Cliff’s unique slice of Foxbridge Plate history
Cliff Wilson, Dennis Ryan Te Rapa. Photo credit: Trish Dunell
The inside front cover of last Saturday’s Waikato Racing Club racebook provided one clue to the history that surrounds the US Navy Flag Foxbridge Plate.
A reproduction of the poem by long-time raceday judge Harry Clarkin captures the story of that very first Foxbridge Plate in 1950 when champion Cambridge colt Mainbrace engaged in an epic duel with Canterbury raider Beaumaris. The record book, as well as Clarkin’s verse, confirm that Bob Nolan’s mighty chestnut got the better of Beaumaris, but a first-person account of that inaugural Foxbridge Plate can still be told by octogenarian racing enthusiast Cliff Wilson.
Not only did Cliff witness that inaugural Foxbridge Plate, but even more incredibly he hasn’t missed a single renewal since. And, sure enough, he was back at Te Rapa for the 70th running last weekend.
“I remember coming to Te Rapa as a five-year-old and watching the races from the best view possible for a little fella – perched on my father’s shoulders,” Cliff recalled as he ran his keen eye over the field for Saturday’s Group Two weight-for-age sprint. “I was coming up 16 when they ran that first Foxbridge Plate, which back then was over 10 furlongs on the first day of the Waikato Gold Cup meeting in November.
“It was a great race between two mighty gallopers and it had the crowd on their toes. There have been lots of other good Foxbridge Plates since and even though the race has been through some changes since, it hasn’t lost its prestige.”
Alterations to the calendar meant a radical revamp of the race in 1977, when the 10-furlong/2000-metre distance was reduced to 1400-metres and it was rescheduled to early spring, then the distance was further reduced to 1200 metres in 2009. Alongside those changes have been progressive upgrades in the Foxbridge Plate’s black-type rating, from a Listed event upon the introduction of New Zealand’s graded stakes structure in 1979, to Group Three in 2013 and three years later to its current Group Two status.
“It’s always been a good race and I’ve been fortunate enough to never miss one of them over the years,” says Cliff. “Even the year they ran it at Ellerslie when they were doing up the Te Rapa track.”
The Wilson family’s passion for racing included Cliff and his father Fred holding owner-trainers’ permits with a small home-bred racing string alongside their Taupiri dairy farm operation. Invariably horses carrying their black and gold hooped colours were named with either of the two prefixes Country or Noble.
“We had a lot of wins with various jockeys, but the bloke who won the most for us was David Peake. He was very loyal, right to the end, and it was such a thrill to give him the winning ride on Country Fair in the very last ride of his career (in July 2002).
“I knew he was due to retire and I told him I had a horse heading to Tauranga that could give him the perfect farewell. Peakey said to me ‘Cliffy, how can I say no? If you’re that confident you can count on me!’ ”
Cliff will never count a Foxbridge Plate amongst his personal list of credits, but he and his father had the thrill of saddling up runners in three editions of the race.
“The best we did was fourth with Country Boy behind Bardall – I think that was when the Robinsons won the race with him for the second time in the early 1970s. We never gave ourselves much chance of pulling off a weight-for-age win, but it was a thrill just to have a starter.”
These days Cliff Wilson lives in retirement with his wife on a Te Kowhai lifestyle block just north of Hamilton, quite content to take in the raceday action via Trackside TV. But as long as he’s able, he intends to keep making his once-a-year pilgrimage to Te Rapa and witness the race named in honour of the great Trelawney Stud stallion of the 1940s.
“Foxbridge Plate day is the only race meeting I go to now,” he confessed on Saturday. “I look forward to it every year and I’m so lucky to still be fit enough to come along here, see these good horses line up and catch up with so many people I’ve been mates with for years.”