Grove Bush horse lover Diane Cournane and husband Noel operate an 'all stars' hotel for harness racing's elite in Southland.
Her paying guests have included a list of harness household names including Hands Christian (13 wins $330,824), Smolda (16 wins $584,637), King Denny (9 wins $205,754) and includes the sports latest pinup boy Have Faith In Me (7 wins $475,381).
In amongst the paying guests Diane still has room for her own band of mares and talented racehorses, including world record holder Fight For Glory (2400 metres mobile 2-50.3).
The large rolling 10 acre paddocks at the Cournane's Diamond Head Lodge 25 minutes from Invercargill have become the R and R HQ for Australasian's most successful harness racing stable of Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen.
The horses sent from the All Stars stable are those that require time to mature, time to rest, or a grassy paddock as part of their retirement package - like Hands Christian. He is now a part of the furniture on the farm although when I paid a visit there last week to do this story he was away on loan doing some trekking.
Diane Cournane doesn't get any instructions from her clients and often not too much warning as to when the next four legged guests are arriving.
“I just get a call from Majestic (horse float company) who say 'horses coming.' Or sometimes Mark (Purdon) rings and says one is coming down and there's four on the truck. I always say to him can you not count?" said Diane with her familiar laugh.
But she welcomes all, gives them all the same care and attention and gains great enjoyment out of being the 'housemaid' to these horses.
“When you see them win you feel a part of it because you know them.”
Diamond Head Lodge is150 acre farm which has beef cattle and sheep to help keep the pastures healthy.
Back a few years ago I suspect Noel was running a normal farming operation with a few horses. But the horse business, as it sometimes does, has taken over.
“Diane is the boss so I get the best paddocks," says the former hairdresser who has recently sold up and retired for the horse hotel business.
Mark Purdon has been sending horses south ever since he started training in Canterbury at his former Yaldhurst Road stables.
“He trained Christiansheritage (Christian Cullen) for me (in 2003) when he moved to Yaldhurst Road in Christchurch. She was the first Christian Cullen to be born. He just said to me one day will you take some horses to spell. We take the ones that stay for three or four months. Owners in Christchurch just have small paddocks whereas here they get out into 10 acre paddocks.”
It's obviously been a winning formula and without doubt part of the success that Purdon and Rasmussen have enjoyed over the last few years.
The horses come south for a wide range of reasons. The very talented Didjamakem Bolt (6 wins from only 9 starts) shares a paddock with last year's Kindergarten Stakes winner Itz Bettor To Win. Both are owned by Cournane's biggest client, Australian Merv Butterworth.
“He’s (Didjamakem Bolt) got bone issues. It ‘s almost like a baby with chalky bones. Every time they get him up he seems to go. He’s recuperating for six months. Itz Bettor to Win didn’t shape up in Auckland so Mark said he needed time to develop. Merv said send him to horse heaven as he calls it.”
Itz Bettor To Win and Didjamakem Bolt away from the racetrack - Photo Bruce Stewart
The two Purdon Rasmussen horses involved in the smash in last season's Southern Supremacy Stakes were also sent to the Diamond Head Lodge to recover.
“Meticulous and Gentle Western recuperated here for six months after that smash."
Others to have called the farm home include Messini, Major Ben, Supersonic Miss, Arden Rooney, Alleuia and Isaiah, all enjoying the lush grass which is hard to find in Canterbury even in the best season.
“In the winter they get hard fed with lucerne and baleage. Marks leaves it up to me and I just send them back when they’re right.”
Southland trainer Tony Barron and prominent galloping owner and trackside presenter Karen Fenton-Ellis also send horses to the Cournanes.
Diane also has an interest in thoroughbreds. She sold Volkara (Volksraad - Landara) for $75,000 at the sales and after an injury ended her racing career managed to buy her back for just $1,500. She and Noel have an unnamed two year old Zed filly and a Zacinto yearling colt out of the mare who is in foal toTavistock.
However, it's the standardbreds that are her true passion.
Brought up around horses, her father Don McRae senior trained and drove standardbreds working for Bob Townley at Nightcaps and Jim Flynn at Wairio before training in his own right. Diane's sister Wendy Blakie of Oturehua has bred a host of winners from Princess Della including Kyvalley Mac (12 wins), Just A Cracker (11 wins), Just Incredible (1-56.6 USA) and Dealornodeal ( 7wins).
