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TRIBUTE: Ken Browne, time-defying NZ jumps legend

Champion New Zealand jumps owner, trainer, jockey, mentor and international horse trader Ken Browne, MBE, died on Tuesday morning, 20 June, at his home near Cambridge, with his wife Ann at his bedside. He was 72.

The fifty-year career of Francis Kenneth Stewart Browne is one of the most remarkable in New Zealand turf history. From 1951 to 2001 he rode 156 winners (54 hurdles, 102 steeplechases) over fences from a total of 1482 rides. What lifts this record into the realm of the extraordinary is that Ken's activity and success in the saddle increased as he grew older, with his peak coming during the 1978-1993 period, that is between the ages of forty-four and fifty-nine.

Ken's major race wins as a jockey included the Great Northern Steeplechase (1977, 1979 & 1990), the McGregor Grant Steeplechase (1998) and the Pakuranga Hunt Cup Steeplechase (1991), Grand National Hurdles (1981) and Grand National Steeplechase (1978, 1981, 1985 & 1986). He was New Zealand's leading jumps jockey in the calendar years 1981 and 1984, and in the 1986-87 racing season.

As an owner and trainer Ken was even more successful, preparing more than 500 winners over jumps, initially in his own right and then, from 1983, in partnership with Ann. Together they won most of New Zealand's major jumping races, many of them several times. Those victories include:

  • Great Northern Hurdles - three times: Salezaar, Gold Story, Smart Hunter
  • Great Northern Steeplechase – a record nine times: Ascona (twice), Ardri, Brother Bart, Lord Tennyson, Sydney Jones (twice), Smart Hunter (dead-heat), Wanderlust
  • Pakuranga Hunt Cup – eight times: Ardri, Kutati Power, Extra Time, Sydney Jones (twice), Drops O'Rain, Wanderlust (twice)
  • McGregor Grant Steeplechase – eight times: Civil Rights, Extra Time, Sydney Jones (twice), Bwana, All Rhythm, Kia King, Primo Canera
  • Riddiford Steeplechase – six times: Choc Wallace, The Operator, Crown Star, Ardri, Injun Joe, Mossy Ridge
  • Grand National Steeplechase – four times: Regal Mink, Charlestown, Crown Star (twice)
  • Wellington Steeplechase – twice: Royal Hush, Flash Hunter
  • Waikato Steeplechase – three times: Crown Star, Trelay Boy, Drops O'Rain
  • Grand National Hurdles – twice: Dark Purple, Crown Star
Highlight achievements of the Browne stable partnership include:

  • Four New Zealand Jumper of the Year titles: Ascona (1979), Crown Star (1986 & 1987) and Sydney Jones (1997).
  • Ken & Ann were the 1995 BMW New Zealand Owners of the Year.
  • Sydney Jones is the only horse to win the major Ellerslie steeplechase treble (Great Northern, McGregor Grant and Pakuranga Hunt Cup Steeplechases) in the same year.
  • Crown Star is one of only eight horses to win the Grand National Hurdles- Steeplechase double, and the only one of those to win the Waikato Steeplechase as well.
  • Fittingly, the Brownes also owned and trained Snuggle to win the first running of the Auckland International Airport Steeplechase, held to mark the new millennium, at Ellerslie on 1 January 2000.
Ken served a three-year term on the executive of the New Zealand Racing Conference and from 1984 to 1987 was president of the Waikato Racing Club, which later made him a Life Member. The NZTBA is another organisation which benefited from his support. Ken was one of the original Gold Badge Members who provided foundation funding for the construction of the Association's offices at Ellerslie Racecourse. He was also awarded an MBE for services to horse racing in 1991.

One of the appealing aspects of life in New Zealand is that our true heroes live among us: we see them in the supermarket and at the bank too often for them to assume air-brushed unreality. For years Ken Browne was a familiar sight at winter race-meetings, usually wearing the famous brown and red colours as he prepared to ride yet another superbly fit stable runner to victory. For my generation at least, Ken Browne epitomised jumps racing in New Zealand.

In April 2001 a fall from a horse at home left Ken a quadriplegic. It was an abrupt end to his active career, but Ken remained a powerful presence in the sport thanks to his extraordinary wife Ann, devoted caregivers, friends and the many young horsemen and horsewomen he mentored over the years. His death leaves us treasuring our memories of a master horseman, a consummate professional and a humble man.

The first event at Racing Tauranga's meeting at Rotorua on Saturday has been renamed the K.S. Browne Tribute Steeplechase, while the Auckland Racing Club has scheduled the K.S. Browne Hurdle at its annual Queen's Birthday meeting. Ken saw his own horse Waikiki Star win the first running of that race earlier this month, on the same day that another stable runner, Primo Canera, ridden by his grand-daughter Missy Browne, won the McGregor Grant Steeplechase. Missy is currently third on this season's national jumps jockeys' premiership. On the Saturday before his death, Leica Guv, trained by Emma-Lee Browne, wife of his grandson David, won at Ellerslie.

My own enduring memory of Ken is the 1990 Great Northern Steeplechase, in which he rode Ardri. It was a beyond-belief test of strength, stamina and courage on very heavy ground, and on the Ellerslie hill for the last time, Ardri was ready to give up. Ken, however, was not, and, knowing exactly how fit and well-prepared the horse was, began to urge him forward in that untidy, vigorous and instantly recognisable Browne style.

Ken later said that he and Ardri argued the toss for much of the last part of the race but it was Ken's unflinching determination that prevailed, and the pair won the race by three-and-a-half lengths. Ardri returned to scale, quite un-distressed, steam rising off him as Ann greeted him and her husband, and led them into the winner's circle.

And the winner's circle is where I hope Ken Browne is now, standing up and smiling, looking back over a tough course and a great race, well and truly won.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Chris McQuaid, New Zealand Jumping Association, for all the statistical information in this article; and to Thoroughbred News for additional material.

- Susan Archer; with Chris McQuaid, NZ Jumping Association


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