By Barry Lichter
Cliff Thomas had such a wide circle of friends his family could never have found a venue big enough to celebrate his life had it not been for Covid restrictions.
But since Cliff died at the age of 90 at his Morrinsville home on Sunday night, they’ve had an even bigger headache trying to restrict to 100 people Friday’s gathering at the Kereone Rugby and Sports Club.
That Cliff should be remembered there was logical given that in 1952 he helped carve out the Campbell Park grounds on his tractor.
Cliff, in typically organised fashion, orchestrated his own service many weeks ago, engaging three people to give eulogies - Graham Bowen to speak on his life in racing, rugby and refereeing, Dennis Trotter to talk about his community ties and his nephew James to cover farming and family.
It’s a toss-up in which area Cliff made the most impact but he certainly wasn’t your typical nonagenarian whose network of friends had shrunk as he got older.
Cliff had never had more friends in racing, his son Bruce startled to discover he has shares in 18 horses with Cambridge trainer Nicky Chilcott.
“He always put his hand up when Nicky needed someone to fill a syndicate - I don’t think he ever put his hand down. He always talked about the nice people he met and how he got more of a buzz when a syndicate horse won.”
Whereas once his life revolved mostly around racing and rugby, in latter years he had “mellowed” and become very proud of his family, in particular his seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
It was a very special weekend for Cliff last December when they all descended on Morrinsville from around the country to celebrate his 90th birthday.
“He had three or four goes at 90th birthday parties with all his friends.”
Bruce was too young to appreciate his father’s achievements on the rugby paddock but Cliff, like all the Thomases before him - and there were plenty of them - played in the Kereone green and white hoops.
Look hard enough and you’ll probably find in the clubrooms a photo of the unbeaten 1958 senior team which included Cliff, future All Black legend Don Clarke and his brothers Ian, Doug and Brian - Graeme the only one missing of the famous five.
Cliff, who kept a diary, could have told you exactly how many games he played for Kereone but it is recorded in the club’s annals as being more than 260.
Bruce doesn’t recall much of Cliff’s playing days but remembers him as a referee - “he used to penalise his son Roger at least once each game just for the hell of it.”
Bowen is sure to tell the story on Friday of the day he first met Cliff 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?’ Cliff replied ‘yes and you deserved everything you got.’ I thought then he must be a good bugger.”
Cliff become a senior grade referee and went on to serve the association in almost every administrative capacity. He was made a life member of Morrinsville in 1987 and became patron in 1996.
Cliff was honoured with the same titles on the Waikato-Bay Of Plenty Harness Racing Club after 33 years on the Morrinsville Trotting Club executive.
But it’s a wonder Cliff lasted that long in racing. While horses were a huge part of his life - he rode them every day on his Kereone beef and sheep farm - he went winless as an owner for 25 years from 1953 to 1978, prompting the late John Butcher to say a special medal should be struck in his honour.
In an interview on his 90th birthday Cliff told how it was only when he changed codes from gallopers to trotters and pacers that his luck 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 he won five races.”
Cliff went on to race horses first with Graham Chilcott, his partner in Gimmick Lodge Stud, then Graham’s daughter Nicky and, incredibly, his best horse with her was his first. Shredder won 10 races, including the 1999 Wellington Cup, for Cliff, Dennis Trotter, Russell Fantham and the late Brian Richards.
At last count he had notched more than 120 winners, framed photos of many, like eight-race winner Miss Sharvid, lining the walls of his home.
Bruce knows there are plenty more boxes of horse photos he has yet to find but in the hours he has spent reminiscing at his dad’s place this week it’s been the photo albums lining the shelves that have made the most impression.
“Dad did a load of travelling and the albums are full of photos. He wasn’t keen at first but my mother Noreen had itchy feet and after he went once, he got the bug.”
It’s a passion Cliff enjoyed sharing with Noreen who wasn’t a fan of horses and “kept as far away from the them as possible”.
Later, after Noreen’s death, Cliff found he shared a love of travelling with a new partner Sanna Donnelly, who also accompanied him to the races until her death in 2019 at the age of 95.
Cliff continued to be active, even travelling to the Chatham Islands in 2020, and driving himself to Cambridge to see his horses.
Bruce and the rest of the family haven’t inherited Cliff’s love of racing - it’s not an easy game, he says, and you need a lot of disposable income - but recalls fondly the days when at the age of 10 he finally convinced his dad to buy him a pony and they’d ride round the hills on the farm together.
Then there were the times when Cliff was running his stud farm, the days when they initiated artificial insemination and used to keep the semen in a pie warmer, and Cliff used to shout at the mares when they misbehaved.
“That’s when my kids learned to swear. Dad had a reasonably short temper - he was a real ginga.”
The rugby and racing communities might lay claim to Cliff as their godfather but after calling Morrinsville home all his life, his community ties were equally as strong.
Since his grandfather James Buchanan Thomas bought the Kereone farm in 1921, the family name has been prominent.
In 1931, in honour of JB who was Piako County Council Chairman from 1914 to 1920, his widow Margaret donated land in central Morrinsville which today is called Thomas Park and features a life-size cow sculpture at its entrance.
Cliff’s late brother Ken featured in local government for 39 years, his sister Margaret served as a nurse, and Cliff held high honours in the Pakeke Lions, Historical Society and RSA.
Cliff was also an astute investor in residential housing. After selling real estate in Morrinsville in the late ‘70s he built a large portfolio of rental properties, mainly in Hamilton.
Cliff’s many racehorses weren’t quite so profitable but the enjoyment they gave him, and his quasi grand-daughter Nicky Chilcott, was evident every time he visited the winner’s circle or even just the stable.
“It was never about the money with Cliff and he was a great loser,” Nicky said. “He had to be. How many people would have lasted 25 years without a win?
“He realised how hard it was to win and soaked up every one.”
Nicky said she can recall only once that Cliff questioned a decision she made on his horses.
“I told him I’d had enough of Abdicate when he was a three-year-old - even though he had speed he was just too difficult. Cliff made the call to give the horse a spell and have one last try and he came back better and we sold him for good money.”
Cliff made all the decisions on which stallions to go to with his mares, Nicky now sad that he won’t be around to see two of his promising Always B Miki babies race.
“When you lose someone you always wish you’d spent more time with them but I’d actually seen quite a lot of Cliff in the last few weeks - we went to the sales together and had lunch a few times.
“I told him I was never too busy for No.1, which is what I always called him. He apparently told people I was his daughter.”
But then Cliff has been looking out for Nicky since the day he came across her as an eight-year-old girl on the side of the road, running away from home.
“I feel like there’s this huge void now and I can’t talk to people about him without turning into a blubbering mess. The world has lost a great guy.”
This service will be live streamed on https://view.oneroomstreaming.com/authorise.php?k=1646574137171039