Diane's first venture into breeding and racing was with McWay (Knowing Bret – New Way) trained by Doody and Kevin Townley.
From a limited racing career she won two races before she was retired.
One of her first foals was My Name’s Good (Nero’s BB).
My Name's Good proved the be a real gem at stud providing the Cournanes with their next generation of racing stock. She left Anvil’s Top Gun (Christian Cullen) the winner of seven races, Breath Of Life (Village Jasper) also seven wins, and Make Mine Roses one win.
It was Breath Of Life that provided Cournane with her first quality race mare.
Initially trained by Ben Waldron she won twice for the Ashburton trainer before Mark Purdon took over.
“Mark drove her at the trials one day and rang me and said "Diane, what are you doing with Breath Of Life?" I said she was coming home to be a broodmare. He said that he wanted to take her to Auckland so I said that’s okay but if her doesn’t win you can keep her as a broodmare. So he now says to me "Can I have her as a broodmare?”
She won a further five races for Purdon including a five length win over Kiwi Ingenuity in the 2009 Breeders Stakes at Alexandra Park in Auckland. She was the first mare in New Zealand to break the 2-40.0 mark for 2200 metres mobile. Her winning time of 2-39.8 was also a New Zealand record.
She also provided Mark Purdon with his 1000th training win when she won at Alexandra Park in September 2009 when driven by Jordon Compain.
Breath Of Life along with her half sister Make Mine Roses (Washington VC) and Nitouche Franco (Soky's Atom) are the three mares Diane and Noel are breeding from at the moment.
Make Mine Roses with her Auckland Reactor colt, Nitouche Franco and her Mach Three filly, and Breath of Life with a full brother to Fight For Glory named Honor and Glory.
Nitouche Franco has provided the couple with quality racehorses All Star Man, (8 wins) and Whisper Jet (6 wins). All Star Man is just back in work for Grant Payne while Whisper Jet, part-owned by the Cournanes and Butterworth Racing Syndicate, is spelling in Australia.
The mare's next foal War Horse, finished second at his only start for Tony Herlihy while her next foal is called Lydia Ko. She is a two year old full sister to All Star Man. Nitouche Franco currently has a Mach Three filly at foot called Sheer Bliss and has been served by Bettor's Delight.
Nitouche Franco and her Mach Three filly Sheer Bliss - Photo Bruce Stewart
Make Mine Roses which won one race for Cournane's niece Lauren Pearson has a stunning Auckland Reactor colt at foot.
Atomic Reactor (Auckland Reactor - Make Mine Roses) on the good Southland grass at Diamond Head Lodge - Photo Bruce Stewart
But it has been Breath Of Life that's been a bit of a revolution at stud.
Her first foal by Art Major recently won the $200,000 Group One NSW Oaks in world record time. She was purchased by Mark Purdon for just $20,000 at the 2013 Sale of the Stars in Christchurch.
Purdon offered Cournane a share in the filly and the ownership group was completed by Ann Gibb (wife of former galloping trainer Jim Gibb), Dean Illingworth who also shared in the ownership of Breath Of Life, John and Gaylene Tait and Lyn Tucker (wife of Ivan Tucker former galloping trainer).
"Mark Smolenski broke her in and said she had the X Factor.”
Also on the property are a number of rising three year olds including Snakes N Ladder (Courage Under Fire - Night Line), Peace Be With You (Mach Three - Braeside Lady) and Breath of Life's Bettor's Delight colt GI Joe which was bought by Merv Butterworth for $82,500.
Two year olds with GI Joe in the foreground - Photo Bruce Stewart
There is no doubt that Diamond Head Lodge is part of the current success of The All Stars Stable of Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen and that the pasture Noel and Diane Cournane grow coupled with the Southland weather toughens and nutures both old and young horses.
Diane enjoys being part of this success and finds pleasure in giving horses her individual attention whether they be her own or some of her star boarders.
A royal relationship.
Commander Barclay (Sunday 15th March 2015)
Driver Brent Barclay knew he had an advantage and that he had to make the most of Sky Commander's very good standing start manners.
The consistent C0 trotter had some talented C1 trotters behind him, including his stablemate Jen Jaccka which started off the 30 metre mark in yesterday's New Zealand Steel Graduation Series Handicap Trot at Winton.
Barclay's plan to lead and run the journey at good even quarters, put paid to any of his opposition getting near him. The Skyvalley three year old was just too good, beating Ruby's Jewel by seven and a half lengths.
