One of racing’s most respected and long-serving participants, Sam Brosnan, passed away earlier this week at the grand old age of 99.
Brosnan and his wife of 74 years Marj, who predeceased him by four years, founded a dynasty in breeding and racing, typically understated but at the same time very successful, particularly in jumps racing. Their working lives began as dairy farmers and in the early 1960s they established Oakland Stud just south of the Matamata racecourse. The moderately successful stallions Super, Woodfield and Mighty Gurkha were followed by Neanderthal, whose progeny included New Zealand St Leger winner Cradenly, Waikato Guineas winner Aito, VRC Grand National Hurdle winner Navigation and the Brosnan’s own racemare Our Countess, twice a placegetter in the New Zealand Cup and also placed in the Wellington Cup.
Next came the first of two stallions who brought most fame to Oakland Stud, the English-bred son of Derby winner St Paddy, St Puckle. His crowning glory was 1985 Melbourne Cup winner What A Nuisance, as well as another mighty stayer in Oopik (Sydney Cup, Waikato International Stakes, Great Northern and Hawke’s Bay Guineas), Kennan (Wellington Derby, NZ St Leger) and the Avondale Championship Stakes winner Lady Sue.
Palm Beach took up duties soon after, with a list of progeny that included Torbek, winner of the Gr. 1 Toorak Handicap and Marlboro Cup, Melbourne Cup runner-up Dandaleith, Al Dwain (Turnbull Stakes, Sandown Cup), Deb’s Mate (Geelong, Cornwall Handicap twice), and Puckle Harbour (Sandown Cup).
Palm Beach’s contemporary Belmura is best remembered as the sire of the mighty Sydney galloper Belmura Lad, winner of two LKS McKinnon Stakes as well as the Gr. 1 AJC Derby, Doncaster Handicap, All-Aged Stakes and Metropolitan. Belmura was also the dam-sire of What A Nuisance. Acharacle made his name as a sire of wet-weather gallopers, most famously Trentham specialist Cattle King as well as Brisbane Cup winner Four Crowns and VRC Hotham Handicap winner Karu, while Star Wolf’s progeny included the Great Northern Hurdle winner Star Count (a son of Our Countess) and the classy miler Arctic Wolf.
Virtually all Brosnan-owned and trained winners were home-breds, and invariably they carried the names of the couple’s children Mark, Paul, Peter, Sue and Maryann. Great Northern and Hawke’s Bay Hurdles winner Mark’s Gold was perhaps the most notable, while one of the most memorable for reasons other than winning was Paul’s Boy.
At the 1981 Trentham winter meeting, Paul’s Boy was on his way to adding the Wellington Hurdles to his tally, only for rider Paul Hillis to continue on the inner hurdle track instead of angling towards the course proper for the final run up the home straight. Hillis realised his error too late and then had the envidious duty to return to the reception in the birdcage.
However, while punters and others were hurling abuse at Hillis, Sam Brosnan was his usual calm and sporting self, albeit with his normal chirpy grin replaced by one of the more wry variety.
“That was Dad,” his son Peter reflected to RaceForm. “I remember it so well, I was seven at the time and I had gone down to Wellington with him and was there when Paul came back in. He was gutted and very apologetic, but Dad stayed calm, I don’t recall him saying anything much.
“At the end of the day we went back to the motel and had the normal fish and chips for tea. Driving home next day for me seemed to take longer than normal, but Dad didn’t seem any different.”
That sunny disposition has also been noted by others who knew Sam Brosnan over a long period, amongst them Hall of Fame trainer Dave O’Sullivan and jumps racing icon Ann Browne.
“My memories of Sam go all the way back to when I came to Matamata towards the end of 1960,” said O’Sullivan. “He was a guy who kept to himself as he went about his work, and he was always the same, just a good sort of bloke.
“He stood some decent horses too, and St Puckle was a bloody good stallion to me. Oopik was my first stakes winner when he won the Hawke’s Bay Guineas and then he gave me my first Group One win in the Sydney Cup.”
Ann Browne remembers Brosnan as a pleasure to work with when she and her late husband Ken sent mares to Oakland Stud as well as being a sporting competitor on the jumps racing circuit. “There was always that keen rivalry but all of us were prepared to give credit to others, and Sam was certainly no different.
“I caught up with him not that long ago when I was over at the Brosnans’ to see some horses schooling. He was just the same, always a nice man.”
Until very recently Brosnan, who was only weeks from his 99th birthday when he passed away on Monday in Waikato Hospital, lived on the family property. “He was still active and took a keen interest in everything going on,” said Peter, who trained Southern Countess to carry his parents’ red, white and blue colours to victory in the 2011 Great Northern Hurdles.
“Every day he would drive the mule down the farm with a few bales of hay or some feed on the back as one of us went along with him to checked things out. He still enjoyed watching the races on the TV and keeping up with what was going on, so it was a good life he had.”
The Brosnan name remains prominent, mainly through sons Mark and Peter as well as their sister Maryann, who trains in south-east Queensland.
“None of us can complain,” said Mark. “He had a good innings.”