Anton Koolman's vision and legacy

10 min read
Renowned bloodstock agent Anton Koolman has had five decades worth of success and while a health scare in 2017 changed his outlook on life, his legacy in racing flows strongly through his son Oliver and should ensure success for years to come.

Anton Koolman's father was a champion wrestler. He was a coach and mentor that changed young men's lives as owner of the world-renowned "Koolman's Gym" in Wellington. He was a neighbourhood icon, a teetotaler, nonsmoker and fitness fanatic.

Yet, this day, he somehow seemed softer as the 52-year-old passed his 13-year-old boy a roll of cash, tightly wrapped with an elastic band, and explained how he was now very sick - cancer - the doctors said, and may not have long to live. "Hide that money under the house, where only you can find it, and if your mother ever says she is struggling with money you give her that, OK?" he said.

That kid was bloodstock agent Anton Koolman and although the now-renowned and widely respected bloodstock agent is fond of saying "I have never had a real job", he clearly had to grow up fast that day. He had already wrestled and beaten men twice his age in national tournaments and would have been an Olympian himself, like his dad, but he was already "burnt out".

Anton Koolman (left)

Besides, as good as he was at wrestling, the kid was obsessed with horses, inexplicably so, given he lived in the city. As the oldest of four children, he was at the gym wrestling every day, but had very little contact with animals.

Yet in class every day he sketched, over and over again, the same detailed plans of his dream stud farm. "I would draw a racetrack," Koolman said. "Then I would draw stables and do a lay out for the farm with lane ways and details. It was my dream. It just came from nowhere, but that's just what I wanted to do from five or six, to have my own farm. But there were no horses in my life other than the old draft horses from the milk factory. I was crazy about horses. I also had a box full of racing photos a family friend had gave us and I used to just lay there and look at them at night."

"It was my dream. It just came from nowhere, but that's just what I wanted to do from five or six, to have my own farm." - Anton Koolman

A few months after his father had passed, Koolman hankered for a horse of his own. Upon hearing the words "we don't have the money," he remembered where that roll of bank notes was stashed and promptly produced them.

"My mother was a bit shocked," Koolman said. "But she was happy of course, and some of that money helped me buy my first horse and it set me on a path." His name was Chippy, a roan pony that Koolman could do anything with, or on, even handstands. "He was a bit of a scamper but a good natured little thing," Koolman said.

Anton Koolman with a mare he evented in the early days

A horseman's life

Just as wrestling was Koolman's father's way out of Estonia, horse racing has provided a guiding light and drive for Koolman. His father was national Greco-Roman champion of Estonia in 1924 and went to the Olympics in Paris later that year. He made the third round in the greco-roman bantam weight division – beaten by the eventual bronze medalist – and finished tenth in the men's freestyle featherweight – beaten by the American gold medalist Robin Reed.

For Koolman, horses, and his horsemanship, was a way out of a tough home life, and by 15 he had worked his way to Waikanae just north of Auckland. Money saved as a builder's labourer went towards riding school, where, with an ambition forged in competitive wrestling, he announced to the stunned teachers before his first lesson. "I want to represent New Zealand."

These were the days when three day event was an entirely different beast to its current dressage-show jumping-cross country incarnation. Koolman's life was dedicated to the gruelling sport and his next major bloodstock purchase, an eventing horse named Jose, would again prove pivotal.

"If I hadn't had a good horse I wouldn't be where I am," Koolman said. "He was a hell of a good horse, maybe the best horse I have had anything to do with."

After competing in a Point to Point

A lifelong partner

It would be remiss to go too far into this story without mentioning Koolman's wife Marg, a seriously competitive rider herself, she gave up her career to help her husband.

"He said he would be champion and come hell or high water he was going to do it, and he did," Marg says. "It was just sheer will, hard work and determination."

Koolman recalls, "I would get up at 4am ride, catch a van to work in Wellington at 6.30am. I had no money, so I had to."

True to his word, Koolman represented New Zealand at 25, and headed across the Tasman, with his horse Jose in tow, where he competed again at top level.

Yet despite the acclaim and thrill of equestrian competition, it was done for love, not money, and it was another equestrian champion, Eric Ropiha, and his cross over success as a horse trainer that inspired Koolman to try his hand at training.

"Equestrian gives you a good base and grounding with racehorses. You find out a lot about horses, their balance and athleticism." - Anton Koolman

Ropiha trained Roman Consul (NZ) (Agricola {GB}) to a G1 NZ Derby victory, won the 1960 G1 Caulfield Cup with Ilumpuh (NZ) (Sabaean {GB}) and nearly won the 100th Melbourne Cup with the same horse.

Koolman's background in eventing gave him an edge with jumpers and he quickly progressed to be the New Zealand-based handler for world famous billionaire owner Nelson Bunker Hunt.

"Equestrian gives you a good base and grounding with racehorses," Koolman said. "You find out a lot about horses, their balance and athleticism. If a horse can't jump he can't gallop. A jump is just one stride, elevated. Bottom line is that he needs to be an athlete."

