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NZTBA Life Member Norm Hawthorne remembered by Steve Brem

Photo - Trish Dunell
Photo - Trish Dunell

"The end of an era" is a cliché often trotted out when we mark the passing of someone with a long history of individualism and achievement.

But there was nothing clichéd about Norman Victor Hawthorne who passed away aged 87 in July. He was an original. Rough-rider, shearer, pastoralist, horseman extraordinaire, hard taskmaster, animal lover, raconteur, romantic, mentor, big softie, squeeze-box player…these were just some of his better-known sides. As a friend for 35 years he was, above all else, as genuine and loyal a man as I've ever known.

If your life was a monotone, Norm could be relied upon to paint colour onto it.

Norm had a deep love of the thoroughbred industry and the people in it. He mastered virtually every aspect and earned the enduring respect, verging on awe, of his peers. His Paramount Stud in Hastings was, in his heyday, an absolute picture-postcard and it housed the likes of serious stallions In The Purple (Fr), Diplomatic Agent (USA), Avaray (Fr) and Half Iced (USA).

Perfectionism could get the better of him. He could blow a fuse watching some young groom haplessly trying to cope with a stroppy yearling at the sales. Even though it was somebody else's stud and somebody else's horse, Norm would jump up off his perch, grab the lead in his hand and proceed to explain to the youngster the correct way to control and lead the beast. Norm came to be well-understood: the old bugger with the gruff exterior was simply well-intentioned. There was no malice, no grudge, his passion was to pass on his skills and knowledge for the benefit of anyone who cared to watch or listen. In many ways, he was touched with the performance gene, as was his younger brother, theatre legend Raymond Hawthorne.

The last few decades of Norm's life were anti-climactic. Through misplaced trust, he had been hard done-by in business and his financial world caved in around him. Yet, owing to his sometimes irrational optimism and with the background support of a few stalwarts better situated than he was, Norm re-invented himself in the stallion business in the Waikato because the land and horses meant everything to him. Taking the pension and heading for the beach was not for him, though he was justifiably frustrated that the commercial rug had been pulled out unfairly from underneath him. He was never far away from his devoted terriers – Norm's bark was infinitely worse than theirs but they loved each other to bits – and I can still see Norm mixing up his peppery anti-cribbing goo in his garage, then flogging it to make a buck when times were really tough.

Prior to these latter times, Norm had made a monumental contribution to the NZ Thoroughbred Breeders' Association of which he was elected, proudly, a Life Member. My first encounters with Norm were in the late '70s when I was the inexperienced first full-time National Secretary of the NZTBA. Noblesse oblige was still alive and well at the head of this august body but here was this no-nonsense upstart from Hawkes Bay who drove like a maniac and travelled under the sobriquet of 'Stinky' who would constantly bring Council discussions back to relevance with a thud when everyone else was thinking it was time to open the claret. Don't you just hate that type of bloke!?! His work on the NZTBA Council over many years was unstinting; if there was a representative to appoint or a job to be done, Norm often got the guernsey. He was a leader by example, but he could talk the hard talk when he had to. He stood up for what he believed in.

Norm was more than 20 years my senior but we hit it off and quickly became friends. I wasn't much different to that young groom at the sales; he needed to show me the ropes. Apart from special private kindnesses, my all-time favourite Norm memory dates to 1981 when I had been invited by the Keeneland Association to travel as their guest to the then-famous July Yearling Sale in Lexington. Norm was laid up in hospital having had knee replacements. He got wind that I had left on this exotic adventure so, barely able to stand or walk, (he must have been an orthopaedic surgeon's nightmare), he grabbed a pair of crutches, checked himself out and somehow got himself on a plane heading for Los Angeles, my first stop, where he tracked me down at the Marina Del Rey.

Excruciating discomfort could not dull his sense of fun, and, man, did we have fun on that trip, though he was a dead loss at line-dancing in his condition. While in California, we caught up with Norm's old horse-trader mate Ray Bell who drove us around LA in his enormous gold Roller. It was the first time I had been in a car which, upon entering less salubrious sections of town, would automatically lock its doors and refuse to stop at red lights. Norm and Ray were almost cut from the same cloth; Ray lived till he was 96. With Norm clinging to my coat-tails, we made it to Lexington that long, steamy summer, where we witnessed horse prices starting to go through the roof at Keeneland, a trend which would ultimately see the demise of the July sale after 2002. It was fantastic to share time with this man of immeasurable practical knowledge inspecting, up close and personal, the likes of Secretariat, Nijinsky, Vaguely Noble, Riverman, Lyphard et al at the famous Lexington farms.

Norm's life it touched many people and places, both in and out of this industry. But there's usually someone occupying a place in each of ours whose camaraderie and spirit we regard as unique. For me that person was, and always will be, Norman Hawthorne.


- Steve Brem