Sir Peter Vela

published: 10 Dec 2014 in Personality profiles

A thoroughbred called Dominus, who managed to win one race in 24 starts, fired Sir Peter Vela’s interest in the world of racing and breeding while he was still at university and led to him, and his brother Philip, becoming dominant players in the NZ industry. Now Sir Peter is at the helm of Pencarrow Stud and New Zealand Bloodstock.

THE influence of Sir Peter Vela on the New Zealand thoroughbred industry, as his knighthood testifies, cannot be underestimated. A visionary and an inspiring perfectionist, he has been able to turn much of what he has touched into gold. In partnership with his elder brother Philip, Vela Fishing was enlarged from relatively humble beginnings into a powerful global trading company.

It has been a similar story with Pencarrow Thoroughbreds, which he and Philip set up in 1980 at Hamilton in the lush Waikato Region of the North Island. Until September 2013, when they had an amicable separation of their interests, Philip took the fishing business and Peter the horses, they had bred or raced a long list of luminaries.

Ethereal, Darci Brahma, Riverina Charm, Romanee Conti, Noble Heights, triple Gr.1 winner Star Dancer, Hoeberg, a champion in South Africa, Grand Echezeaux, Vapour Trail, Insouciant, Star of Nouvelle, Moralee and Guiseppina are just a few of those.

Yet, quite remarkably given their massive involvement, the Velas have not been tempted to stand stallions. “We have part-owned and had shares in plenty of stallions but our policy has always been to concentrate on having a broodmare band,” Sir Peter said. “We go off the farm to the stallions we want to visit, such as the Sir Tristrams, the Zabeels and that sort of horse. Now we are shareholders in Darci Brahma and basically we like to support the horses standing in New Zealand.”

The predominance the Velas have attained has also included buying the struggling Wrightson Bloodstock and turning it into a vibrant selling agent as New Zealand Bloodstock. Subsequently Sir Peter was instrumental in forming New Zealand Thoroughbred Marketing to promote the horses bred in the ‘shaky isles’ to the world.

However that is not all, for he has provided financial support for the inception of New Zealand’s Racing Hall of Fame, New Zealand’s richest thoroughbred race the Karaka Millions and, in 2013, a bonus series to encourage a greater focus on breeding quality fillies. Added to this has been a sponsorship of five-time equestrian Olympic Gold Medallist Sir Mark Todd, who was acclaimed as Rider of the 20th Century, and he has guided the career of the brilliant young jockey James McDonald

His hard working father and elder brother instilled the inspiration for his positive-thinking way of life into Peter soon after he was born in the beautiful harbour city of Auckland in the North Island. After undergoing his primary education at Royal Oak he went to Nelson College before enrolling at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. He graduated from the university in 1971 with a Bachelor of Social Sciences, and two years later completed his Master of Social Sciences.

There was a lot happening in those days because Peter was courting and married Pamela, his wife of 43 years. They have had three children, Petrea, Victoria and Nicholas. “Petrea and Victoria are in the horse business at Karaka but Nicholas isn’t,” Sir Peter said. “It’s great having Petrea and Victoria involved, and Pamela has been a wonderful help to me all along the way. She was a farm girl who grew up on a sheep station, so she has enjoyed the horses and being around the horses without being hands on.”

Even in his earliest years it had virtually been a given that Peter would follow his father and Philip into the fishing industry. From a young age he had begun working with them in Nelson Fisheries, at Nelson, on the eastern shores of Nelson Bay in the South Island when on holidays from his studies. The enterprise had its origins in the fishing companies his father Filip began after arriving in New Zealand in 1920, from a village on the Dalmatian Coast, Croatia. It was then taken over by his elder brother Philip on his father’s death in 1969.

“When I finished university I was looking for a business to get my teeth into,” he said. “Fishing was the only one I knew because I had worked in the business during my school holidays and university vacations and that sort of thing. Because of that, I had a heads-up in the business and I was pretty comfortable about having a go at it. So I started a small business in Hamilton and my brother joined me there a couple of years later.”

That was the beginning of Vela Fishing. From there, the company evolved to the point where it held the country’s largest privately-owned government fishing quota, harvested through a fleet of trawlers owned by the family. In addition to that, Vela Fishing has worked closely with other New Zealand companies to develop export markets around the world for New Zealand seafood products.

Although initially focused on the fishing industry, Sir Peter’s interest in racing and breeding had its foundations during his years at university. In the early 1970s he leased and raced a gelding named Dominus, by the Fair’s Fair horse Lord Sasanof, with a “couple of mates from university”.

“One day in 1971 the local butcher, Charlie Farrell who was a keen racing man, said he was going to see his horse in training. He asked whether I’d like to go with him, which I did. The horse was with Laurie Laxon so I met Laurie and later sent Dominus to him.”

Dominus’s performances gave no portent of what was to come with his only win, in 24 outings, being registered in a Whangarei RC maiden handicap. Being a part-owner did, however, lead Sir Peter through to having an active involvement on the practical side of racing for a few years.

