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Highden Park in New Zealand enjoy sweet taste of success with Toffee Tongue

Stud also raised Hong Kong stars Beauty Generation and Ping Hai Star

Libby and Sam Bleakley pictured with budding blue hen Bagalollies
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Toffee Tongue's victory in the Australasian Oaks at Morphettville on Saturday – breaking her duck in a Group 1, no less – was a tasty reward for a filly who had stamped herself as Australia’s best maiden.

For Highden Park, fast becoming one of New Zealand’s premier nurseries, it was a first Australian Group 1 success that continued their emergence as a birthplace of future top-notchers.

The stud's proprietors Sam and Libby Bleakley hope that Toffee Tongue’s success is the first of many wins at the highest level in Australia.

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The Bleakleys announced last night that Toffee Tongue’s dam Bagalollies, a blue hen who has also produced three-time Group 1 winner Werther, New Zealand Oaks third Milseain and New Zealand Cup winner Gobstopper – all by Tavistock – had been privately sold after plans to offer her at the Magic Millions National Broodmare Sale were shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bagalollies had been bought as a broodmare prospect at the 2010 Karaka National Weanling, Broodmare and Mixed Bloodstock Sale by Trent Busuttin on behalf of a group including Tommy Heptinstall, Andrew Campbell, David Platt, David Allison, Tom Pivac and brothers Chris and Johnny Barnao. They were the same group that had just sold Tavistock to Cambridge Stud and were looking for mares that would suit the newly retired stallion proposition.

However, with Tavistock’s death last year at the age of 14, the opportunity arose to acquire Bagalollies, an opportunity taken by the Hong Kong-based Edmund Wong.

“I’m delighted to say that, about three weeks ago, during our Covid-19 lockdown, I actually sold her to a gentleman in Hong Kong by the name of Edmund Wong,” Libby Bleakley said. “It’s the first mare he’s ever owned and I am so thrilled for him. He bought Bagalollies three days before Toffee Tongue ran second in the Adrian Knox. He contacted me out of the blue; he’d been following us on social media and he knew of our results.

“I’m not going to lie, I’d been trying to sell Bagalollies because the boys were winding up their operation with Tavistock’s passing. I’d been trying to sell her since January. Funnily enough, I couldn’t find a home for her.

"When Edmund got in contact with me, it was just wonderful. For him to come in on a mare like that and to straight away have this result, with his first mare, what a thrill. Watching the Oaks today for him was completely different to what it would have been had he not got in contact with me. He bought really, really well and I’m absolutely thrilled for him.

“Edmund and I have had a lot of contact since then and I have to say, what a wonderful guy and I'm absolutely delighted to be bringing him in for the Highden Park journey. He’s so grateful to be involved, he’s been a big follower of us and of Beauty Generation and Ping Hai Star in Hong Kong. He feels fortunate to be a part of our team and that means everything to us.”

Bagalollies traces back to a strong American family that includes seven-time Grade 1 winner Open Mind, five-time Grade 1 victor Forever Together and Pegasus World Cup winner Mucho Gusto. Intriguingly, she shares the same fourth dam, Take A Stand, as Saturday's Group 1 Robert Sangster Stakes winner Bella Vella.

Bleakley admits that Bagalollies would have been popular had she gone through the Gold Coast sales ring, even more so now that Toffee Tongue has a Group 1 win to her name, but she says that she’s grateful to Wong as it means that the rising 17-year-old will remain at Highden Park.

“I don’t know if there would be many mares who have had every runner to the races as a Group performer,” she said. “Every mare generally has a dud and don’t get me wrong, this mare has had a couple that didn’t make it to the races. But every one of her foals that has gone to the races is now a Group performer. It’s pretty amazing.

“We only have 15 mares here and while she’s no different to any other mare on the farm – she gets treated the same as the rest – she is such a nice mare and we’re so fond of her that to see her get on the truck and leave would have been really difficult,” she said.

“Her previous owners cared enough about her for that to be a deciding factor, that she would get to stay with us. It’s just so special.

“To get that support from people and to get that support from a new owner, to leave a mare of that calibre with us and not put her on a plane to Australia to a fancy stud, that means a lot to us; it requires trust and faith in us, in our ability and in what we do.”

Toffee Tongue breaks maiden in Oaks

The Chris Waller-trained Toffee Tongue was sent off as favourite in the 16-runner Australasian Oaks field, the subject of plenty of money as she struck her favoured soft conditions.

She was coming into the race off a string of placings, including her last two at stakes level in the Adrian Knox Stakes and the Australian Oaks, both times behind Colette.

Jumping well under Damien Thornton, Toffee Tongue settled more handily than usual early but also started to over-race. Thornton deftly brought the filly back underneath him, but also found himself in a sticky position turning for home as horses weakened in front.

However, with most of the field pulling wide, it left a gap for Toffee Tongue and Thornton. She sprinted strongly along the rails and quickly put the race to bed, holding off a wall of challengers, all swooping home late, to give Thornton a first Group 1 win.

Moonlight Maid recorded a second Group 1 placing, finishing three-quarters of a length from the winner, with Affair To Remember a long head away in third.

