Prominent Palmerston North trainer Kevin Gray has had an overwhelming reminder of the lives touched by his long-time friend Gary Freeman since the death of the highly regarded central districts horseman.
Freeman (78) passed away last Friday and, since news of his death spread, Gray and his wife, Kathleen, have been inundated with phone calls, expressing sincere condolences and recalling the impression Freeman made on them all.
“At one stage I was on my mobile phone, Kathleen was on hers and the house phone was ringing, too,” Gray said. “Everyone was ringing about Gary. He meant a lot to so many people and I know he was great to the young ones here around the stables.
“Everyone knew how much he meant to me. We have been friends for more than 50 years.
“When we were young we rode at the shows together, all over the North Island, and we had a lot of great times. Then we went our own ways in life as I went training. We caught up again when he bought a farm just around the road from us.
“He used to come around every morning and work his couple of horses here on my track. He was a great horseman.”
Freeman never had more than a couple of horses in work at a time and he experienced a fine strike-rate with his racehorses. The list is headed by Aintree and includes his stakes winner Vikja King, plus Inez’s Desire and Rock Band (four wins apiece from his stable), and in the early days, Vulcan and Tom’s Town.
Aintree recorded 11 wins, including four of his 13 hurdle starts, and he provided Freeman with the first leg of a significant double when taking the 2011 Waverley Cup (2200m) at Waverley. Six days later Freeman saddled up his other charge, Vikja King, to win the Listed New Zealand St Leger (2500m) at Trentham.
Interviewed after his special double, Freeman emphasised his close friendship with Gray: “Kevin is like a brother to me. He got a big thrill out of the St Leger win, too.”’
Because of ill-heath, Freeman ended his training career in 2015 and he did it on a high note when Rock Band won at Awapuni on Boxing Day.
He continued to enjoy success as an owner, with Look Out winning a maiden from Gray’s stable then when sent to Hastings trainer Paul Nelson to develop as a jumper he won four more races, including one over fences last September.
Freeman’s involvement in racing began as a youngster when he rode trackwork at Awapuni for Ashley and Stephanie Christmas and Jim Waller. He often remarked: “I think Ashley was one of the most under-rated trainers in New Zealand. I remember when he had Gold Merit and Wonder Gold. He took them to the races 13 times for 13 wins.”
Freeman also rode trackwork for a couple of Melbourne Cup-winning trainers – John Carter (1964 Melbourne Cup with Polo Prince) and Granny McDonald, who in 1924 became the first female racehorse trainer licensed in New Zealand. Fourteen years later McDonald prepared Catalogue to win the Melbourne Cup, but her achievement as the first female to win the Melbourne Cup wasn’t recorded as female trainers weren’t officially recognised in Australia and the credit went to her husband, Allan.
Freeman spent his lifetime around the Palmerston North area and was introduced to the show scene as a youngster when helping out Alan Kaye. He would ride the horses to all the nearby shows at Woodville, Marton, Feilding etc then Kaye would compete on them.
Freeman later competed in shows with Gray and another close friend, Eric Ropiha, a noted trainer and recognised as a master in the equestrian field, particularly dressage. Freeman had three top showjumpers – Bilbar, Trader and Hard Case and he sold the latter for “huge money” and bought his first farm at Linton.
It was another showjumper, Vulcan, who became Freeman’s first winner on the racetrack. He had won a few showjumping classes on him after he broke down as a racehorse and was off the scene for two years. It was Ropiha (Vulcan’s original trainer) who persuaded Freeman to try him again and Vulcan won the 1972 Rangitikei Hunt Cup for Freeman with Kevin “Dummy” Myers in the saddle.
Freeman played a significant role in the equestrian field as a studmaster, standing the sought-after Hanoverian dressage stallion Anamour at his Kopane property, Bilbar Lodge (named in honour of his top showjumper).
It was also Ropiha who talked Freeman into standing a Hanoverian sire so he imported Anamour from Germany in 1995 as a three-year-old. Anamour has been recognised internationally by the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses in the top 50 Sires rankings and Freeman referred to him as his own “Zabeel.”
Anamour topped off Freeman’s achievement with Aintree and Vikja King nine years ago when, within that period, he sired the first and second placegetters in the Grand Prix Horse of the Year dressage section at Hawke’s Bay. And he continued to provide Freeman with many highlights as a dressage sire.
Despite deteriorating health in recent years, Freeman was kept up with all the racing news by Gray, who was a regular visitor, making the trip to the Westella Rest Home in Feilding twice a week.
Unfortunately, Gray had been unable to visit Freeman during the Covid-19 lockdown, but his thoughts have always been with his everlasting friend.
“I’ll never forget the good times we had and the days he brought his horses here to work,” Gray said.
“He’d be here at 6am each morning and would keep busy sweeping, crushing oats or doing other things around the place. Sometimes he’d be here three times a day. It was always good to see him.”