Lucky, loquacious, loyal and in love with racing horses best describes Tommy Heptinstall.
The affable self-made millionaire, who now resides in the swanky Melbourne suburb of Toorak, is the first to admit that he is lucky when it comes to racing horses with horses like Tavistock and Sangster testament to that fact.
As a breeder he has been successful with Hong Kong Horse of the Year and multiple Group One winner Werther, while Werther’s dam Bagalollies was crowned Broodmare of the Year in 2016 and 2018.
Gr.3 R.A Lee Stakes (1600m) winner Lord Vladivostok (Tavistock-Soviet Lu) is the latest stakes winner that he has bred and Heptinstall is the first to claim that he is just lucky and really an accidental breeder who actually knows nothing about breeding horses and racing horses is his main hobby.
Still part owned by Heptinstall and a group of friends that include David Platt, Tom Pivac, Chris Barnao and Andrew Campbell, have been enjoying the thrill of success together for many years.
Under the care of Andrew Campbell Lord Vladivostok won two races in New Zealand and since transferring to Adelaide trainer Michael Hickmott, has added a further four to that tally.
Andrew Campbell sourced life-changing horses Tavistock, sire of Lord Vladivostok, for Heptinstall and his partners and it wasn’t till Tavistock retired to stud that Heptinstall became an accidental breeder.
“I had never bred a horse in my life,” he recalled, “Until Tavistock came along I had never had anything to do with stallions.
“When Sir Patrick (Hogan) bought him, I didn’t have one mare to my name. He rang me and said how many shares did I want and I had no idea. He suggested four and I said four is fine.
“I had no idea what I was going to do with four shares and the four shares equated to eight nominations – two for each share. So, I needed eight mares and I asked Sir Patrick what do I buy?
“He said in his opinion buy Zabeel and Stravinsky mares. So I contacted Kevin (Millie) Walls from Trelawney Stud, and he suggested I buy Bagalollies (AUS) (Zabeel – Lady’s Night[CAN]) who had retired from racing out of Roger James stable.
“I bought her in foal to Iffraaj out of the May Sale at Karaka and a Stravinsky mare but she died. For the other six noms I asked around and borrowed mares off mates, or mates sent mares on my noms.”
This included Belongs In Lights (AUS) which he and Pivac had been left with after the syndicate they were in decided not to continue racing her. Pivac sent her to Handsome Ransom (AUS) and she produced the stakes winners Travolta and Weismuller. She is also the dam of Harlow Gold (by Tavistock) who was Group One placed four times including a second in the VRC Oaks and third in the ATC Vinery Stakes.
“Out of Bagalollies we bred Werther and then when he came along everyone thought I was a genius breeder,” Heptinstall quipped.
Bagalollies is also the dam of Toffee Tongue, winner of the Gr.1 SAJC Australasian Oaks and Gr.3 ATC Sky High Stakes, Gobstopper whose 12 wins include a Gr.3 New Zealand Cup and stakes placed Milsean. She has since been sold to Asian interests and Heptinstall didn’t retain any of her fillies because as a rule he doesn’t race fillies.
“When I was selling Werther’s half-sisters people would ask why I was selling them and I would simply say ‘I’m a racer not a breeder, my hobby is racing,’” he explained.
“I sell the fillies and keep the colts. I know I do it the wrong way around, but really, I am only interested in racing horses. I sell the fillies and use the funds to finance my racing habit.
“I do watch what stallions are performing and I am always looking at broodmare sires. I am a great observer. When I get the race book on a Friday I sit down and circle all the broodmares and I watch the colts out of those mares and more often than not it’s the same good broodmare sires popping up all the time. You could say I am more a broodmare observer.
“When Tavistock died, I sold or gave away nearly all of my mares, as I am not really a breeder and don’t need any mares, but I have kept two with Libby (Bleakley from Highden Park). Her record is off the charts – I mean three Hong Kong Derby winners off one small farm – some people are born to it and she is one of them, she has the X factor and so does Michael Hickmott, and Andrew Campbell.
“If I was buying horses for Hong Kong Highden Park would be my first stop. I love Libby and Andrew and Trent (Busuttin) and Natalie (Young), and I am very loyal to them. Trent and Nat come back every year to buy horses, they had the balls to go and train in Melbourne which has to be the toughest place in Australia to try and make a name for yourself in the racing industry and I admire them for doing it.”
The two mares he has kept are Fistfulofdollars (Savabeel[AUS]-Monte Makeyday) and Epicurean (Flying Spur[AUS]-El Bulli). Fistfulofdollars is a young mare he bought off the track through Gavelhouse for $4000. Her first foal, a filly by Tavistock, sold at Karaka this year for $160,000. She has a colt foal at foot by Tavistock but didn’t get in foal to Darci Brahma.
Epicurean was in foal to Charm Spirit(IRE) when she was purchased and Heptinstall and his partners are racing that foal - Peloton a winner of three races. Since then she has produced three colts to Tavistock but failed to get in foal to Ribchester(IRE) last year but will return this season.
Heptinstall’s passion for racing developed at a young age.