"Even though it was her first win, I felt she was always improving,” Waller said. “Her run in the Adrian Knox Stakes was great and her run in the Australian Oaks was brilliant. She perhaps should have finished at least a bit closer. It's great to get the Group 1 with her.

"We only decided to send her to Adelaide after she ran so well in the Australian Oaks and the Adrian Knox before that. She was earmarked for Queensland originally. She's got the breeding to be a really good horse.”

The Bleakleys, though, remain down to earth and humble, excited by the fact their graduates are continuing to prove themselves on the big stage but also somewhat perplexed by their farm’s ongoing success.

“It’s quite surreal,” she said. “We don’t know what’s happening, we have no idea what’s going on. It’s a little bit out of the ordinary, the results we're getting, and consistently too; we can’t really explain it. We’re spoilt for choice with these horses but we don’t know what it is, we just do our job and do it the best we can.

“I think anyone that knows us knows that we have a one-year-old and a four-year-old so among watching the Oaks, we still had to put pyjamas on, read books, dry dishes, fold washing and get children to bed. I’d love to say that we’re jumping up and down on the lounge, we’ve got the Moet all over the place and the party is turning up in half an hour but it’s just not us, it’s just not the life we live.

“Sam only just got back in time to watch the race because he was down at the back of the farm feeding all the spellers. Even a big Group 1 like that, we don’t stop – we’ve hopefully got a new batch of future Group 1 winners to look after!”

Sent to the 2018 NZB Karaka Yearling Sales, Toffee Tongue was knocked down to Dean Hawthorne Bloodstock on behalf of Jonathan Munz.

“The previous two that we’d had through our hands were Milseain and Candyland,” Sam Bleakley recalled. “I remember with Milseain, I gave Andrew Campbell a call and asked him, ‘What was Werther like? What was Gobstopper like?’ I was just trying to understand them as horses. I found that Milseain was very hot and worked up, I couldn’t quite work out that Zabeel cross myself.

“Over time, we’ve slowly figured it out. Candyland was much better, more relaxed, I worked out a system with her. And then Toffee Tongue, I think we nailed it with her. We worked out how to treat her, we got onto her early as a weanling but also we gave her enough space to work out her own brain.

"Her foals have all been the same, they command a lot of respect from you and if you’re not prepared to put in the time and form that relationship with her foals, earn that two-way street of respect, you’re fighting a losing battle. That’s why we were so delighted when Dean purchased Toffee Tongue for Jonathan.

“I actually rang Dean after the win,” Libby Bleakley added. “We can only do so much when we prep them and from there, it’s out of our hands. I just had to ring him and thank him for buying her and putting her in the right hands to get the job done. It was amazing. Actually, I said to him, ‘Do you think I could ring Chris Waller and say thank you so much? It’s really nice to get our first Australian Group 1 win with a Kiwi.’ And he said, of course!

“We’re just Sam and Libby from Highden, we’re just a mechanic and a horsey girl and that’s Chris Waller. How does that work? But between Dean, Jonathan and Chris, they are the sorts of people that know how to operate as we do. They form relationships with horses, they give them time, respect, space, all those sorts of things. So you just know you’re on a winning formula when they go to environments like that.”

Strength to strength for Highden Park

Since Highden Park was purchased by the Bleakleys in mid-2010, their success has been particularly noteworthy in the racing mecca that is Hong Kong. Three of the last four years, the Hong Kong Horse of the Year was raised on the Manawatu property, with Beauty Generation the last two years and Werther in 2015/16.

Others to have come off their pastures include Hong Kong Derby winner Ping Hai Star and stakes-winning sprinter Amazing Kids  - both Werther and Ping Hai Star have returned to Highden Park in retirement.

In Australia, Werther and Beauty Generation were both Group 1 place-getters, while Harlow Gold was, like Toffee Tongue, Oaks-placed, finishing second in the VRC Oaks in 2016.

However, Toffee Tongue’s win yesterday represented a new high – and there are hopes that a second big-race win may not be far away with another graduate, Frank Packer Plate winner Kinane. Unlike Toffee Tongue, though, Kinane was a pinhook, with pinhooking becoming a more prominent part of the Highden operation.

“We’re seeing now that our pinhooks are performing,” she said. “Our first three horses that we ever pinhooked: one is Kinane, the second is Vegas Knight and the third is a Shooting To Win filly (Shotgun Sally) that’s won for Chris Gibbs up in Ruakaka.

“I think a lot of it has got to do with our draft selection. The reason why we’re having a lot of success with our graduates is because there are only nice horses in there to start with, so that makes it a bit easier. We’ve always said to people, you can run around creating short lists at sales and it takes you a week. Sam and I have already done that, we’ve whittled everything down.

"If we’ve got ten horses at the sales, it’s because they are ten of the nicest horses that we could get our hands on. Not everyone has the capacity to be able to pick and choose, but we’re so fortunate that we don’t have to do that. We’d rather take three crackers rather than just taking ten horses because we have ten boxes and we’ve done that right from day one.”