“I would talk horses regularly with the guy who ran the cafeteria at the university. One day, through a contact of his, he knew they were short of a starting stalls attendant. He asked me if I wanted a day’s work and I said, ‘yes sure’. I did that for a couple of years right around the Waikato region and that helped me fund my way through my time at university.”

The income also enabled him to race a Candid Picture (IRE) gelding named Master Plan, who proved a useful performer under Laurie Laxon’s care with five wins, four seconds and a third. “My brother and I decided in 1976 that, rather than racing the geldings, we would have a more structured racing enterprise. Our idea was to buy some nicely bred fillies, race them and see whether we could establish a small broodmare band. In this basic modus operandi we would sell the colts and keep most of the fillies.”

So around that period, the brothers bought a 80ha (200 acre) property at Te Kowhai, a rich rural area about 15km north-west of Hamilton. “Philip built a house on the farm and began living there. Then with the plan we had of having a broodmare band, we bought Pencarrow in 1980. Originally Pencarrow was 40ha (100 acres) and now it’s 145ha (360 acres) and we have more than 400ha (1000 acres) at Te Kowhai.”

The first of their purchases to make an impact after the new structure was put into place, was Noble Heights who was by Sir Tristram (IRE) from the Gold Sovereign (GB) mare Gold Heights. Her efforts featured victories in the CJC New Zealand 1000 Guineas-Gr.1 (1600m) and the AURC Royal Stakes-Gr.2 (2000m) as well as a third to Sheraco and Lady Ulla in the AJC Oaks-Gr.1 (2400m) at Randwick in 1982.

“Noble Heights was our first Gr.1 winner and she went on to become one of our foundation mares,” Sir Peter said. “She became a magnificent influence on the identity and success of Pencarrow Stud.” To use a well-worn but appropriate cliché, the rise to platinum class of Pencarrow Stud in subsequent years has been mind-boggling. Not long after Pencarrow was founded, Richebourg who was by Vice Regal from the Wilkes (FR) mare Mary Mead, began carrying the dark blue, white hoops, grey sleeves, blue and white quartered cap of the Velas. Purchased for $NZ65,000 as a yearling, her groom at the sale was a “young guy” named Leon Casey who became Pencarrow’s stud master soon afterwards. “I think Leon is now in something like his 28th year with us and has been the rock and brains of the organisation,” Sir Peter said.

When sent across the Tasman to the Epsom-based Jim Moloney Richebourg started her climb to legendary status by winning the VATC Tranquil Star Stakes-Gr.3 (1400m) at Caulfield with Pat Hyland aboard. On retiring to stud she was quickly on her way to becoming, quite possibly, the most important of all Pencarrow’s broodmares. One of her early foals, to a mating with Sir Tristram, raced in Laurie Laxon’s team as Romanee Conti and is remembered fondly by Sir Peter.

At three she won the STC Emancipation Stakes-Gr.3 (1600m), the Masterton RC Lowland Stakes-Gr.3 (1400m) as well as finishing third in the WRC Telegraph Handicap-Gr.1. Then in 1992 Romanee Conti became a notable contributor to Pencarrow’s glorious history by racing away with the Hong Kong International Cup-HKGr.1 (1800m) at Sha Tin. “Winning an international event such the Hong Kong race was a tremendous thrill,” Sir Peter said.

Towards the end of her career at stud Richebourg produced Grand Echezeaux after a 1995 mating with Zabeel. Trained by Lee Freedman, who joined Pencarrow as racing director last May, she won the SAJC Australasian Oaks-Gr.1 (2400m) and other races. The first of Grand Echezeaux’s foals, by Danehill (IRE), was sold for $NZ1.1m at the 2004 Karaka Premier Yearling Sale. That was Darci Brahma, who scored five of his 10 wins in Gr.1 events on his way to becoming a leading sire.

Although established only 12 years before Romanee Conti was triumphant in Hong Kong, Pencarrow’s level of achievement by then had become awesome. Among those the Velas bred, in partnership with Robert Sangster, Ananda Krishnan and Norman Carlyon, and raced in partnership with them was Riverina Charm.

By Sir Tristram and from the Northfields mare Country Charm (IRE), her career was split between the stables of Laurie Laxon and Brian Mayfield-Smith. After two starts with Laxon she was sent across to Mayfield-Smith, who won the VATC 1000 Guineas (1600m), STC Canterbury Stakes (1900m) and Rosehill Guineas (2000m) at the elite level with her before she went back across the Tasman to capture ARC Air New Zealand Stakes-Gr.1 (2000m). Riverina Charm went on to become a highly valuable mare for Pencarrow with her progeny including the 2000 New Zealand Bloodstock Filly of the Year Sarwatch.

