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Kiwis Abroad: Tony Holmes

4 min read

By Paul Vettise

When Tony Holmes first arrived in the United States he never had any intention of putting roots down, but he’s still there more than three decades later and loving life in Lexington’s bluegrass region of Kentucky. The expatriate New Zealander and his wife Susan operate Marula Park Stud where they run a band of broodmares and have reached success at the highest thoroughbred level - the Breeders' Cup.

“Back in 1984 I arrived here and only had 250 bucks in my pocket,” Holmes said. “I was only going to stay for six months and then go on to England.

“The people were so friendly though and I could see a lot of opportunities with the sheer amount of horses being traded and everybody was behind me.” – Tony Holmes.

“The people were so friendly though and I could see a lot of opportunities with the sheer amount of horses being traded and everybody was behind me.

“I was lucky enough to have one guy’s number, Tim Thornton. He managed Airdrie Stud for many years and he adopted me and became one of my biggest partners and best friends.”

Tony Holmes with his family

In New Zealand, Holmes started his working life as an apprentice at the Railways and had a family connection to racing, but in the sister code.

“Fitter and turner was my trade and then I went and worked in the mines at Wickham in outback Australia,” Holmes said. “That was interesting and pretty rough.

“My grandfather Rex Smith had the saw mill at Kaikoura and he bred and raced some good standardbreds and he was great buddies with Jack Litten.” – Tony Holmes.

“My grandfather Rex Smith had the saw mill at Kaikoura and he bred and raced some good standardbreds and he was great buddies with Jack Litten,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with them and always had the dream to come to Kentucky.”

The dream turned into full reality in the late 1980s with the establishment of Marula Park Stud in north Lexington. It is now home to a broodmare band of 30.

“My wife used to be a really good rider and she looks after the mares on the farm and prepares all the yearlings, I’m just the gofer, and she always tells me she wants to get fired!” Holmes said.

Marula Park

Group 1 graduates

Graduates of the farm include the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and G2 Del Mar Futurity winner Stevie Wonderboy (USA (Stephen Got Even {USA}) and the G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf and the G3 Newbury Arc Trial S., winner Dangerous Midge (USA) (Black Tie Affair {USA}).

Other notable Marula Park product was the G2 Indiana Derby and G2 Kentucky Cup Classic S., winner and Group 1 performer Zanjero (USA) (Cherokee Run {USA}).

Watch: Stevie Wonderboy win the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile

“He was the highest-priced one we sold at US$750,000 and the highest-priced baby we’ve sold was a Ghostzapper for US$750,000, that was the first Ghostzapper ever sold,” Holmes said.

“A partner and I did pay US$100,000 for the service fee, we got a bit carried away.” – Tony Holmes.

“A partner and I did pay US$100,000 for the service fee, we got a bit carried away.

Ghostzapper

“We’re farmers who are farming high-priced commodities and it’s high risk. We try to get three or four foal shares a season to six figure horses and for the rest of the mares we’re looking around the $US30,000 to US$40,000 stallions.

“The overheads are high and it’s hard to hit a home run. It can be a risky business and there’s plenty of horror stories.”

Family involvement

Holmes’ two children are also heavily involved in the thoroughbred industry.

“My daughter Sarah was lucky enough to get on the Darley Flying Start, I did a similar thing but with a backpack,” he said.

“It’s amazing where they go and what they do and she’s back in Lexington and works at Lane’s End Bloodstock.

“Our son Michael is an accountant at one of biggest farms – WinStar.”

Dual code farm

The harness racing theme also rings out at Marula Park with half a dozen mares resident there.

“We bought our first standardbred mare 15 years ago, she was our foundation mare and we’ve got six now,” Holmes said. “We’ve turned it into a dual code farm.”

The ex-Railways fitter and turner turned Group 1 horse breeder who never planned to stay in Kentucky has taken his chances and puts it down to old-fashioned ethics.

“Obviously, it’s a beautiful place. If you keep your nose clean and work hard there are so many opportunities bouncing around,” he said. “You can also do with a bit of luck and we’ve had a bit.”