Three decades have passed since Anton Koolman resided in New Zealand, however, the highly respected horseman’s death at age 82 in Sydney last weekend still resonated with many on the other side of the Tasman.
From lowly beginnings and in partnership with Marg, his wife of 50 years, Koolman forged a place in the racing industry, initially as a trainer and studmaster, and then as a bloodstock agent trading throughout Australasia and establishing a strong Hong Kong clientele.
Koolman’s Estonian-born father, Anton Senior, emigrated to New Zealand after competing as his homeland’s champion wrestler at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
In Wellington he established the renowned Koolman’s Gym, specialising in wrestling and boxing, from where he instilled the principles of fitness and sportsmanship in protégés that were to include his son Anton.
The younger Koolman also became a champion wrestler, yet despite not having grown up with any exposure to horses, he developed a passion that was to steer him in that direction, initially as a sport-horse rider.
By his late teens, when he worked as a builder’s labourer, he had become proficient in showjumping and then in the combined eventing disciplines of showjumping, dressage and cross-country, which included representing New Zealand in Australia when in his mid-20s.
One of Koolman’s mentors was the renowned all-round horseman Eric Ropiha, who was to introduce him to thoroughbred training, and in the 1970s he established stables on the Horowhenua coast north of Wellington.
Koolman’s success in that role attracted the attention of Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, the founder of Waikato Stud in Matamata, for whom he prepared a steady stream of winners.
One of the best to carry the Hunt colours in the mid-1970s was the quality filly Kayenta, and another was Julia, the winner of the Gr. 3 Eulogy Stakes and runner-up in the Gr.1 New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) in 1981.
Julia’s sire, the former Waikato Stud stallion Frontal, stood at the Koolmans’ Otaki stud Gressier Lodge, as did another American-bred, Gleam Machine.
Having already become a regular trader, Koolman moved further towards what was to become his primary role as a bloodstock agent and in 1991, at the behest of Victorian Dennis Marks, he sourced a two-horse New Zealand-bred package par excellence.
Grosvenor filly Richfield Lady won the VATC One Thousand Guineas and VRC Oaks, while her Bart Cummings-trained stablemate, the year older Nassipour filly Let’s Elope, won the Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double. Between them, the pair won a total of 11 Australian Group races, seven of them at Group One level.
A year after that landmark transaction, the Koolman family relocated to Australia and established a highly successful agency that in more recent times has operated in partnership by Koolman and his son Oliver.
The burgeoning Hong Kong market attracted Koolman’s attention, leading to a hugely rewarding relationship with the Chuang family’s Hermitage Bloodstock.
Over the past decade horses selected for Hermitage have included Australian Group One winners The Autumn Sun, September Run and Egg Tart, while in New Zealand the big-race list also includes Rocket Spade, Summer Passage and Dragon Leap.
Other notable purchases, in which the Koolmans took a direct ownership interest, were the Group One-winning siblings Funstar and Youngstar.
In early 2017 Koolman sustained a brain bleed when knocked over by a horse and after being released from hospital with his mobility affected, he was to spend his remaining years confined to a wheelchair.
That by no means hindered him, however, and the sale ground remained his favourite workplace as he went through final inspections and whittled down the list of likely targets.
“Dad always said that no matter what the budget might be, with every horse he bought it was as if he was spending his own money,” his son Oliver Koolman said.
“He had to be genuinely attracted to a horse. It was never about simply filling orders – he had to like what he was buying.”
The determination that had marked every previous endeavour remained unwavering when Koolman was confronted by his greatest ever challenge.
“Right through his life he had been a competitive person and that took on another form after his accident,” Koolman said.
“He had to spend a lot of time in rehab, which is when his physical and mental strength really carried him, and it continued like that in the five years since.
“The success of horses we’ve been involved in during that time has been a tremendous source of satisfaction for him.
“The main thing is that he still had a life he could enjoy with his family; we celebrated every Christmas as if it might be our last together and in the end he suffered for only a short time.
“We had already made plans for Dad’s funeral service to be at the William Inglis Riverside Hotel. He had his 80th birthday party there, the Riverside sales complex was his happy place and it’s where we’ll gather to farewell him on July 7.” - NZ Racing Desk