Twenty questions with Sue Blake

Tuesday June 9, 2015

Talented amateur driver Sue Blake developed a love for horses as a small child. She works full time in the trust company business now but says “driving and training horses is  the most exciting thing I do.”

1) How long have you been an Amateur driver?

I got my Amateur Novice Licence in 2009.  I had to complete 10 competent drives signed off by a Stipendary Steward, or professional driver, followed by a time trial and oral exam to obtain my Full Amateur Licence in 2010.

2) What made you interested in becoming an Amateur?

I have always been interested in horses.  I never outgrew that little girl love of them.  My family circumstances were such that I never had the opportunity to get involved with horses in a big way, although I did do a bit of riding in England.  When I emigrated to NZ in 1989, I didn’t know anyone that had horses, but did discover harness racing at Alexander Park and loved to go there, although not as often as I would have liked.  I moved to Nelson in about 2004 and lived there for a couple of years and always went to the Nelson meetings.  I then moved to Christchurch and discovered lots of different places to go to harness racing meetings.  I was at Motukarara the day that the Canterbury Amateur Drivers’ Association had their first Vacation Cup race.  A race in those days that was designed to thank the trainers for their support throughout the year and was the final race of the Summer for the amateurs in their then non-tote races.  There was an announcement over the public address system after the race that anyone interested in becoming a amateur should go and see Sheldon Murtha.  It took me roughly 30 seconds to think about it and then I was off in hot pursuit of Sheldon.  He immediately introduced me to Gavin Cook who asked if I had any stable experience.  I replied, rather sheepishly, that no I did not and he said well you had better start by coming out to my place.  The rest as they say is history, I am still their and still learning.

3) When did the Amateur movement begin in New Zealand?

I am not absolutely sure, but I recall going to Auckland for a non-tote race, which was part of an Auckland/Christchurch Challenge Race Series in 2011 and attending a 10 year celebration of Amateur racing in Auckland, so that would have been 2001 for Auckland.  However I think it did not get started in Canterbury until 2004 from the records that I have seen.

4) The races were all initially non-tote events. Is that correct?

Yes, there were a lot more mini competitions then as well.  I can recall some American drivers and Australian drivers (when they had amateur licencing) coming over for challenge competitions and we also sent representatives to America.  These were all non-tote races and held at workouts or in between tote races, at least in NZ.  We also had Auckland/Canterbury Challenges and Southland/Canterbury Challenges.  The only one I competed in was an Auckland/Canterbury Challenge as they were beginning to concentrate a lot more on the tote races by then and there was not so much interest for the non-tote races.  We still have non-tote races, but only at workouts to enable Amateur Drivers to obtain sufficient experience to go for their Advanced Licence, which will enable them to compete in the tote races.  It is likely that in a few years we will all be Advanced Amateurs and most new members will come from the trainer/driver or ex-professional ranks.  It takes a long time to take the route that both myself and Pete have taken and you have to be pretty patient and motivated to complete all the necessary drives and tests.  For the moment though the non-tote races continue and every Full and Advanced Amateur driver can earn points in these races to achieve the Canterbury Championship on an annual basis and for the Advanced Amateurs also the NZ Championships.

5) When did they become totalisator events?

Permission was granted in 2008 for Amateur Tote Races by HRNZ.  The first tote race was in May 2009.  At this time they were not held throughout the year as they are now and were only organised during the Winter as our non-tote races in the Summer months were still where the majority of Amateurs were licenced to drive.

6) You obviously enjoy working with horses, what is it in particular you like most?

That’s a hard one to answer, but it all starts with a love of horses right back when I was a little girl.  I soon discovered that it was never enough just to go for an occassional trek or something, I only ever really got a buzz when I was learning about them.  I think that is what it boils down to _ an overwhelming desire to really understand them and to continue to learn about the many facets of horses and in particular now racehorses and how to get the best out of them and do the best for them.

7) What is it about driving you enjoy most?

Again it is all about the learning and wanting to be the best that I can be.  I also do have a competitive nature and played netball right up to only about 10 years ago.

8) The Amateurs seem like a very competitive bunch out on the track. Do you all get together socially after the races?

Not as much as we would like to.  A lot of the drivers have their own horses to see to and get home after the race or other horses racing at the same meeting.  We do have an annual awards night, which provides an opportunity for a get together.  The most social race meetings we go to are when we do the Central Otago circuit in the New Year, as the drivers that go to that from Canterbury are there for at least 3 days.  The Roxburgh Racing Club put on a Calcutta Night on the evening before the races, which is well attended by drivers and trainers both locally and from Canterbury.

9) What are the benefits of being an Amateur driver?

The greatest benefit for me is that I have a chance to really be involved in a sport that I would otherwise probably always be on the sidelines.  Not having any horse connections before I became an amateur meant that I would probably never have been more than a spectator.  Becoming involved at this level has opened many doors to do with the industry and provided me many outlets for learning about other aspects of harness racing, such as owning, training and breeding.

10) Is there anything about harness racing you would like to see changed?

I would like to see members of the general public (like I used to be) given a chance to get more involved in harness racing.

11) If so, what is that and  have you got any suggestions about how it could be made better?

The only thing I can suggest off the top of my head is to find a way of providing harness racing information to the general public that attend race meetings.  There is lots of information about betting provided by the TAB, about the types of bets and how to place them as well as people available to assist.  Something along   those lines about ownership, syndicates and breeding would show people that they do not have to be already involved or know someone in the industry to get more involved.

12) Your partner Peter Cook is secretary of the New Zealand Harness Racing Trainers’ and Drivers’  Association. How did you meet Peter?

We met by accident in a busy cafe, as there was not enough empty tables.  We have often said that it is funny how we never met at the races.  We must have been at the same race track so many times, but never knew about each other.

13) You often  drive horses trained by  Gavin Cook who recently won his third NZ Amateur Driver Championship title. How did you come to know Gavin?

Question 2 answers this question.

14) Do you work in the harness racing industry,  or in some other sector?

My main job is in the trust company business.  I work for Perpetual Guardian full time and they sponsor my driving trousers and helmet.  They are very accommodating and allow me to vary my hours a little, so I can still assist with fast work day at Gavin’s stable.

15) Do you own any horses. If so what are their names?

Pete and I own two horses, Selester and Special Delight.  They are in Pete’s name as owner and my name as trainer.

16) How many tracks have you driven on?

I have driven on 13 tracks between Auckland and Roxburgh.

17) Which is your favourite and why?

I have had tote wins at Addington, Waikouaiti and Omakau so those three are favourites.  However I love the Central Otago Circuit, so that brings in Omakau and Roxburgh.  I also had my first win ever at Rangiora when I had a Novice Licence and I won a Non-Tote Amateur Cup Race at Banks Peninsula on the grass, so they have a special place in my heart also.  I guess I just don’t have one favourite track.

18) You have recently been granted your trainers’  licence. What made you decide to get a trainers’ licence?

It has been something I have wanted to do for a while _ another learning curve I suppose.  I always thought it would not happen until I could afford to either work part-time or retire.  However with Gavin and Marie going overseas for the majority of the winter months, that meant that with Pete’s help I could bring this forward.  I could never do it without Pete and work full time, which of course finances the training, so if I wasn’t working we wouldn’t be able to train at this stage.

19) Where will you train your horses?

I am leasing boxes at Gavin Cook’s place.

20) Is there anything  about you that people might be surprised to know?

I can’t think of anything to put here.  Driving and training horses is the most exciting thing I do and that would only be a surprise to people who know me outside of the industry.Ω

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