New Plymouth trainer John Wheeler still has a zest for life and passion for racing that will keep him in the training caper for the foreseeable future. The Hall of Fame trainer has excelled with both flat horses and jumpers and is viewed by his peers as a trailblazer among the ranks of New Zealand trainers, particularly for the success he has had beating the Australians on their home turf.
The 69-year-old, who prepared Poetic Prince, Rough Habit and Veandercross, has 19 Group One victories to his name in Australia, a record for a New Zealand-based trainer until surpassed in recent years by good friend Murray Baker, who has 22.
Wheeler welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Racing, Winston Peters, this week of a $72.5 million COVID-19 emergency support package for the racing industry but believed the Government shoulders much of the blame for the decline of New Zealand racing over a number of years. “Since 2003 when the Government basically took over the running of the TAB, we have gone slowly downhill,” Wheeler said. “Racing is a vital part of New Zealand’s tapestry and it plays a major role in terms of employment. “By my calculations, since 1951 we have given the Government, through duty, in excess of a billion dollars. “I felt the Government owed it to us, but by the sounds of a lot of comments, you wouldn’t think so.”
Wheeler believes the industry can be turned around, but he would like to see the vacant chief executive role at the restructured TAB be appointed to someone with a background in wagering. “John Allen (previous New Zealand Racing Board chief executive) had never been into a TAB in his life before getting the job,” Wheeler said. “Why would you give someone that doesn’t know how to wager a job organising wagering? It’s just bizarre. “I’m still optimistic that our industry can turn it around. “Nothing changes until you’re in a dire situation. We’re in that crisis situation now and I am hoping that the right changes will come.”
Wheeler said opportunities had arisen throughout his career to train overseas but he loved the lifestyle in Taranaki and believed that New Zealand had significant advantages when it comes to preparing young racehorses. The popular horseman, who started working life as a chicken farmer in the family business, remains enthusiastic about training and said he was thankful for the opportunities the industry had afforded him.
“I love it,” Wheeler said. “I love the game. I have had a great run out of it. It has given me a fantastic lifestyle. I have met royalty, multi-millionaires, paupers and crooks. All sorts of people and I have a lot of mates in the game. “I’ve still got quite a few horses in work, including a few jumpers and a few younger horses. A lot of them I own myself, but I don’t have a problem getting out of bed in the morning. I just enjoy my life.”
While unable to have runners at the Warrnambool jumps carnival this year, Wheeler said the additional time might be a blessing in disguise. “I’ve got 10 relatively young jumpers and a couple of older ones like Macklemore and Mr Enthusiastic, but most of them are young horses with a real future,” Wheeler said. “I have got some young horses that are good enough to go to Australia in the not too distant future.
“Abacus, Quaff and Grinner were all earmarked to go over, but Australia’s jumping season is well on the way through and by the time you get them over there and you have to trial them, I will probably wait until next year. “I will keep them in New Zealand this year as some of them are relatively green horses. I was going to get over there and get them going and win maiden races. You get a bonus of $10,000 if you win a maiden jumping race over there. “The only reason we’ve got to go there is to make it pay. Australian racing has always been my focus to be fair, even though I pre-train in New Plymouth, my focus has always been on Australian racing because that is where the money is.”
Wheeler, who had a satellite stable at Mornington for a number of years, also had opportunities further afield. “We did pretty well and won well over 200 races out of there (Mornington),” he said. “I just love where I am, what I am doing and I have had plenty of opportunities to go overseas. I could have gone to Hong Kong 30 years ago, but I chose to stay where I am for the lifestyle and I am not complaining. “It is half the cost to train them over here and you only make money in Australia with horses good enough to race and win on a Saturday.”
Wheeler said a number of New Zealand trainers and jockeys had done well in Australia because of their work ethic, but the affable horseman acknowledged that Australian owners and racing fans relished bold personalities. “When I was racing over there all the time, I think most of the Aussies thought I was an Aussie anyhow because I have a similar sense of humour and I suppose a bit of shit in me,” he said.
“Long may it last.”