As he prepares to resume his role as a globe-trotting Twenty20 cricket coach, Brendon McCullum received a fitting send-off this week from his other major passion. The former Black Caps captain was on course at Te Rapa on Saturday to see a stylish come-from-behind victory by his talented filly Tabata in the Dr John Southworth Memorial (1200m). Another win followed two days later, this time as part-owner of the New Zealand-bred Blesk, who won at Goulburn in New South Wales.
The New Zealand winter has become an unfamiliar world for McCullum, who has spent much of the last two decades touring with the Black Caps, playing in overseas leagues or coaching. This year was supposed to be more of the same, coaching the Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League and Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean Premier League. But Covid-19 intervened, forcing the postponement of the six-week Indian Premier League and leaving McCullum’s feet planted on New Zealand soil.
Instead, he has kept himself busy with a mixture of family time, club rugby in Matamata and his boutique thoroughbred racing and breeding operation. “Obviously Covid-19 has been incredibly tough on everyone, but the silver lining for me has been the extra time I’ve been able to spend at home with my family,” McCullum said. “That’s been absolutely fantastic. “I’ve also had a bit more time to put into the racing side of things, and we’ve been looking after all of our stock here on our farm. We had 14 horses here at one stage, so it’s been enough to keep us busy.”
Now cricket is calling again, with McCullum departing next week for the Caribbean Premier League, which runs from August 18 to September 10. The rescheduled Indian Premier League will be hard on its heels, kicking off on September 26 at a temporary venue in the United Arab Emirates. But this week’s winning double has ensured that McCullum will leave these shores with a spring in his step.
He was thrilled with Tabata, who appeared to be awkwardly placed in the home straight at Te Rapa, then changed gears and swept to victory by more than a length. “She was outstanding,” he said. “I really thought she was gone about halfway down the straight. “It was an awesome ride from Danielle (Johnson). Other jockeys might have given up, but she knows this filly so well from riding her in trackwork and trials. She knew that she had more to give, and she was able to really get the best out of her in those last 100 metres or so.
“Stephen Marsh (trainer) has done a great job with her as well. He’s been really patient and given her all of the time she needs. He’s a top trainer and a great bloke, and we enjoyed a good celebration together after the win.”
Tabata’s maiden victory came at her fourth start, and it was her first appearance since November. She had begun her career last spring with a fourth, a second and an unplaced finish in the Listed Trevor Eagle Memorial (1500m).
Tabata was bought for $100,000 at Karaka 2018. The Savabeel filly is a daughter of the stakes-placed Splitsecond, whose dam is a full-sister to the Group 1 winner Sixty Seconds. Other close relatives include the Group 1 stars Legs and Xtravagant. “Hopefully there might be a bit more to come from her on the track, and then she could make a nice broodmare later on as well,” McCullum said.
“We don’t want to get too carried away, but when you’ve got a nice Savabeel filly from Waikato Stud, you know you’re off to a good start. “We’ve always known that she’s had a bit of ability, and most of her family screams out for at least a mile, so I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do over a little bit more distance.”
Success on the racetrack is nothing new for McCullum, who had shares in horses throughout most of his cricket career, a notable example being Go Racing’s well-performed sprinter Passing Shot. He has also dipped his toes into the syndication business with Vermair Racing, whose standout performer was Volks Lightning – winner of the Group 3 Sweynesse Stakes (1215m) and third placegetter in the Group 1 Railway Stakes (1200m).
But Tabata races in McCullum’s own name and white, cyan and magenta colours, marking a change in focus. “We’re moving away from the syndication side of things and just concentrating on our own horses now,” he said. “Syndication turned out to be quite difficult. When I was getting towards the end of my cricket- playing career, I had anticipated that I might have a bit more time on my hands to devote to running the syndicates. As it turned out, I’m still pretty busy with all the coaching and other cricket commitments around the world.
“When you’re running syndicates, you really want to provide the best possible service to the owners and keep them right up to date with everything they need to know. It’s something that takes a lot of time, and that just didn’t quite work out for me. “So now we’ve moved more towards running a small team of racehorses ourselves instead, along with a little bit of breeding. We’ve got a 10-acre block here in Matamata now, with three broodmares. We’ll see how we go and hopefully have a bit of fun along the way.”
McCullum has formed a close friendship with Waikato Stud’s Mark Chittick, and Monday’s Goulburn winner Blesk is a Waikato Stud-bred son of Savabeel. The three-year-old colt is raced by a large group of owners including McCullum and Mark and Garry Chittick.
Trained by John O’Shea, Blesk has now won two of his five starts. “I like to take the opportunity to have shares in horses with other people as well, including some in Australia, and it was exciting to have a winner over there on Monday with another New Zealand-bred son of Savabeel,” McCullum said. “I’ve also got a few shares in some other horses with Stephen Marsh and Graham Richardson, so hopefully there’s a bit to look forward to, and I’ll be following their progress with interest while I’m away.”