He was having only his second start for Ryal Bush trainer Brett Gray after he was purchased by the Butterworth Racing Syndicate from Brian Norman.
The 2400 metres was trotted in 3-04.2 - a new track and Southland record for three year olds, beating the previous record of 3-07.8 held by The Fiery Ginga.
New track record holder Sky Commander and Brent Barclay - Photo Bruce Stewart
Stable mate Jen Jaccka driven by Nathan Williamson finished well for fifth.
"Jen's a pretty special horse but with the 30 metres it was just a long way to give them over 2400 metres. Nathan was rapt with her run and he said she went to the line really nice. So we'll go into the Oaks at Addington next Friday."
Meanwhile earlier in the programme the Ben and Karen Calder owned Santorini Sunset not only picked up a Harness Plus bonus when winning the Ampelite NZ Handicap Trot, but he also broke the open 2400 metre record for trotters.
The four year old Majestic Son - Sunning gelding trained at Russley by Kevin Townley beat Trouble Rieu by half a length running the 2400 stand in 3-02.8. Moment Of Sun held the previous record of 3-03.5.
The Townley trained Sheeman holds the New Zealand record of 3-00.6.
New track record holder Santorini Sunset returning with Dexter Dunn - Photo Bruce Stewart
Other track records on the day were: Donegal Kahlum 1-54.9 (3 year old fillies 2400 metres mobile) and That's Hunting Pink 4-02.5 (open 3200 metres stand).
Dexter with another track record holder Donegal Kahlum - Photo Bruce Stewart
Smithy Into Supremacy (Sunday 15th March 2015)
The Jamie Gameson trained Smithy booked a place in next months Alabar Southern Supremacy Stakes Final when he easily won The Hits 98.8 Mobile Pace at Winton yesterday.
"I got him off a guy I'd known all my life called Johnny Smith. He died two years ago so he didn't actually see him race. His wife Nicky suggested that we called him Smithy. She still races him with a couple of good clients Robin Beeby and Peter Burt, my wife Natalie and I and Ken Hainsworth who came on board before Cup week," said Gameson.
In yesterdays race, driver Craig Thornley positioned Smithy two back on the outside with Bettor Pay Me and Dexter Dunn leading. With 1100 metres to run Thornley surged forward, taking the lead and keeping on a solid pace.
Down the straight he kicked on too strongly to beat I'm Full Of Excuses by a length and a half. The 2400 metres was covered in 2-55.9. Rider On The Storm holds the course and New Zealand record of 2-54.5 - recorded in 2007.
"I was glad Craig let them burn early. He was a little bit revved up. Once he got out in the open he just dropped the bit."
Smithy and Craig Thornley - Photo Bruce Stewart
Gameson has had Smithy since he was a young horse.
Smithy is now qualified for the Supremacy Fina,l a $45,000 Group Two feature for three year old colts and geldings held on Diamonds Day Sunday 12th April.
Sell A Bit A Keeper (Sunday 15th March 2015)
Canterbury trainer Brent White has sold some good horses including Elios and Wesley Silcox but yesterday's Southern Belle Speed Series winner Sell A Bit is one he's hanging onto in the meantime.
"It was great for the owners; The Offinluckee Syndicate and Lisa Hill of Nelson, who is a real good friend of mine, and breeder Catherine Hey," said White after the four year old Julius Caesar mare won the feature.
Sell A Bit is out of the Live Or Die mare Nomorenuki.
"I broke her (Sell A Bit) in as a yearling. She broke in real nice and qualified as a two year old but was just a bit weak. She won a race at Forbury as a two year old then we turned her back out. Catherine didn't want to race her by herself so I formed a group of guys to lease her off her. She won two races as a three year old and I sent her up to the North Island just to race against weaker company. The trip made her into the horse she is now. This season she's come back bigger and stronger and I think the short distance races just suit her."
From a second line draw in a hot field, driver Stephen McNally settled her three wide before moving to sit parked. She hit the lead just after turning into the straight and held on to beat an unlucky Royal Counsel by a neck.
The time of 1-54.1 was a new race record beating Hannah's 2011 time of 1-54.3. The track record for mares is 1-53.7 and is held by Cullen's Mercy.
