Cliff Thomas has been looking out for Nicky Chilcott from the time she packed her bags and ran away from home at the age of eight.
So four decades later, when Cliff celebrated his 90th birthday with a group of long-time friends in Cambridge, the story of how he recognised her walking on the side of the road and took her home wasn’t the only one told over a few beers.
Nicky will tell you that nobody has been more supportive of her career than Cliff, co-patron of the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Harness Racing Club.
“Every time I needed to fill a syndicate, Cliff would always be there but he’s been far more than that, he’s been like a grandfather to me,” she said.
Cliff first raced horses with Nicky’s father Graham back in the day when they shared in Gimmick Lodge and worked the farm together.
They imported a number of stallions, with Gaines Minbar the best of them, and were the first to do AI (artificial insemination).
“I remember they used to collect semen and keep it in the pie warmer,” said Chillcott.
Nicky has lost count of the number of horses Cliff has raced with White Star but he has shares in about a dozen now, including Monkey Selfie, Del Shannon, Phoebe Imperial and Phoebe Majestic, and his winning tally has hit 120.
But he didn’t start out a winner. From 1953 to 1978 he went winless, prompting the late John Butcher to say a special medal should be struck in his honour.
Cliff recalled how he rode horses every day on a sheep farm in his youth, so it was only natural he would be drawn into racing them with Morrinsville then such a strong thoroughbred area.
But it was only when Cliff switched codes to trotters and pacers that his fortunes changed.
“I won my first race In December, 1978 with a horse named Upper Crust, trained by Duncan Smith.
“He was a saddle horse on a sheep farm so he was always fit and won five races.”
The winners didn’t really start flowing until Nicky took over from her father and the majority of Cliff’s wins have been in her orange and white colours.
Incredibly, Shredder, his first winner with Nicky, won 10 races for White Star Stables, including the 1999 Wellington Cup.
Cliff, who had a big dairy farm in Kereone, is also well known in rugby circles, and played alongside the famous Clarke five, the most notable iconic All Black fullback Don Clarke.
He was a Waikato referee when current Waikato-BOP Harness Racing Inc. President Graham Bowen first met him, 46 years ago.
“I was playing for Matangi and Cliff was refereeing. This guy elbowed me in the head at a lineout and I got a lucky punch in and dropped him.
“When the guy complained and said: “Ref, did you see that?’ He replied ‘Yes, and you deserved everything you got.’
“I thought then he must be a good bugger.”
Cambridge Raceway is recognising Thomas's achievements in the New Year with the $25,000 Cliff Thomas Free-for-all Trot on January 7. - Barry Lichter