As a trainer based out of Waikanae and then on the beach at Otaki, Koolman was renowned as a handler of fillies, but mostly out of necessity as his business trading horses to Asia began to grow. "They only wanted colts and geldings in Malaysia and Singapore, so I was left with fillies to train," he said, with G1-winning filly Julia (NZ) (Frontal {USA}) and G1-placed Kayenta (NZ) (My Heart {Ire}) among the best of them.

Trans-Tasman success

It was the late 1980s recession that pushed Koolman out of training, into bloodstock and eventually across the Tasman, where his keen eye and experience as a horseman immediately came to the fore.

Sourcing horses out of New Zealand he bought champion mare Let's Elope (NZ) (Nassipour {USA}) and G1 VRC Oaks winner Richfield Lady (NZ) (Grosvenor {NZ}) for Dennis Marks. He also found top stayer Stony Bay (NZ) (Dahar {USA}) for Gai Waterhouse, among others, before his attention turned to becoming a leading agent for the burgeoning Hong Kong market.

Let's Elope, purchased by Koolman

Koolman's most influential Hong Kong purchase was Hidden Dragon (Danehill {USA}) but it was the lifelong connections he has made with owners there that have created some of his greatest legacies.

Hermitage and the childhood vision

When Hong Kongers Eugene and Karen Chuang wanted a property to retire their racehorses, Koolman knew just the place. It was a 250 hectare property south west of Sydney and with a bit of work, it could manifest the vision Koolman had been sketching out all of those years ago in the Wellington classroom.

In 2010 Hermitage Thoroughbreds was formed and as well as helping develop the world-class pre-training facility, Koolman, along with his fellow bloodstock agent and son Oliver, have had an uncanny strike rate buying for the group.

From $40,000 purchase Egg Tart (Sebring) and on to The Autumn Sun (Redoute's Choice), the Koolmans are yet to sign for a yearling on behalf of Hermitage that hasn't won.

The Autumn Sun winning the G1 Caulfield Guineas

Beyond the trends

Koolman has seen them come and go, blown by the winds of fashion and the latest greatest trends, whether it be boom sires, big spending owners or boisterous bloodstock agents promising the world.

The Koolman model is based on return business and he is proud to say he has "never spent a penny on advertising."

"He has never been one to self-promote," Marg says of her husband, but in racing, particularly in the bloodstock world, decades of sales ring-to-racecourse success is priceless.

"We only have a few clients, but they are all people we like and get on with them." - Anton Koolman

"Marg and I have dedicated our lives to this, we started on our own with an address book, we have created all of our own clients," Koolman said. "We only have a few clients, but they are all people we like and get on with. They are people we can go and have dinner with. And when their friends want a horse, they recommend us."

"We want repeat business, we aren't there to get a client and take as much from them as we can in three years," Marg adds.

The Autumn Sun

This weekend The Autumn Sun, who has had equity purchased back by Arrowfield as a stallion prospect, but still carries the red-and-green striped Hermitage silks, resumes.

Many agents were dropping off Redoute's Choice when The Autumn Sun was purchased for $700,000 at the 2017 Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale, the Koolmans stuck solid with Arrowfield's tried-and-true producer of stakes winners and stallions.

The Autumn Sun as a yearling

"We pride ourselves on remaining consistent and not falling for what is hot at the time," Oliver Koolman said. "Often yearlings by the one or two stallions that are in most demand at the time are eliminated from our shortlists. Everybody is going for the easy commercial sell, but our niche has been to go for an athlete, and when digging into a pedigree, look for something familiar and proven."

A life-changing day

On January 1, 2017, Koolman's life changed. Complications from a stable accident left him hospitalised with a brain bleed and a change in perspective was required.

"It told us it was time to start enjoying racing a bit more," Marg said. "We have started a couple of years ago to buy some horses for ourselves and race them with friends."

One of those horses was Youngstar (High Chaparral {Ire}), who won the G1 Queensland Oaks and was second in last year's G1 Turnbull Stakes, but the Koolmans are still keen to find more talent at yearling sales.

Because of the health issues, Koolman scaled things back but still attends sales with Marg, and retains that sharp eye.

"We are sales junkies," Koolman says while watching lots go through at the Inglis Classic Yearling Sale last week. "I can't look at computer screens too long these days or I get a headache, but I still have my sales catalogues. I can read them all day."

Family legacy

Just as the wrestler passed on a sense of responsibility to Anton, the Koolman lineage in racing flows strong through Oliver.

"Oliver reminds me so much of myself at the same age, very determined and focused," Anton says. Indeed, Oliver is an energetic presence at the sales, inspecting lots for clients, many of whom he has known since he was a toddler.

"He runs rings around me now, he is a very good horseman and he has a great eye too," Koolman says of his son. "He is already a success, but those clients, our friends, are in very good hands."