Mick Preston was once the stallion handler of Hyperion for Lord Derby in Newmarket

by Brian de Lore
Published 10th July 2020

True Enough’s 87-year-old owner-breeder Mick Preston is the only man remaining on the planet today who can claim he was once the ‘handler’ for the great English Derby-winning sire and worldwide thoroughbred influence in Hyperion.

Greatness in the thoroughbred world is often contentiously debated, but on the score of sheer racecourse talent coupled with success in the breeding barn, Hyperion easily ranks in the top dozen horses ever foaled, if not the top six.

The year 1933 was pivotal in this story. Brendan Arthur Vivian (Mick) Preston was born in May of that year, and less than a month later, the diminutive racehorse Hyperion would come out in the first week of June at Epsom and trounce a talent-laden Derby field by four lengths. Fast forward 19 years and Mick and Hyperion would come together for an unlikely liaison in quirky circumstances.

Someone decided Brendan should instead be Mick at a very young age, and the nickname stuck, just as his well-known dad, Arthur Edmund, was always known as Ted which may well have come from the need to differentiate Ted from his father who was Arthur Edward.

This well-known family of Wellington butchers were also successful horse-breeders and owners, but it was Ted who founded West Derby Stud at Levin and stood the highly successful Knight’s Romance who made his stud debut in the spring of 1952. Mick was absent from West Derby for the arrival of Knight’s Romance because he had arrived in England after the long sea voyage from New Zealand to spend most of the year learning from the best at Lord Derby’s Woodland Stud at Newmarket.

Mick’s nine-month UK stint at Woodland Stud had been arranged by J.G. (Jack) Alexander of Cranleigh Stud

Mick’s nine-month UK stint at Woodland Stud had been arranged by J.G. (Jack) Alexander of Cranleigh Stud fame and financed by Mick’s father, Ted. Jack Alexander was the man who bred La Mer amongst many good horses but was also internationally recognised for his Romney ram breeding operation near Wanganui from which he had developed contacts all over the world.

After his arrival in February of 1952, still only 18-years-old, Mick remembers handling the teaser in freezing-cold conditions with snow on the ground. The stud was divided into blocks, and Mick’s duties at Woodland revolved around the Arab stallion teaser, leading him from block to block to tease the mares, which took more than three hours every day.

Using his Kiwi number eight wire inventiveness, Mick decided he could shorten-up the teasing time if he rode the Arab teaser from broodmare block to broodmare block. The problem for Mick was that no one on the stud knew if the smallish Arab chestnut stallion had ever had a rider on his back, but Mick gave scant consideration to the possibility of any adverse consequences.

At the age of 87, you could forgive anyone for struggling to recall the detail of things that happened almost 70 years ago, but not Mick Preston. Not only can Mick recall all the dates, but his answers are all swift and eloquently delivered in good voice with deliberation as if it happened yesterday.

“I landed in England on 23rd February 1952, and it was the first time I had ever ridden in snow,” said Mick, which proved that point.

My research for this yarn took place at Mick’s home in Taupo, where getting back to the question of riding the Arab stallion, I asked, “Did you think it might be risky?”

Mick Preston: We cut the teasing time to just over an hour

“No,” retorted Mick with speed, “I was thinking about how far I was walking – We cut the teasing time to just over an hour.”

Mick related the story of how he borrowed a saddle and bridle and a girth strap in which he tied a knot to use on the skinnier girth of the Arab. Once saddled up, he climbed aboard to discover this was one well-behaved stallion who adapted to the role quickly apart from his habit of stumbling as he circumvented the stud.

As he said, Mick had never previously ridden a horse in snow but soon discovered the snow was compacting into a ball of ice beneath the hoof, causing the stumbling. From that time, he found himself regularly dismounting to remove the build-up of snow.

Soon afterward, Mick’s riding plan came to an abrupt halt when Woodland Stud had an outbreak of strangles, and one of the blocks had to go into lockdown quarantine. The Arab teaser had been visiting each of the blocks daily, and as a consequence had to quarantine in his box for the next six weeks.  

Mick’s replacement teaser meant he was back walking the length and breadth of the stud, but it was worth it because the new teaser was the then 22-year-old Hyperion himself – given that job as well as serving the mare’s when ready to cover.

When asked how he saw that situation, Mick said, “I’m probably the only human being left alive that handled Hyperion, and I consider that to be a great honour.”

