''Hopefully, this year, we may be able to spend a wee bit more. You need a bit of luck when you're not spending $50,000.''

Saunders, who was raised in Gore but was a boarder at St Kevin's College in Oamaru, is a rarity in rugby in the deep South, having played first-class rugby for North Otago, Otago and more recently 55 matches for Southland. Saunders also made the step up to Super Rugby, turning out 30 times for the Highlanders from 2004-08 before returning in the 2011 season.

He won't be adding to his caps for Southland even though he is ''sound'', as they say in racing.

''The old body is actually good, but the mind started to struggle last year with the motivation. My priorities changed,'' Saunders said.

''It used to be training first but all of a sudden I'd miss a training or two to come out and work a horse and then the form goes. I've had a good run and loved every minute of it, but I'll hang my boots up before I get pushed.''

Saunders is turning his hand to coaching and, along with former Stag David Hall, will assist Allan Frew with the Pirates Old Boys premier team in Invercargill this season. But while he has been touted in Southland rugby circles as a natural coach, Saunders is typically understated about his capabilities.

''I know a bit about rugby but I don't know how to coach yet.

''I'll see if I'm any good. I might be no good.''

Saunders combines the horses in with his part-time role at Rugby Southland, where he works as a development officer and its co-operation has helped the stable to thrive.

''I take a couple of hours for lunch - which is great of Rugby Southland to let me do that - and I just do some extra work at other times.''

As for his career highlight in rugby? For a boy from Gore, Southland's Ranfurly Shield wins in 2009 and 2011 top the pile every time.

''Winning the shield twice and beating those Canterbury buggers,'' he said.

''There were a lot of highlights for the Highlanders and Otago and North Otago, but you can't beat the shield.''