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.
Former Highlanders rugby player Matt Saunders with 2yr-old
pacer Franco Santiago at his West Plains stables in
Southland. Photo by Matt Smith.
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
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
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
''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
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
''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.''