Sell A Bit (13) holds on to beat Royal Counsel (pocking through on her inside) - Photo Bruce Stewart
Sell A Bit and Stephen McNally after winning the Southern Belle Speed Series - Photo Bruce Stewart
"I suppose now we'll have to look at some mares races as she's getting up in the grades. I've done a pretty good job to dodge them all the way through but I know the boys would love to race her at the Jewels."
Sell a Bit was the sixth win favourite in yesterdays' feature after a disappointing run for fifth at Gore the previous week.
"I was a bit gutted with her run at Gore. We started there because I knew she was in desperate need of a run and Stephen and I thought she should have finished a length closer. I left her with Alister Black for the week and he's done a good job."
Sell A Bit has now won eight races from thirty starts and banked $53,390 for his connections. She is currently fourth on the Four Year Old Diamonds leader board for the Harness Jewels.
White leases boxes off Fred and Joy Morris at Yaldhurst and normally has about twelve horses in work
"I was Murray Edmond's first ever stable hand and worked for Leicester Tatterson and Brian West. I then gave it all away and got into the pub game. I still help friends run the Springston Hotel but I'm back concentrating doing the horses now."
Elios and Wesley Silcox aside, White has also sold Legislate to Graham Bond in Perth. He won fifteen races there. White's first big sale though was Al's Courage which was sold at the 2011 Ready to Run Sales for $80,000. He raced at Winton yesterday for Jamie Gameson's stable finishing seventh in race six.
Kerr In Kind (Sunday 22nd March 2015)
The relationship between trainers Paul and Mitch Kerr and breeder Tony Dickinson goes back a fair way.
Over the years the Kerrs have purchased some very good bloodstock off Dickinson's Alta Breeding Company so it was fitting that Princess Arts, a filly Paul purchased at the 2013 Sale of the Stars for $37,000 for Dickinson, is starting to repay their good judgement.
"We were after a really nice filly for Tony. We've had a long association with him with horses like Alta Christiano and Alta Jerome. He's been good to us and I'd like to think we've been pretty good to him as well," said Mitch.
Princess Arts was bred by Southlanders Vin Devery and Alan Blackler and their wives from their smart mare Natal Franco. She won seven races and was good enough to run third behind Kiwi Ingenuity and Angela's Dream in the Group One 2008 New Zealand Oaks.
In yesterday's Sheet Metalcraft Ltd/Harrington Electrical Ltd Mobile Pace, driver Dexter Dunn placed the Art Major filly three back on the outside with Geordie Sivad leading. With just over a lap to run Dunn spotted the three wide train advancing and hooked out to sit parked with 800 metres to run. Coming down the middle of the track Princess Arts proved too good for Geordie Sivad winning by three quarters of a length.
"She just didn't quite stand up to it as a two year old. She had just a bit of a rapid gait and needed to mature. After her two year old season we turned her out and it strengthened her so now she's able to stand up to work. We took her up north and she's turned out to be a lovely filly."
Princess Arts one five winners for Dexter Dunn - Photo Bruce Stewart
The win now puts Princess Arts into calculation for the Group Two Nevele R/Macca Lodge Southland Oaks Final on Diamonds Day at Ascot Park on Sunday 12th April.
"She's a really tough filly and she's developing speed. In the Southland Oaks if they go really hard it should suit her. We'll just keep her ticking over. We're staying at Brett Gray's and using Nathan Williamson's pool."
The Kerrs nearly won the 2009 Southland Oaks Finals getting within a head of beating Beaudiene Bad Babe with Pay Me Painter. Natal Franco ran 10th in the 2008 Southland Oaks Final. She was unlucky getting carted back by a retiring favourite Fight Fire With Fire.
The win by Princess Arts was one of five for the newly crowned World Champion driver Dexter Dunn. It's not the first time he's won five at Ascot Park. He drove five winners in February 2009 and April 2011.
Vin and Daphne Devery are also having a golden run as breeders. They bred Chase The Dream who is unbeaten in four starts. His wins include the Sapling Stakes and a heat and final of the Young Guns Series at Alexandra Park. The Bettor's Delight - Christian Dreamer colt owned by Jean Feiss has banked close to $100,000.
Matt Anderson is building up a fan base.
The young junior driver drove his second group race winner in a month yesterday when he partnered hot favourite Northern Velocity to win the Group Three Caduceus Club Of Southland/Nevele R Two Year Old Classic at Ascot Park.
The junior, only in his second full year driving, showed a level of determination yesterday, and proved he was not intimidated by champion reinsman Dexter Dunn who challenged him early for the lead.
