Boutique Manawatu thoroughbred nursery Highden Park, operated by Libby and Sam Bleakley, has experienced a purple patch with their graduates this autumn, extending their impressive honour roll.
Although the farm has been in business for less than 10 years their list of quality graduates is extensive, and includes the likes of Dual Hong Kong Horse of The Year Beauty Generation and Hong Kong Derby (2000m) hero Ping Hai Star.
Highden Park graduates have excelled in Australia through the autumn. Their charge was led by regally-bred filly Toffee Tongue who recorded Highden Park’s first Australian Group 1 victory in the Australasian Oaks (2000m) at Morphettville last Saturday. The daughter of Tavistock was purchased out of Highden Park’s 2018 New Zealand Bloodstock Book 1 Yearling Sale draft by bloodstock agent Dean Hawthorne for $500,000. She went into the Oaks in good form having finished runner-up in the Group 1 Australian Oaks (2400m) and Group 3 Adrian Knox Stakes (2000m).
Highden Park were also well represented by fellow graduate Kinane, a foal to yearling pinhook, who decisively won the Group 3 Frank Packer Plate (2000m) at just his fourth raceday start.
Toffee Tongue’s full-brother Gobstopper extended Highden Park’s run of success when winning the Galleywood Hurdle (3200m) at Warrnambool on Tuesday. He won eight of his 34 starts when trained in New Zealand by Andrew Campbell, including the Group 3 New Zealand Cup (3200m).
Both Toffee Tongue and Gobstopper are out of broodmare gem Bagalollies, who resides at Highden Park. The Zabeel mare proved the perfect match for ill-fated Cambridge Stud sire Tavistock, having also produced former Hong Kong Horse of the Year Werther and Group 1 performer Milseain.
While the Bleakleys appear to have found a golden formula in rearing quality thoroughbreds, a career in the industry was far from assured with their families having no prior involvement with horses.
Libby grew up in Martinborough and she remembers having a strong attraction to all things equine. “I wrote a project about a horse at school and eventually got invited to Newbury Park for a weekend, and I knew it was for me straight away,” she said. “I watched a mare foal, went to trackwork and the races, and I was sold. I was head over heels and have never looked back.”
Sam was also attracted to horsepower in his youth, but of the four-wheel kind. An avid lover of motor racing, Sam followed his passion and became a mechanic in Taupo. Despite his parents owning a farm, he had no interest in farming or horses.
The couple met on one of Libby’s weekends off from her job at Wellfield Lodge and dated for a couple of years before Sam moved south to Palmerston North to be with Libby and establish Highden Park. “It was very fortunate for me that Sam was a natural with horses,” Bleakley said. “He’s learnt a lot and is a wonderful leader, and today there’s not a lot that Sam can’t do when it comes to horses.
“Full credit to Sam because he just believed in me. I’d never run a business and didn’t have anyone I could ring and say ‘send me some horses,’ so it was an advertisement in The Informant that got me my first client, Alistair Murdoch. “He sent us an in-foal mare and then about a week later Adrian Clark rang and asked me to take 10 mares for his client Nearco Stud, and I knew that could pay the mortgage.”
While initially having a small draft for their debut at New Zealand Bloodstock’s National Yearling Sale, Highden Park has attracted plenty of attention in their 10-year history and have become an in-demand commodity for yearling preparation. “We prepared five yearlings for (Goodwood Stud principal) William Fell because he was short of boxes, and three for Scott and Jude Preston, and then Alistair Murdoch gave us another two and just like that we had a little draft,” Bleakley said. “We weren’t expecting to kick-off so quickly and to get one into the Select Sale we were over the moon.”
At Karaka in 2020, Highden Park again achieved the mantle of the leading vendor in Book Two for the third year in succession. “We don’t have a glorified broodmare band to manage and currently have only 16 mares on the farm, including dual New Zealand Broodmare of the Year Bagalollies,” Bleakley said. “We must be doing something right. We have had some freakish success with weanling pinhooks including Australian Group 3 winner Kinane and Group 2 placed Vegas Knight from our first three weanlings purchased.
We back our judgment while perhaps taking bigger risks than others might generally take. “You have to evolve in this business and continually look at ways of improving. The need to have an excellent relationship with clients is essential, much more than a bill in the mail. We pride ourselves on communication.”
As Highden Park prepares to hit the 10-year mark of being in business, the Bleakeys can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the milestones already achieved by their boutique operation. “It has been amazing to witness so many Highden Park graduates go on to do incredible things,” Bleakley said.
“It has always been important to us to limit the number of horses on the farm. We believe that each individual should receive careful care and attention to ensure they develop to their full potential so it’s very rewarding to see our philosophy translate to racetrack success.”