HYPERION was so small and weak looking when foaled his breeder considered having him put down. When put into training he was 14.2 hands and when fully grown was just over 15.1 hands, yet he won the English Derby by four lengths and became one of the greatest sires of all time.

Mick considered that it was already an honour just working at Woodland Stud for most of 1952 – that hallowed breeding ground having previously been the home of great stallions such as Chaucer, Swynford, and Pharos before Hyperion. In Mick’s year of 1952, Hyperion had already been Champion Sire on five occasions, and he would capture a sixth title in 1955 when aged 25 as well finishing second four times.

To get Mick to Woodland Stud in 1952, his father Ted had arranged to have Mick’s compulsory three-months military training deferred until the following year. Mick arrived home in November and was required to commence his training in an early January intake, causing him to miss the National Sales at Trentham at the end of the month.

The Preston family story as Wellington butchers, horse breeders and owners is remarkable for many reasons, not the least for its longevity which goes back almost 130 years to original settler Arthur Edward Preston who arrived from Liverpool in the 1890s. Two generations later, Mick watches every race from his Taupo home and has had Group One success this season as an owner-breeder with his six-year-old gelding, True Enough.

The lightly raced True Enough has won nine of his 22 starts, including the Cambridge Stud Zabeel Classic Gr.1 on Boxing Day after taking out the Coupland’s Bakeries Mile Gr.2 at Riccarton in November. His last and only two starts this year has produced seconds in two group ones, and despite earning prizemoney in 20 of his 22 starts including seven seconds, his career prizemoney earnings amount to only $559,225 – a further inditement on prizemoney levels in New Zealand racing.

Mick Preston isn’t complaining, though, because True Enough was an accidental mating when the dam Valda’s Dream was inadvertently bred to the wrong stallion (Nom Du Jeu), and True Enough was the result.

The Preston dynasty began with Arthur Edward Preston (1873-1947), who arrived on the Petone foreshore with nine pence in his pocket from Liverpool in the 1890s. His family were butchers in Liverpool involved in the meat markets.

Arthur Edward Preston walked over the Rimutaka Range to Tauherenikau in the 1890s, which today would take more than 12 hours

He walked over the Rimutaka Range to Tauherenikau, which today would take more than 12 hours, but in those days would have been on a very rough track, to try and get a job in a sawmill. With no jobs available, he made the walk back to Petone. Eventually, he secured a job with the Gear Meat Company, where he worked for several years before starting his own business in Wellington. His subsequent success at butchery saw him open several shops around Wellington.

When financial enough, Arthur bought a filly he named White Cliffs, named after the last piece of land he saw before leaving England, and achieved some success with her as a broodmare

Mick’s father, Arthur Edmund (Ted) Preston (1905-1992) carried on the butchery business, expanding it and also inheriting his father’s interest in horses.

Mick remembers that his father always had horses, including a mare and also some showjumpers. While his business was butchery, he expanded his horse interests by leasing a block of land at Ohau just south of Levin and over some years leased several stallions, including Defoe, which he had for three years.

Ted then bought Tararua Road as the Preston family called it before it was named. It was 1945, and he paid £8,000 for the 83 acres for the property he would later call West Derby Stud. The name came from his father’s birthplace of West Derbyshire, which was just over 100 kilometres east of Liverpool where Arthur had learned the butchery trade, and not far from Aintree Racecourse where one could imagine the Preston family took an interest in proceedings.

Ted Preston kept his butchering business going in Wellington and never lived on West Derby but would go there on weekends. He was meticulous about the horses and their welfare. He raced a lot of horses and would travel up to the farm every Friday to check on the horses but never had any other interests in life outside his business other than horses.

Ted had six sons of which Mick was the eldest. All the sons did their apprenticeship in butchery, and while at school, they all worked in the butcher shop, but weren’t allowed to leave school until the parents considered they were ready.

Mick was keen on farming and talked his mother into letting him leave one May school holiday when barely 17, but the first job he ever got paid for was plucking wild ducks. All the doctors and accountants would bring them into the butcher shop to get dressed in the duck shooting season.

Ted had gone back to Wellington because he still had seven butcher shops, and less than two years later, a young Mick was at Woodland Stud in Newmarket using Hyperion as the teaser.

Nothing would ever have deviated Mick Preston from a career in horses after that experience.

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