Hain still 'Untouchable' on 18 year-old Thoroughbred
Merran Hain and Untouchable competing on their home turf in Gisborne. Photo: Cornege Photography
Merran Hain is a history-maker. There’s nothing new in that – she’s the only one to have ridden for New Zealand in the three Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing and showjumping, and the way equestrian is today, it is unlikely anyone will match that.
At an age when most others are taking things easy, she’s still out winning plenty on her bred-to-race thoroughbred Untouchable. From January to March this year, this formidable combination won 10 rugs.
It’s no surprise she has in her trophy cabinet at home nearly every major jumping trophy in New Zealand – from the Olympic Cup to Lady Rider of the Year, to many top dressage and eventing crowns. Hain was the first woman to win both the Olympic Cup and Lady Rider at the same Horse of the Year Show. She was an inaugural inductee to the Equestrian Sports New Zealand Hall of Fame and been honoured for her lifetime contribution to the sport.
The Queen’s Service Medal winner has been competing on New Zealand’s show circuit for more than 60 years, going all the way back to the Poverty Bay A&P Show when at barely seven, she placed second to Peggy Milligan in the girl rider under nine. She was a dot on a horse with her feet barely stretching below the saddle flaps. She’d taken the day before off school to ride the 20-kilometres from home to the Showgrounds.
A lot has happened in the ensuing years and she’s continued to write the history books with some brilliant thoroughbreds. Untouchable is her latest in a long line. She bought him as a four-year-old off Sir Mark Todd, with whom she has a long-established friendship. Sir Mark rode her horse Bago at the Seoul Olympic Games and trained her horse Willy Smith to victory in the Wellington Cup.
The now 18-year-old Untouchable – who is by Warsaw Pact out of Melting Point (by Icelandic) – was raced as Wicked Game. She was low on horses at the time and called Toddy who suggested she call by on her way home to Gisborne from the World Cup final in Tipapa. “He showed me one that was just awful, and I asked if he had anything else.” Monty, as Untouchable is known, had just arrived. The horse had never jumped but Todd – being Todd – popped him over a few barrels. “The horse looked good behind, so I said yes and took him home. I didn’t even get him vet checked or query the price.”
He was a challenge at the beginning, but Hain says there was a lot to like about the horse – history proves she was right. “He was wild when I got him, but I trained him in the classical way which is something people don’t even know about these days.” In her early 20s, Hain had spent a year training in Australia with Hungarian Karl Jurenak which she credits for her no-nonsense and foundation driven training methods.
Hain and Untouchable have thrice won the TiES (Thoroughbreds in Equestrian Sport) Show Hunter Series, finishing second the only other time. “He does everything but to be fair, thoroughbreds don’t have the movement for dressage really.”
Monty has won the Working Hunter of the Year title three times and been placed in the Show Hunter Amateur and Open High Points series for the past three years. This season Hain and Untouchable also won the Livamol Best Thoroughbred of Show at the Glistening Waters Series Final. Hain handed the ride over the Luke Dee for some, giving her as much pleasure as she rides herself.
“Monty is the model person really – he stands at a fence while I get on, but it has taken us a few years to get to this stage!”
Her husband Sid, who has spent many, many years supporting his wife’s passion, says he has found thoroughbreds get more like pets the older they get and always had plenty of character – some cheekier than others.
Hain’s first bred-to-race star was Smiley John who she bought off Gaye Withers and goes some way to dispelling her last comment as she rode him to Grand Prix in dressage. Smiley John – who is by Cornvale – had raced as a two-year-old and went on to represent New Zealand many times. Twice he won the Burkner Medal and the Rigoletto Trophy as Grand Prix (dressage) champion.
“It seems to me that those who race as a two-year-old last longer in the competition arenas later on,” says Hain. “As long as they haven’t been over-raced as youngsters, they are just stronger.”
Smiley John continued to be a championship winner until he was 25 years old. Momento was another one, on whom Hain won the Norwood Gold Cup. She’d bought him from Lyn Edge in the Waikato and trained him through to grades. Pardon came from the Newlands who are remembered for their horse Almora who dead-heated to win the Wellington Cup. “Pardon was a very good follow on and while he didn’t do much on the track was great in dressage and helped me win the Helen Holden Shield.”
Winterwood turned his hand to a bit of everything, including eventing. But then came Untouchable. “Thoroughbreds are such good all-rounders,” says Hain. “Most of the good hacks and hunters are actually thoroughbreds.” Her eventer Chief, who she rode at the World Three Day Event Champs in 1986 also had a lot of thoroughbred in him. “It’s the stamina that makes them so good,” she says. “There have been some great thoroughbred showjumpers all over the world.” Justice was probably the one who propelled her into the spotlight when in 1968 they came from no-where to win the Lady Rider of the Year. Another was Onassis, on whom she won the Australian Three Day Event crown.
She struggles to pick a favourite – likening it to choosing one of her three children or eight grandchildren.
She and husband Sid are breeders of beef shorthorn at their Pehiri Stud and Hain still has a healthy interest in racing as an owner. She continues to compete around the North Island, travelling thousands of kilometres every season. She’s not one to curb her tongue if she disagrees with something and says she is driven to beat the youngsters in each and every class – it doesn’t matter how big or small it may be. Those same youngsters are equally on missions to notch one on the legend she is in the sport. Hain is hugely encouraging to them all and the first to congratulate anyone on a good round well won.