“I loved horses from a boy,” he recalled.
“I went to the races at Trentham as a kid with my mum and dad, we would catch the free bus from Titahi Bay, and in those days it would stop at the top of the Haywards Hill ( the access road from the western side of the Wellington region to the Hutt Valley) as the traffic would be banked up so far going to the races. My parents were working class and followed racing like most of their generation, hoping that winning the daily double would change their fortunes.
“I was the kid that ran around and picked up all the tickets hoping that someone had dropped a winning one by mistake.”
Heptinstall left school at fifteen with no qualifications and drifted into sales, he forged a career in real estate and along with David Platt established the iconic Tommy’s Real Estate in Wellington in 1999, all the while pursuing his hobby, racing. Tommy’s Real Estate’s corporate colours of bright green and navy are reflected in Heptinstall’s famous racing colours, bright green jacket, navy sleeves and a pink cap.
“As I started to get a bit more money I thought about ownership. I read an article about Dave O’Sullivan that said he had bought some horses at the sale on spec. So, I rang him up and said any chance of a share in one and he said yes, I was rapt.
“When it was having its first start at Te Rapa Paul rang me and said that he wouldn’t be there but his Dad would. That was good enough for me, I went to Te Rapa and hung out with Dave O’Sullivan. It was like being with God for me, and the horse Rudolfo ( Straussbrook(AUS) ex Yellow Ribbon) also won.
“About the time Paul O’Sullivan went to Hong Kong I decided to get a trainer closer to home and that’s probably greatest thing that happened to me - Andrew Campbell. He had a reputation as a good horseman and was an owner trainer in Masterton, close enough to Wellington. My brother-in-law introduced us, and he said he didn’t train for other people as most people are usually bad payers or bad losers.
“One night I rang him up and asked him to train for me, I told him I would never complain about losing and I would pay a year in advance and he has been training for me ever since. We have had about 60 horses in that time, and all have had ability. All I do is put my hand up to buy them it’s a bit the same with Trent and Nat.”
It was a chance meeting with Trent that led to his relationship with the Busuttin/Young partnership.
When Tavistock was in his final season of racing Heptinstall attended a pre-Wellington Cup lunch and was seated next to Trent who had been invited by a mutual friend. It was a lunch that Busuttin, who was just establishing himself as a trainer in New Zealand, happily recalls.
“It was at the time that Tavistock was racing in the Thorndon Mile, and we sat together at lunch and enjoyed each other’s company,” Busuttin said.
“A week or two later at the Karaka sales he approached me and asked me to buy him a couple of cheap yearlings, I got one a Bachelor Duke horse that won a race, and then later in the year when I bought Sangster he came in for a 50 per cent share. We have had horses for Tommy ever since and he’s the perfect owner, never complains and loves going to the races.”
Sangster went on to win the Gr.1 VRC Derby in 2011 and in 2013 won the Gr.1 Auckland Cup, Gr.2 Avondale and finished third in the Gr.1 ATC BMW.
“Every year when the catalogue arrives for Karaka, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning,” enthused Heptinstall.
“For the next month I read every pedigree, I circle broodmares I like, sires I like, families I like, hundreds of little circles and notes, and do you know that neither Andrew or Trent has ever bought a horse that I have circled. Andrew is buying racehorses so he never really looks at a pedigree and very rarely spends up to $100,000. I really have no input. “
It was Campbell that introduced Heptinstall to Libby Bleakley as well. Highden Park was in its infancy and Bleakley had travelled to Campbell’s property in Masterton to look at possible ready to run prospects. Heptinstall owned two and Bleakley, in her usual forthright manner, told him his Scaredee Cat yearling was ‘yuck’ and he was wasting his time with it.
Six months later he rang her and asked her to prepare Bagalollies’ first foal for the sale. Later Bagalollies and Heptinstall’s other mares migrated to Highden Park and Bagalollies remained there until she was sold overseas.
“It was a relationship built on honesty,” mused Bleakley, “It always pays to tell the truth.”
“Tommy has been an incredible mentor to us and a fantastic client, we would be lost without him.”
Tommy ‘Talkalot’ Heptinstall, as he is affectionately known, may be an accidental breeder but his passion for racing is clear and the sport is at the forefront of his mind every day of the week.
“It’s been great fun, I miss Tavistock every day of my life, what happened to him was so sad. I’ve been lucky, if I never win another race, I have had an incredible amount of luck in my life,” he said.
“My life is at a point where it’s what day of the week is it? Where are my horses trialling or racing today? And I love it.
“I have never done drugs, but no drug could be as thrilling as having a winning racehorse. When they walk into those gates the adrenalin rush is amazing. Getting into racing is the greatest buzz, but like a drug it’s addictive and it takes over. You wake up in the morning and don’t think about your business deals, but wonder how the horse worked this morning.
“On Tuesdays it’s who will be nominated? Wednesdays are what did they draw? Who will be riding? And on Thursday it’s how did they gallop? Friday is for reading the race book and Saturday, that’s the big day.” -Michelle Saba, NZTBA