In between those times the Velas had, in the December of 1996, purchased Wrightson Bloodstock and conducted the initial yearling sale as New Zealand Bloodstock the following month at Karaka. “Some of the breeders came to Philip and I and asked whether we would consider buying the business to have a sales company for the on-going benefit of the industry,” Sir Peter said. “The deal was all done very quickly and we ran our first sale a month later.”

It was in the spring of 1997 that Ethereal, a daughter of Rhythm (USA) and Romanee Conti, was born. With Laurie having moved to Singapore, her way to the heights was steered by Sheila Laxon. Racing in the ownership of Mr P.J. and Mr P.M. Vela the mare won eight times and with a second and three thirds earned them $A4,762,136 in prizemoney.

However statistics hardly do her justice. Following a fairly slow start to her racing career, the first glimpse of her outstanding staying ability came in winning the BTC Doomben Roses-LR (2020m) on May 26, 2001. A week later Scott Seamer, who partnered Ethereal in all her major victories, brought her with a powerful finishing burst to take the QTC Queensland Oaks-Gr.1 (2400m) at Eagle Farm. That put the spring cups on the radar and after three thirds on returning from a spell she was primed. At her next two appearances the Caulfield Cup-Gr.1 (2400m) and Melbourne Cup-Gr.1 (3200m) fell to the Vela-Laxon-Seamer and Ethereal combination.

There was a most memorable beginning to 2002 on a personal note with, on New Year’s Day, Peter being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to racing. Just 39 days later Ethereal was on her way again. Her three lead-up races had her tuned for STC The BMW-Gr.1 (2400m) on March 23 and she completed a truly unique treble by scoring from Universal Prince. “For Richebourg to produce Romanee Conti and Romanee Conti to have Ethereal was an amazing sequence,” Sir Peter said. “If there can be one race that gave me the biggest thrill it was her win in The BMW. That was fantastic.” Understandably, The BMW victory secured her the title of Champion Australasian Stayer for 2002. A further title, that of New Zealand Bloodstock Filly of the Year, went that year to the Vela-bred Vapour Trial (Jetball-Devil’s Lair by Sir Tristram), whose wins included the New Zealand 1000 Guineas. The sterling feats of Ethereal plus the wins of Vapour Trail and others earned the Vela brothers the title of Mercedes-Benz Breeders of the Year for New Zealand for 2002, an award they had also received two years earlier.

In 2007 Vapour Trail’s 1000 Guineas feat was duplicated by Insouciant (Keeper-Loudenne by Palace Music) carrying the dark blue, white and grey silks. Over the years the Pencarrow roll of honour has also included the likes of Allez Suez, Cavallieri, Clear Rose, De Beers, Dolmabache, Gaius, Linesman, Maarek, Marmalitre, Our Lafite, Stanica, Te Akau Coup, Tethys, Winning Belle and the latest addition Atacama (Pentire). Her Melbourne Cup Day success in the Cup Day Plate, with James McDonald in the saddle, provided a special thrill for Sir Peter, as did the Prix de l ‘Arc Triomphe Day win of Maarek (IRE), who is by the Cheveley Park stallion Pivotal.

Bred by the Velas in association with New England Stud, Maarek’s wins were highlighted by a triumphant performance in the Prix de l’Abbaye-Gr.1 (1000m) in October of 2013. “To win races on the undercard to the Melbourne Cup and the Arc is something to always be remembered,” Sir Peter said. Maarek’s victory at Longchamp came a month after Peter and Philip announced that they were splitting their fishing and racing empire, which had made the Velas one of the richest families in New Zealand.

Philip stepped down as a director of Pencarrow Thoroughbreds, which became wholly owned by New Zealand Bloodstock Holdings, which in turn is fully owned by the Peter Vela Family Trustees. “It was all a perfectly amicable and sensible division of our businesses,” Sir Peter said. “Philip took fishing, which is his passion, and I took racing, which is my passion.”

The year was also notable for the Pencarrow Racing when Mahanadi became the team’s first horse to win over the jumps. Mahanadi, who was trained by Kevin Myers, showed himself to be worthy of carrying the famous colours when he led throughout in the Grand National Hurdle over 4200m.

Then 2014 began in exceptional fashion for Sir Peter when he was honoured with a knighthood. He received the Insignia of a Knight Companion of the Order of Merit, for services to the thoroughbred industry, from the Governor-General of New Zealand Lt. Gen. The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae.

That represented quite a coincidence, for six years earlier the University of Waikato had awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award to Peter in recognition for the vital role he had played as a business owner and founder of key regional enterprises. As well, on that occasion the Distinguished Alumni award had also been bestowed on Sir Jerry.

“It was extremely humbling to be knighted,” Sir Peter said. “It came as an amazing surprise, a shock and an enormous thrill. I am very proud for myself, my family and friends and I consider it a wonderful recognition for the industry as a whole.” Fittingly, Ethereal played her part in the celebrations on New Year’s Day when her Encosta de Lago four year-old Duquesa won the New Zealand Herald Handicap, at Ellerslie. n