In defiance of the testing times of 2020, Sam and Libby Bleakley’s Highden Park has extended its journey of success this autumn with a brace of Australian results to reinforce its preeminent position as the pride of the Manawatu, and further elevate its status amongst the best producing thoroughbred nurseries of New Zealand.
Their roll of honour now includes last Saturday’s Gr.1 Australasian Oaks winner, Toffee Tongue, who was foaled and reared at Highden Park and sold for $500,000 out of their 2018 Karaka Yearling draft. The three-year-old lost her maiden status at Group One level in brilliant fashion after seconds in the Gr.1 ATC Australian Oaks, and the Gr.3 Adrian Knox Stakes, and in doing so, shook off the tag as the best maiden performer in Australia.
Two weeks earlier at Randwick, Highden Park reared Kinane, who like Toffee Tongue, is also trained by Chris Waller, decisively won the Gr.3 Frank Packer Plate at his fourth race start. Kinane was a first-year Highden Park pinhooking success after Sam and Libby selected, purchased and resold him at the 2018 Karaka Yearling Sale. After a succession of Group and Listed performers, Kinane and Toffee Tongue were Highden Park’s first two Group winning successes in Australia.
Toffee Tongue and Kinane’s victories come on the back of a magnificent run of top-class performers for Highden Park, including Beauty Generation - Hong Kong Horse Of The Year in successive seasons for 2017/18 and 2018/19 and a strong contender in the current season to make it a trifecta of three titles.
Beauty Generation’s success heads-up an overall record of 78 percent winners to runners for Highden Park. This record is supported by Hong Kong Derby winner Ping Hai Star, Matchbreaker (Gr.3 Wellington Stakes), She's Poppy (Gr.3 Boehringer Ingelheim 1550 and Listed Rangitikei Gold Cup), Orbity (Listed Ryder Stakes and Listed Fordell O’Leary Stakes), Harlow Gold (2nd Gr.1 VRC Crown Oaks), Milsean (3rd Gr.1 NZ Oaks), Glorious Beijing (2nd Gr.2 Wellington Guineas), Showboy (2nd Listed Penang Sprint Trophy), Vegas Knight (2nd Gr.2 Bill Stutt Stakes) and numerous others.
To May 2020, Highden Park has catalogued 76 yearlings with 61 going to the races (80%). Their winners' tally is 48 (78%) with 12 performing at Stakes level.
Within the first few years of its existence, Highden Park oversaw the mating, foaling, rearing, and eventual sale of Beauty Generation. He made $60,000 at the 2014 Karaka Yearling Sale and has subsequently carved out the remarkable record of 20 wins from 38 starts with record breaking prizemoney of over HK$100 million.
Sam and Libby started Highden Park in the second half of 2010 when the couple was newly married, had bought the property and commenced the business of managing mares and preparing yearlings for sale.
Libby grew up in Martinborough in a family with no connection to horses and never had a pony opportunity. But she remembers a strong attraction to all things equine and says the desire she felt in her youth has remained strong to this very day.
"I wrote a project about a horse at school and eventually got invited to Newbury Park for a weekend, and I knew it was me straight away," explained Libby. "I watched a mare foal, went to trackwork and went to the races, and I was sold. I was head over heels and have never looked back."
Sam was a mechanic living in Taupo and, despite his parents owning a farm, had no interest in farming or horses. They met on one of Libby's weekends off from her job at Wellfield Lodge, dated for a couple of years, and then became a permanent item when Sam moved south to Palmerston North to be with Libby.
“It was very, very fortunate for me that Sam was a natural with horses," recalls Libby. He's learned a lot and is a wonderful leader, and today there's not a lot that Sam can't do when it comes to horses.”
The business began without a single client, but Libby says, "Full credit to Sam because he just believed in me. I'd never run a business and didn't have anyone I could ring and say 'send me some horses,' so it was an advertisement in The Informant that got me my first client - Alistair Murdoch - he sent an in-foal mare and then about a week later Adrian Clark rang and asked me to take ten mares for his client Nearco Stud, and I knew that could pay the mortgage.
"We did five yearlings for William Fell because he was short of boxes, and three for Scott and Jude Preston, and then Alistair Murdoch gave us another two – just like that we had a little draft; we weren't expecting to kick-off so quickly. And to get one into the Select Sale – we were over the moon."
Sam and Libby concentrate on a high standard of communication with their small group of clients for which they are widely acknowledged. At Karaka in 2020, Highden Park again achieved the mantle of the leading vendor in Book Two – for the third year in succession.
"We don't have a glorified broodmare band to manage,” continued Libby, “and currently have only 16 mares on the farm, including dual NZ Broodmare Of The Year Bagalollies, who is the dam of 2015-16 Hong Kong Horse Of The Year Werther and Group One winner Toffee Tongue.
"We must be doing something right," says Libby with a laugh before adding, “we have had some freakish success with weanling pinhooks including Australian Group Three winner Kinane and Group Two placed Vegas Knight from our first three weanlings purchased. We back our judgment while perhaps taking bigger risks than others might generally take.
"You have to evolve in this business and continually look at ways of improving," explained Libby. “The need to have an excellent relationship with clients is essential – much more than a bill in the mail. We pride ourselves on communication.”
As Highden Park prepares to hit the ten-year mark of being in business, Sam and Libby can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the milestones already achieved by their boutique operation, “It has been amazing to witness so many Highden Park graduates go on to do incredible things,” reflects Libby.
“It has always been important to us to limit the number of horses on the farm. We believe that each individual should receive careful care and attention to ensure they develop to their full potential so it’s very rewarding to see our philosophy translate to racetrack success.”