Sam Bleakley added: “We’ve been in a situation before where we’ve been a month into a prep and then we’ve just turned around and said to the owner, this horse is going to need more time. Maybe a Ready To Run horse, maybe just try and sell it yourself. Our honesty is a big part of it as well; we’re not here to rip people off, we’re here to produce good racehorses.

“People are starting to realise that we don’t take rubbish to the sales. If a horse is there under the Highden Park banner, it’s got tidy X-rays, a good scope and it will be a nice horse, a nice athlete. It may not be your cup of tea, but it could be someone else’s cup of tea because we don’t all like the same horse.

"We’ve seen that with our buyers that buy off us really consistently. The likes of John Foote, he’s bought half a dozen from us over the years, when judges like that keep coming back for your product, you know that you’re doing something right.”

Highden Park was also due to offer Bagalollies’ Tavistock yearling at last month’s Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale, one of two colts that the farm was set to offer at their first foray to the premier auction. However, that plan was quashed when trans-Tasman equine flights came to a halt due to coronavirus restrictions.

Toffee Tongue pictured as a yearling at the sales

“We worked so hard with Inglis, right to the last minute, and every time the goalposts moved, we moved,” she said. “We sent staff to Sydney to isolate them before the sales, we did everything to get them there. We begged, borrowed and stole to get these two colts for Easter. We really had to work hard to prove ourselves to secure them and we think that it was going to be life-changing and business-changing for us, it was going to take us to a whole new level.

“It just wasn’t meant to be. That’s okay, we'll hopefully be in a position to offer horses at Easter another year. The good thing is, he was going to Easter because he was next-level outstanding. He was easily the best foal the mare has ever left. Easily. He was only going because he was a serious Easter yearling. Fortunately, both our colts that were going, our owners weren’t selling because they needed to or had to, they were just giving us the opportunity to showcase good product. That was wonderful of them and we appreciate it.”

Bleakley continued: “I don’t know what is going to happen with the yearling. Anyone that knows Tommy and his group knows that there’s never quite a plan, you just go with the flow and as things happen, you set targets and make goals. We should all know by now too that horses don’t enjoy plans.

“We’ve had a couple of people straight away tonight ask about the colt, and I can genuinely say that I have no idea. You just don’t. You don’t know what to expect. He’ll go through the system, he’ll get broken in.”

What gives the Bleakleys satisfaction is the fact that their success is not just for one group of clients, but that it is spread around their small group of owners.

“That’s something that we just can’t get over,” she said. “Everyone says, ‘How easy is it when you have a mare like Bagalollies?’ But it’s Kinane, it’s Beauty Generation, it’s Ping Hai Star and all of our owners are getting a turn.

“We’ve got one lot of owners, just a younger couple, they’ve only been going two years in their breeding and I know that their turn is next and I’m so excited. They are just about our only owners who haven’t had a good bit of fun with us and they’ve just been investing from the bottom level, they’ve been building their way up and doing it slowly. I can’t wait and I’m really looking forward to it because, to be sharing this with a rotating door of owners – now it’s your turn, and it’s your turn, and so on – it’s rewarding for us.

“There are a lot of people that put trust and faith in us and these are owners that supported us when we opened the gates. To get results like this for Tommy Heptinstall and his syndicate, they put so much into this industry. And they aren’t breeders either! They bred because they had shares in Tavistock, but boy, they’ve produced some good horses for not being breeders.”

Highden Park has already achieved plenty throughout its decade in operation, but the Bleakleys are looking ahead to the next ten years.

“It’s so interesting because this is the racing group and among those that are still to come we’re so excited for what the future holds,” she said. “We’re sitting on two two-year-olds that we know are very, very good. We’ve had the trainers tell us how good they are, and I know you hear this a bit, but these are people I really respect. One’s heading up to Hong Kong, straight up there, and once they come up, it may be really exciting.

“Our next big goal is to have a stallion come off our farm. That would be something really special. For now though, this is an amazing ride and we’re just enjoying every second.”

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Simon Kerins: 'We'll embrace any format that will help get horses sold'

Barry Lynch: 'The industry has often bounced back as quickly as it dipped'

Tim Lane: 'Working with horses does you the world of good in these times'

Jerry Horan: 'My sister butchered my haircut. I think it was payback'

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Sam Hoskins: 'I've been listening to endless Cold War podcasts on my tractor'

Niamh Spiller: 'Video calls are very important to keep everyone motivated'

Jamie Lloyd: 'Staff have had all their own gear labelled, even wheelbarrows'

Micheál Orlandi: 'The stallions are flying and that gives me great hope'

Richard Venn: 'The French are in a good position to get back racing sooner'

Tim Kent: 'It's difficult to plan when we don't know when racing will resume'

Russell Ferris: 'Weatherbys had contingency plans that we activated at once'

Grant and Tom Pritchard-Gordon: 'Inglis Easter has kept us busy since January'

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Richard Lancaster: 'We're fortunate that some Shadwell staff live on site'

If a horse is there under the Highden Park banner, it’s got tidy X-rays, a good scope and it will be a nice horse, a nice athlete
E.W. Terms