You could say Popeye was destined to be a star long before he even hit the ground.
The life of the big grey who was the rookie on the jumping team that qualified New Zealand for the Tokyo Olympic Games started as a winner. Kim Best won the leading mare Equibreed-sponsored series two years in a row with her mare Cufflink and bred two embryo babies – Corlinka and Popeye, the latter by Cardento and incubated in a little black polocrosse mare.
“It was a pretty neat prize,” says Kim. Cufflink was quite the star herself, doing well as a five and six-year-old before being sold to an American rider during her seven-year-old year and then to Tayla Mason who is breeding from her.
When Popeye was born he was very roan with a blue eye. “Actually, he was quite funky looking. As he grew he got bigger and ganglier so was definitely an unusual youngster. Even though he had a funny eye, he was always a beautiful type.”
Popeye was broken in by Dirk Waldin. “He was very sensitive,” says Kim, “so we took him slowly.” He wasn’t competed as a four-year-old and only lightly as a five-year-old. Kim had bred seven horses that year and he was the one who she did the least with because he simply wasn’t ready. Her husband Greg rode him a little but at around seven, she handed the ride over to Jesse Linton. “I was finding him a bit tricky for me and Jesse got on well with him.”
By then Kim was a busy mum of two and had plenty going on. “Popeye needed to be at shows every weekend and with the kids I just couldn’t be as dedicated as he needed. He wasn’t naughty, but he wasn’t a simple horse either. He always tried so hard to please and would get upset if he didn’t get it right.”
On the ground, the gangly grey was everyone’s favourite and “a nice guy” to have around. As a seven-year-old Jesse felt he saw some real talent and felt he would be a good world cup horse. “Honestly,” says Kim, “you just never know. He was a wee bit unorthodox but always careful but sometimes didn’t do it quite technically correctly. He made mistakes and learnt and has such a big heart. What he misses on technique he certainly makes up in other areas.”
Kim was full of praise for Tom. “I am very proud of Popeye and it is awesome for Tom,” she says. “They are such a neat team and it is so cool to see the combination to do so well. Tom always messages me to let me know how they are getting on and he always gives me a lot of credit. It is so nice he does that.”
Initially Tom was brokering the sale of Popeye to Japan but as things often do, there was a little hesitation and time lapse and before you knew it, he’d bought the horse for himself. “I saw him jump and asked Kim for first option on him. He was a very raw young horse and didn’t show a lot,” says Tom. “Actually he probably felt better than he looked. He had a big jump and was careful and a bit quirky too.”
Popeye is quite the character at home. “He is a horse who has to get to know you. Once he knows and trusts you he is so genuine. If he doesn’t like a groom they will never catch him, but they do things properly, he is fine. He just has to build that trust.”
Tom has had quite a career himself – he did well on ponies and has had some cracker horses. He took a break from the sport when he realised he needed a backup plan and wanted to get himself established in life. “I have had other good horses but the timing has never been right. I have always produced them and sold them.”
It was after the 2018 Norwood Gold Cup victory that Tom says he really felt Popeye had something special going on. “I sent him to John Cottle for a bit of training and he liked him too. I was just quietly chipping away at things.” The combination went to Australia last year and campaigned well and Tom wanted to do it again this year for the gold tour so planned his entire season around it. They won the Silver Fern Stakes and were fifth in both the Norwood Gold Cup and Olympic Cup at HOY. “The next step was Europe,” he says.
He and fiancé Lucia Voss planned to take two horses up and spend time with her family in Germany. “It was after Aussie this year that I started planning Europe. The thing with horses is that you have to be step by step . . . you may have your eye on the goal but you have to do your A, B Cs.”
On landing in Europe, they headed to a small show in Bonheiden where he won his first outing and had a single rail in the Grand Prix. It was to set in motion a few weeks that would see him included in the New Zealand team for the Olympic qualifier. “The selectors took a big leap of faith in selecting us,” says Tom. “We may have had the form, but we lacked experience.”
The rest of the team welcomed them with open arms. “It’s a whole new level over there,” says Tom. “The detail is so fine. I learnt a lot about that. The qualifier was a very special moment for me – Sam (McIntosh) and I jumped the only two clears of the competition.”
Tom also learnt a lot about team riding. “We had just this one time to make it count. I have never been in that situation before – normally you are just riding for yourself, but this time it was for New Zealand to go to the Olympics.”
It’s a far cry from 34-year-old Tom’s roots. “It makes you think about where you come from. We are pretty humble people and it was very special.”
From the Olympic qualifier it was on to the Nations’ Cup in Gijon where the team ended up sixth and Tom secured a COC for Tokyo. “He tried his heart out, he just ran out of puff.”
Popeye is now back in Germany and will rest for a bit before heading to the tour in Oliva Nova in Spain late October. “The goal is consistency. The horse needs to keep learning and be consistent and I need to do my job too on flat work, mental strength and fitness.”
He believes in the horse 100% and says with his braveness, care and consistency at just 10, augers well for a great future.
Tom said there had been a handful of people who had helped him get this far with Popeye and he thanked Kim Best, John Cottle, Harvey and Ann Wilson, trainer Helena Stormanns and his fiancé Lucia and her family. “You are only as good as the people around you and I have such a big thank you to everyone . . . and this is just the beginning.”
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison
4th October 2019