Tribute to a Pencarrow Icon

On Friday, Pencarrow Stud lost one of its most-respected icons, when the grand matriarch Romanee Conti passed away at the age of 24.

The Group 1 performed racemare was a sensation both on the racetrack and in the breeding barn, and has left an extraordinary legacy not just for Pencarrow Stud but to the New Zealand thoroughbred industry.

Pencarrow Stud Manager Leon Casey had his first association with Romanee Conti when he led her dam, Richebourg (by Vice Regal), through the ring as a yearling for breeder Jim Campin. Richebourg was secured by Pencarrow and, unbeknown to all, was to become the foundation broodmare of the entire Pencarrow Stud breeding operation.

From the Wilkes mare Mary Mead, Richbourg was herself a five-time winner, including the Group 3 VATC Tranquil Star Stakes in 1984.

Nearly 30 years later, Casey reflects fondly on the great mares.

“Richebourg’s first two foals had been beautiful foals, her first, by Sir Tristram, we sold for $550,000. Romanee Conti – also by Sir Tristram - was the third foal but she didn’t have the looks of the previous two.

“We sold her at the sales for $150,000 but after the turmoil of the 1987 stockmarket crash she was actually returned to us six months later,” recalled Casey.

She didn’t have the best conformation and one trainer, on inspecting her at the sales, was asked by a prospective owner if they wanted to buy her and replied, ‘No, we definitely do not want this one,’ and turned to Casey and apologised. Casey recalls the trainer’s view that she had ‘everything’ wrong with her.

When the rising two-year-old returned to Pencarrow months later, Casey noticed filling in her knees and had a vet x-ray the filly.

“They basically said there is so much damage in the knees that a racing career was very much in doubt,” said Casey.

Nonetheless, she was sent off to Laurie Laxon’s stables in Maungatautari to see if there was any hope of her becoming a racing prospect.

“It was a great training performance by Laurie. He trained her on the hills and whether she would have seen a racetrack in a traditional situation is debatable,” praised Casey.

She had her first start as a late two-year-old at Waipa. She missed the start by four lengths, looped the field and won by four lengths.

“Lance O’Sullivan got off her and said this filly has really got ability. But the next day at home she was dead-lame,” recalled Casey.

X-rays revealed she had bone chips in her knees and had to be operated on. Once again the vets advised that she did not have many races left in her.

“We decided to set her for the Gold Trail Stakes (Group 3) to try win a stakes race with her so we would have a stakes-winning broodmare by Sir Tristram out of a Group winning mare.”

She ran third in the 1991 Gold Trail Stakes after missing the start by four lengths once again. She came out at her next start to win the Group 3 Lowland Stakes (1400m) and secure some coveted black type for her breeding future - but that was not the end of her career as the vets had predicted.

That season she also ran fourth in the NZ One Thousand Guineas, and collected another three Group and Listed wins, and a further six black type placings, including second in the Group 1 Thorndon Mile, over the next 17 months.

As a result, she was invited to the 1993 Hong Kong Cup (1800m), run in April that year due to a strangles outbreak in Hong Kong.

She went to Hong Kong carrying not only her Kiwi jockey, Greg Childs, but the weight of a nation.

“It was probably one of the strongest fields ever assembled that year,” recalled Casey.

“Probably the most impressive part of her performance was the horses she beat. She beat Fraar who went on to win the Caulfield Cup later that year, and Urban Sea who won the Arc, and went on to leave world champion sire Galileo.

“At the Hong Kong Cup presentation the officials advised Philip (Vela) not to pick up the trophy because it was too heavy for one person to lift. Of course he grabbed it in one hand and shoved it above his head,” said Casey, recalling the astonishment and admiration of the Sha Tin crowd.

Despite her win, she wasn’t invited back to Hong Kong the previous year and continued her winning form in New Zealand and Australia.

She was a superb racemare on both sides of the Tasman. She won the Group 3 STC Queen of the Turf (now a Group 1 race) along with the Listed Emancipation Stakes in Australia. In New Zealand she was the winner Group 3 Rotorua RC Lion Brown Plate along with her Lowland Stakes victory.

She also ran second to Octagonal at her last in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes and was retired to stud.

“She was truly freakishly talented,” comments Casey. “But then she obviously went on to be a phenomenal broodmare for the farm as well.”

Romanee Conti’s first foaling, in 1995, nearly killed her. She had paralysis in her both her hind legs and could not stand for 10-12 hours. The foal, by Marscay, went onto make $550,000 at the Yearling Sales.

Romanee Conti’s third foal was Ethereal (by Rhythm), who was retained by Pencarrow to race under the care of Shelia Laxon. Romanee Conti further etched her name into the record books when her daughter achieved the elusive Group 1 Caulfield/Melbourne Cup double, becoming one of only 11 horses to have ever achieved the feat. Ethereal was named Champion Australian Stayer in 2002 and added the Group 1 BMW Stakes to her credit in the same season.

Age, along with her knees, caught up with in her later years and Casey knew she was nearing the end of her run.

“It’s not a family that lives for a long time but in the end it was her knees that probably got to her. While they thought her knees would stop her racing, eventually they did have an effect on her,” he said.

She was a mare of great courage on the track and later as a broodmare. She had a level of supreme toughness rarely found, and passed that onto her progeny.

Romanee Conti is the definition of a ‘blue-blood’ and the legacy created by her and her dam, Richebourg, continues to influence racing in this part of the world. She is a daughter of Sir Tristram, a stallion that forged the landscape of New Zealand breeding, and was also a three-quarter sister to another broodmare sensation in Grand Echezeaux, winner of the Group 1 Australasian Oaks and dam of five-time Group 1 winner and exciting young sire Darci Brahma.

Romanee Conti gave her all for Pencarrow Stud, racing with bravery and producing a dynasty for the Stud and for New Zealand. She will be sorely missed by everyone who has had anything to do with Pencarrow Stud along the way, and will be forever honoured by the Stud and Vela family as an icon of their thoroughbred endeavours.