The New Zealand racing industry awoke on Monday morning to the news of the death overnight of popular Canterbury trainer Tony Prendergast, aged 84. Prendergast, who trained in partnership with his wife, Lyn, from their West Melton property, had been suffering from cancer after being diagnosed a few months ago and his death came after a shattering week for the family with their home being gutted by fire and with it the loss of all their possessions, including all their prized racing trophies and photographs.
Kylie Williams, who completed her apprenticeship with the Prendergast stable and had remained a life-long friend and helping hand, had hoped to provide a ray of sunshine last Saturday for the family with a win in the final event aboard the Prendergast-trained Queen Jetsun.
It was on Queen Jetsun last September that Williams celebrated a career highlight with Prendergast, her 700th career win, but last weekend the mare had to settle for second, the same placing registered in the first race by stablemate Volvik. “It would have been good to get that last winner for Pop,” Williams said. “He (Prendergast) was like a father to me and I always called him Pop. The best Pop a girl could ask for. “I signed up with Pop and Lyn when I was 17 and he taught me so much. I’ll never forget some of the pranks he pulled and his laughter when you got him back. He was one of racing’s true gentlemen.”
Prendergast was a self-confessed battler who became a well-known and popular figure around the South Island racetracks. It would be common to see him give someone a flick with his race book or a friendly punch on the arm as he walked by, his cheeky way of acknowledgement. And there was hardly a more popular occasion on course than when his stable got a winner. The delight on Prendergast’s face told it all, he was loving what he was doing and not about to stop.
Prendergast chipped in working alongside his wife right up until his illness took over in recent months, belying his age as he continued to play his role in a career in racing which stems back to his youthful days as an amateur rider. The final win for the Prendergast stable came last December in the Listed Timaru Cup (1600m) with stable star Who Dares Win, who finished fourth in last Saturday’s Group 3 Winter Cup (1600m).
In April last year Who Dares Wins provided the Prendergasts with a notable double, in the Listed Easter Cup (1600m) and the Group 3 Canterbury Gold Cup (2000m) a week apart, then completed a hattrick at Riccarton. Prendergast put paid to any thoughts of his retirement in a Love Racing interview after that double. “I’ve got no plans to stop,” he said. “We will keep going while we can. I can still jump in the [harness] cart and jog a horse for 40 minutes. That keeps you fit.
“Training has never been an easy game, and the overheads now have made it harder, though we are fortunate that we own our own property and have good facilities. “You always have your lean patches, then you win a couple, and away you go again. “We have never trained a big team. We have usually had 12-15 horses in work, never more than 20, and every time we have a big win, we really savour it.”
From a family of six boys, Prendergast was brought up at Hyde, in Central Otago, and has been involved with horses all his life. His father raced standardbreds and a brother, Dick, had considerable success as a harness trainer. After working on farms when leaving school then becoming an amateur rider, Prendergast took out an owner-trainer’s license and made a remarkable debut in the 1964-65 season when preparing Rutanui, a nine-year-old maiden, to win fresh-up at Cromwell over 1700m at odds of +6700.
He then backed Rutanui up two days later for another win, over 2000m. Rutanui was ridden in the maiden victory by Prendergast’s life-time friend, Brian Anderton, who still remembers the occasion clearly. “We tried him out and he was one paced and not much good,” Anderton said. “Tony got him sorted out and decided to race him. He had a real knack with horses.”
Prendergast got the former slowcoach Rutanui into winning trim through farm work, including cattle mustering, on the East Otago farm he was then managing. “That also convinced me that horses don’t need to do a lot of galloping and I’ve never been a great one for galloping,” Prendergast said last year when recapping his early days.
Prendergast worked as foreman for Anderton’s astute father, renowned Wingatui trainer Hec Anderton, who had more winners in the 1950s than any other New Zealand trainer and won three New Zealand Trainers’ Premierships. “I spent about four years with Hector and learnt a hell of a lot from him,” Prendergast recalled. Later when married, Prendergast was employed by prominent owner-breeder-trainer and transport operator Stan McKay to drive floats and broke in his horses and rode them in work before building up his own team at Wingatui, the Prendergast home until shifting to Christchurch in 1983.
He recorded his first win as a professional trainer with Isalei, at Omakau in 1971 and boosted his income in those early days working night shift at the Mosgiel woollen mills. An early star for Prendergast was Lomond Queen, who became the dam of Queen’s Pal, one of the best horses for the stable. Queen’s Pal won a total of 14 races, including eight as a three-year-old, from 41 starts. Eleven of her wins were in black-type races, including a third in the Group 1 New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m).
St James was another stable star, winning 11 races, including five stakes races, and he gave Prendergast a big thrill when finishing third in the 1989 Hong Kong Cup, nine years after Lyn joined him in the training partnership. St James also won in Brisbane.
However, Prendergast rated Mr Ay Bee, whom he part-owned, as the best horse he trained “by a country mile.” Despite being hampered by injuries, Mr Ay Bee won 19 races from 1225 to 2500m and took six consecutive races as a five-year-old, including a fresh-up win over 1225m at Beaumont, when ridden by Lyn Prendergast.
In a bid to reduce travelling from Wingatui, Mr Ay Bee was transferred to Takanini trainer Ray Verner in 1979 after his Brisbane campaign, in which he finished second in the Group 1 Brisbane Cup (3200m), and for Verner he won the 1979 Group 1 Avondale Cup (2200m) then the Listed King’s Plate (1600m) before breaking down in preparation for the Group 1 Auckland Cup (3200m).
Prendergast trained the winners of 386 races and he was proud of his record with apprentices, including Williams, Jan Cameron and Charlie Brough, while his daughter Kerry, also rode winners during a brief career as an apprentice and has had some success as a trainer.