By Denis Ryan, RaceForm
While the entire racing industry was applauding Melody Belle’s history-sharing win in the Gr. 1 Thorndon Mile at Trentham, the mighty mare’s breeder Marie Leicester doubled down on her celebrations.
The widely publicised accolade was drawing equal with Sunline as the most prolific Group One winner in New Zealand racing history. Not only was this Melody Belle’s 13th Group One success, but just as significant for Leicester was that it was her 18th in total, taking her equal to mid-1960s champion Star Belle. Until last Saturday she held the record for the most wins by any member of the famous breed established by her parents, James and Annie Sarten.
“I feel so privileged to have bred a horse of that stature, it’s something you dream about,” Leicester told RaceForm this week when discussing Melody Belle’s latest achievement. “She’s such a wonderful racehorse and it was absolutely tremendous to see her do it.
“It was obviously very exciting and even though we all understand that no win is easy, I didn’t worry once she lodged her challenge. I knew she could do it. Star Belle will always be special, she was such a fantastic horse. Melody Belle was the first horse to win the triple crown at Hastings and Star Belle had her own triple crown as the first and only filly to win the Great Northern Guineas, Derby and St Leger.”
Marie Leicester and her husband Nelson were farmers and parents of a young family when Star Belle, bred by Annie Sarten but raced by her husband and trained at Takanini by Ivan Tucker senior, graced the tracks of New Zealand and Australia. Her wins at three also included the Gold Trail Stakes, Desert Gold Stakes, New Zealand Oaks, Wellington Derby, Ladies Mile and North Island Challenge Stakes, while as a spring four-year-old in Melbourne she added the Craiglee, Turnbull and JJ Liston Stakes.
“She was virtually unbeatable at three, the champion of her age, and then had a fantastic campaign in Melbourne,” said Leicester. “Mum and Dad had a wonderful experience at that carnival, but with three young children and a priority to set up our new home on the Feilding farm, joining them was out of the question.”
Apart from keeping track of the careers of horses she has bred as well as the horde of other members of the Belle family, there’s nothing Leicester finds more enjoyable than sharing anecdotes about the breed’s origins.
“It all began back when my parents were farming at Bell Block outside New Plymouth. My grandfather supplied the butchers in New Plymouth with meat and one them, Mr Trimblet, had his mares grazing on the farm. Dad used to look after them and handle the weanlings, so to pay him back Mr Trimblet offered him the use of one of them, a mare by the name of Belle Star.
“Dad had his eyes on Foxbridge, who Seton Otway was standing at Trelawney Stud, so he and Mum went up to Cambridge where they met Mr Otway and inspected the stallion. That was in 1937 and he paid the fee of 35 guineas, but the mare missed then got in foal in the next year and produced the filly that became Belle Fox, the foundation mare for this wonderful family.”
Belle Fox’s progeny included the Instinct mare Belle Rosa, who in 1963 produced the Summertime filly to become known as Star Belle. But as Leicester recounts, it was anything but a straightforward process.
“Mum wanted to sell the filly as a yearling, but Dad said ‘You’re not selling her, give her to me and you have my colt out of Belle Time and sell that’. Mum was happy to take the money, but Dad was even happier to end up with such a good one as Star Belle.
“My memories of her are of the most beautiful filly you could set eyes on. The way she strutted around, she just knew she was better than the others. That’s the same with Sunline and Melody Belle. Sunline was a big, strong mare who knew she was that good, she would freak them out in the birdcage. Melody Belle has the same trait, she eyeballs them and then she dominates.
“I would never try to compare Sunline and Melody Belle; they’re both wonderful mares in their own right but they’re from different eras.”
Marie and Nelson Leicester retired from farming and settled in Taupo, but after her husband passed away several years ago, Marie moved to Auckland to be closer to her mares, who were by this time domiciled at Haunui Farm.
“There was a time back in Feilding when I would go out in the wind and rain to feed the mares and foals, but those days are well and truly over. I had a wonderful husband and our family will always be special, but now they’ve all grown up I can sit back and enjoy my horses.
“Mark Chitty and his team out at Haunui take such good care of my girls. I’ve got eight mares at stud now – enough to keep me poor and keep me grounded – but I just love it.”
While Leicester still enjoys racing mostly fillies she has bred, one of her policies is to sell the first-born of her young broodmares, no matter what gender. “The idea is to get them out there and performing, which is how I came to sell Melody Belle to David Ellis as a yearling at Karaka.
“Jamie (Richards) has done a marvellous job training her and he’s also got the Not A Single Doubt half-sister Exaltation, who won her third race last week, plus I sent him the Tavistock half-sister, a three-year-old that we’re happy with at this stage.”
Melody Belle is the second member of the Sarten line to carry that name. The first was a 1971 filly by Taipan 11 from Star Belle’s sister Bell Of Ascot, owned and bred by Annie Sarten and trained by Ray Verner. Her 10 wins included the (then Gr. 2) New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes.
“I was a bit grumpy when another horse was named Melody Belle, but this one has done the family proud and brought back so many memories,” says Leicester. “In hindsight I have to say I’ve got over my grumpiness.”