Venerable Kiwi stayer Sampson has arrived in Victoria and is settling into life on the Mornington Peninsula with trainer Howie Mathews refusing to commit to any plans until the gelding tells him he is the best version of himself.
A notoriously poor traveller, it is the first time the now nine-year-old has made the journey across the Tasman and he has been accompanied by his veteran trainer as the pair enjoy a bit of R&R and a change of scenery.
“Being retired now and with only Sampson in work, I can please myself with what I do,” Mathews said.
“I’ve got a good friend who leases a block in Mornington, Lisa Jones, so I’ve just come here with the mind to see if the horse settles in and how he works and how he does.
“A lot of times that I’ve travelled him away he’s gone very poorly. I’ve taken him to Auckland numerous times and I’ve taken him to Riccarton numerous times and he’s really only raced fair.
“What I really wanted to do with him is bring him here to Mornington on the farm and just get him to work out that this is home and he’s an Australian horse for a while and don’t put any stress on him.
“I really haven’t focussed on any particular race. When I feel he’s settled in and ready, I’ll just nominate him somewhere, there are plenty of options here.”
The winner of 11 races, Sampson is in career-best form, having trounced his rivals in the Listed New Zealand St Leger (2600m) before being narrowly defeated by Jacksstar in the Gr.2 Awapuni Gold Cup (2000m) when dropping back in distance.
“He’s raced consistently the best that he has done,” Mathews said. “That run at Awapuni where he got beaten by Jacksstar was an amazing run, coming back from 2600m to 2000m within two weeks.
“Once he ran like that at Awapuni, I thought ‘right you’re in the peak of your life’.”
Mathews wife Lorraine part-owns Sampson, with good friend Janice Street, and has regularly ridden the son of Dubai Destination in his work.
“Lorraine’s got a few things to deal with at home and then hopefully she’ll join me if we decide to race him over here, closer to the time,” Mathews said.
“An open handicap in the city here is worth A$135,000. I thought what’s the use of carrying big weights at home and racing for average money, we might as well come over here and at least have a go, especially while he is fit and racing well.”
While it might be Sampson’s first journey to Australia, Mathews is no stranger to success in the Lucky Country, having prepared Coshking to win the 1989 Gr.1 Brisbane Cup (3200m).
“He flew over here three times in the one season,” Mathews said. “He ran second in the Sydney Cup (Gr.1, 3200m) and was placed in the Metropolitan (Gr.1, 2600m) and he also won the Dalgety Handicap (Gr.2, 2500m).”
With 52 years spent working in racing, Mathews is enjoying his new-found freedom as he winds down from a career which began as a jockey before becoming a private trainer for owner-breeder Hec Tapper.
“Hec had some wonderful horses like Big Gamble, Copper Bit and Extra Flash,” Mathews said.
“We won the Wellington Cup (Gr.1, 3200m) and Telegraph (Gr.1, 1200m) on the same day for him. We had a great time for five years with him before it was time to go on my own.
“My first really noted horse was Bourbon Boy, he won nine in a row, he was a fantastic winter galloper.
Mathews also prepared Dorabella to win both the Gr.1 New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) and Gr.1 Captain Cook Stakes (1600m) in the mid 2000s.
“I have had a wonderful time as a trainer. But because I’m a only a small trainer, an average trainer, I’ve had to do a lot of it on my own without staff or with very minimal staff.
“It’s always been very hands on for Lorraine and I, so we haven’t had the holidays or big trips away that some of the bigger trainers get. They can walk off and leave their staff to it.
“So I said to Lorraine last year when I turned 65, it’s time to enjoy life. I left home when I was only 13.”
Like so many veterans that flock to the Mornington Peninsula, Mathews and his prized stead are enjoying the environment and no doubt Mathews is looking forward to supplementing his pension with some Victorian prizemoney this winter. – NZ Racing Desk