After beginning well from barrier five Anderson took the lead heading out of the first bend towards the 1600. It was then that Dunn moved forward on Chevrons Champion and the two went stride for stride for most of the back straight before Dunn had to back off. Pat Campbell, then Gina Grace both moved forward to get within range of Northern Velocity. Gina Grace got out to a three quarter of a length lead but was unable to cross. At the top of the straight Anderson had three lengths on the rest of the field and careereda way to win by seven and a half lengths from a brave Pat Campbell.
"That wasn't the plan to go to the front. I was open minded. We drew five and the first bend into Invercargill is quite tricky and you can't rush it too much. She got off the gate nice enough and found the top nicely. She got a bit keen when Dexter came up and had a good look. I was just trying to get a bit of a breather when Gerrard (O'Reilly) came up (on Gina Grace). He wasn't going good enough to hand up. She deserved the win," said Anderson.
Northern Velocity and Matt Anderson after their feature win - Photo Bruce Stewart
The time of 2-44.5 was a new track, race and Southland record. The previous record was held by Goodness Gracious Me. The national record of 2-42.7 is jointly held by Megaera (1990) and God Forbid (2013). The time was remarkable considering the slushy condition of the track.
Trained by Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen Northern Velocity was having only her third start. As hot favourite in her first start she galloped when challenging and some gear changes were made. Anderson took over the driving of the filly from Mark Purdon at her next start and she duly won the American Ideal Leonard Memorial Stakes at Addington.
"I think the punters got it dead right and she showed how good she was when she went to Addington. I think today she showed what she can do."
Northern Velocity, a $72,500 yearling purchase is a half sister to the recently retired Pembrook Benny which won 22 races and won $907,890.
Kina Craig Stud principal Ross Jones performs a few duties on race day for his local club the Northern Southland Trotting Club.
He's on the committee, a valued sponsor and helps around at the start with the crash crew so it was fitting that he and his family were rewarded when their horse Statham won the Northern Southland Trotting Club's Caduceus Club of Southland Autumn Futurity at Ascot Park yesterday.
In fact Jones had to take off his fluoro vest as he headed to the birdcage to collect the spoils.
Statham was also bred by Jones and his wife Robyn and is out of the unraced Mach Three mare Dolly McD.
"We bought the mare off Alan McDonald and this is the first foal we've bred out of her. I liked her pedigree because she was out of a Panorama mare and it was the same family as Joyfulbelle. I also liked her because she was young and by Mach Three," said Jones.
Trainer Nathan Williamson has adopted a patient policy with the three year old Bettor's Delight gelding and the $18,000 feature was only the horse's sixth start.
"He's always been a bit hard to get on with and as I mentioned in the presentation Nathan's done very well to get on with him. He's sort of mollycoddled him whereas others would have upset him too much. He's done a fantastic job teaching him the ropes and just to get to this day and whatever happens after this is a bonus."
Heading out of the first bend Williamson was caught three wide on a hot pace before ending up in the parked position. At the 1400 metres Williamson took the second favourite to the front while the favourite Rocker Band sat in the one one. At the 650 mark Ricky May pulled Rocker Band out to move forward and challenge three wide. From the 400 the favoured pair drew away and went to war with the chasing bunch 4 lengths in arrears and struggling. All the way up the straight Rocker Band inched closer but Statham was too strong, holding on to win by three quarters of a length. The time of 2-43.7 was a creditable one a slushy track.
"Nathan knew that he'd stay and it was just a matter of whether the filly (Rocker Band) was too good for him or had too much zip but he just outgunned her."
Statham and Nathan Williamson after their Futurity win - Photo Bruce Stewart
Although qualified for the Alabar Southern Supremacy Stakes Final next month Jones was unsure of what Williamson has planned for the gelding. From six starts he's now won three races and run second twice. The win elevated him into the top twenty of the Three Year Old Emerald at the end of season Harness Jewels at Ashburton.
"He's a big strong guy. Just a male version of his mother. He's a lovely horse."
Statham is owned by Ross, wife Robyn and their three children Josh and Sam who live in Australia and Katie who is engaged to Williamson.
"The boys aren't really interested in horses at all but there's nothing like a bit of success to get the kids keen.One of them would have been in the pub while the other would have been working."
Katie and Robyn are also part owners of another Nathan Williamson trained three year old Tas Man Bromac. He's won six races from ten starts and is currently eleventh on the Emerald leader board.