Racing: Bonecrusher's deeds not forgotten

Shaune Ritchie with retired champion galloper Bonecrusher at his Takanini property. Photo by NZ Herald.
Shaune Ritchie with retired champion galloper Bonecrusher at his Takanini property. Photo by NZ Herald.
Bonecrusher was more than a horse in the 1980s. He was a cult figure who had a song written about him and - as Bill Collins famously said at the end of the 1986 Cox Plate - he raced ''into equine immortality'' after his tussle down the home straight with Our Waverley Star at Moonee Valley. He made a journey south for the 1988 White Robe Lodge Handicap at Wingatui. Twenty-five years on, with the 2013 edition of the race to be run on Saturday, Matt Smith talks to trainer Frank Ritchie about the trip.

It might be hard to compare eras, but it is no exaggeration to say Bonecrusher was a horse-racing superstar in the mid-1980s.

That makes his appearance at Wingatui in February 1988 all the more memorable.

It would be the equivalent of the modern-day New Zealand king of the turf, Ocean Park, turning up at Wingatui for the White Robe Lodge next year. It just wouldn't happen.

In 1988, though, it did happen. As part of Frank Ritchie's grand plan, the Wingatui piece of the puzzle fell into place perfectly - the southern hospitality was just a bonus.

Ritchie is still preparing horses in 2013, including My Scotsgrey, who competed in Saturday's Wellington Cup, but it's clear Bonecrusher holds a special place in the Cambridge trainer's heart.

''He was a huge part of all of our lives and he was a wonderful racehorse,'' Ritchie told the Otago Daily Times.

''He had a heart as big as a lion and that's what you want most from a horse, of course.''

Bonecrusher's heart was willing in 1988, but Ritchie had a horse on his hands who had squeezed every ounce of effort out of himself to down At Talaq in the 1987 Australian Cup at Flemington - a performance that was every bit as brave as his Cox Plate win.

As Ritchie explained, it flattened the horse, and he wasn't himself later that month when running third in the Rawson Stakes (now the Ranvet Stakes) in Sydney.

''He suffered from some of the racing over there, especially the Australian Cup that he won in the last stride,'' Ritchie said.

''It really knocked him around and we took him to Sydney and raced him and he ran third, but he went terrible and pulled up really bad.''

Back home in New Zealand, Bonecrusher found himself in a paddock, as Ritchie plotted his next move with the horse nicknamed ''Red''. The $30,000 feature at Wingatui stood out for several reasons.

''We wanted to run in another Air New Zealand Stakes [at Ellerslie] and we looked for a race that might be suitable,'' Ritchie said.

''We thought the trip . . . would condition him and get some weight off him. As long as we planned it right and gave him time, all of these things would bring him on.

''We had considered it to quite some degree and we decided the White Robe Lodge race was the right race and it worked in the finish - he went home and won the Air New Zealand Stakes.''

Bonecrusher and his travelling convoy stayed at Brian and Lorraine Anderton's property, White Robe Lodge in North Taieri, which helped make the trip very relaxing.

''We had a fantastic time,'' he said.

''We were treated like royalty. Everyone looked after us wonderfully. Brian and Lorraine are great people. I've known Brian for many years and I can't speak highly enough of their hospitality.

''The club were great and I know the horse was an attraction, but still they went above and beyond what they should do to help out.''

About 5500 people turned out on an overcast Mosgiel day to watch the champion strut his stuff on the firm track.

''I heard later it was the largest crowd they'd had since Show Gate, which was a decade before,'' Ritchie said.

''Obviously, you want to get more people to the races and if you've got the animal that can do it, that's good to see as well.''

Bonecrusher carried 57.5kg in the feature race, giving away 4.5kg to the next-highest weighted horse, Slick Million, who ran third. Despite the heavy weight on his back, punters sent Bonecrusher out as a $1.50 favourite.

It was a lightweight chance in the form of Robinski who gave Bonecrusher - and the gathered masses - the biggest fright of all.

Paul Richards, now a trainer based at Wingatui, was riding Robinski that day and thought he might have stolen a winning break, with just 50kg on Robinski's back and Richards handy to the lead.

''I got to the front about the 200m and I actually got a bit of a break on him, but right on the line, he got me,'' Richards said.

''He was always going to come at me. I just held Robinski up until inside the furlong, but at the end of the day, he was too good, really,'' he said.

Ritchie was initially alarmed at the effort Bonecrusher had to make to win, but as the years marched on, Robinski's ability shone through as he was exported to the United States and won several stakes races, including the 1990 Bay Meadows Handicap near San Francisco.

''He only won by a head from Robinski, which horrified me a bit, but of course Robinski was grossly underrated as he ended up winning a group race or two in the United States,'' Ritchie said.

''Things are funny - you never know quite what is hiding behind the next hedge. He turned out to be a much better horse than we knew he was.''

Bonecrusher, the Te Kuiti-bred star of the turf, wasn't the only son of King Country in Otago that weekend. Legendary shearer David Fagan was busy winning the Otago open shearing championship in Balclutha while Bonecrusher took on his rivals at Wingatui.

As for the horse, he is still alive and well at the age of 30, living out his retirement at the Takanini property of his owners, Peter and Shirley Mitchell.

''He's marvellous, actually. He's in great order - he looks like he could live a few more years,'' Ritchie said.

''We go and see him from time to time. We went and saw him not long ago, actually.''

Many of Bonecrusher's wins have been uploaded to You Tube. Search for ''Bonecrusher'' and the relevant race. The last 400m of Bonecrusher's White Robe Lodge Handicap win can be found on the Otago Racing Club's site (www.wingatui.co.nz).

Bonecrusher has his own website (www.bonecrusher.co.nz) where there is more about his breeding, race history and subsequent retirement. The Bonecrusher song - written by Wayne Cann, Gordon Evans and John Scull and released just prior to Bonecrusher's unforgettable 1986 Cox Plate victory - can also be downloaded.