Biddy Oquist

published: 14 May 2015 in Personality profiles

A chance meeting with thoroughbred industry doyenne Jennifer Churchill paved the way for Biddy Oquist to embark on her long love affair with breeding and racing. She’s been an administrator, bred and raced a Gr.1 winner, a valuable cog in the Arrowfield operation and is set to retire from the TBA.

THERE can be no more glowing tribute to Biddy Oquist than the words of Australian Racing Board chairman, Racing New South Wales chairman and Arrowfield Group chairman John Messara. “Biddy was a mainstay of the Arrowfield Group during more than 16 years with us. Her knowledge, dependability, commitment, loyalty and enthusiasm are legendary,” 
he said.
  “She was a great support to me in a critical phase of our development and I valued her contribution very highly.” Surprisingly, Biddy had not even considered having a future in the thoroughbred industry when she and her husband Stephen arrived in Australia nearly half a century ago.
  “I had absolutely no idea what my pathway would be when we disembarked in Sydney,” she said. 
That all changed however, after a chance meeting with the revered industry identity Jennifer Churchill in the early 1970s.
  After working with Jennifer for several years Biddy joined the New South Wales Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association and then had a short stint with the Australian Stud Book before linking up with Arrowfield and ultimately Thoroughbred Breeders Australia.
  “I believe I have been very fortunate in working for 40 years with so many talented and knowledgeable thoroughbred industry people,” she said. “I found that if you are not born into the industry you have to work particularly hard to catch up and I don’t think I ever really caught up, but I had a great time trying.”
  Although not from a horsey family, Biddy did have the foundations for her future in Australia laid down in the UK. She comes from a village in the east of England near the Cathedral City of Peterborough, which has a history stretching back to the Bronze Age. While there, like so many young girls the world over, she became an enthusiastic horse person.
  “I had a pony and went to pony club. I did eventing, hunting and showing. I didn’t do particularly well or particularly badly, but I really enjoyed it,” she said. 
“I also went racing at Newmarket and jumps racing at Huntingdon. My sister Janet and my brothers Robin and Paddy, who died about 10 years ago, went to boarding school, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to leave my horse or my pony.”
  On leaving school Biddy went to London and undertook a secretarial course, which her mother Kathleen told her, in the way of mothers in the 1960s, “would be something to fall back on”. She then worked at a research centre for about a year until her father, Richard Maris, and her mother decided Biddy needed experience in the wider world.
  “They felt that by living at home I’d had an over-protected life, and I was virtually dispatched to California. I secured my green card and went off to San Francisco and found a secretarial job, which wasn’t difficult for an English girl because in those days the Americans liked the way we talked and how polite we were.”
  Just three days after arriving in San Francisco fate took a hand, when she met her husband-to-be Stephen. After spending nearly 12 months in the United States, Biddy returned to England to be greeted by a proposal over the phone, from Stephen.
  “Although it meant leaving England, I accepted and even had my parents’ approval,” Biddy said. “They later went out to California to meet him and Stephen passed with flying colours. At Christmas time at the end 1965, we went back to England and were married.”
  At that stage Stephen was completing his accountancy course so the newlyweds returned to California so he could finish his training. That lasted for about 12 months until the Oquists decided they wanted to travel. “We first tried New Zealand, but we were told it would take a very long time before we would be accepted as migrants,” she said. “We were told we could emigrate to Australia in just six weeks, so we chose Australia. Stephen and I landed in Sydney in early 1967 with the idea of doing what backpackers do, like picking fruit and that sort of thing, but we soon found out we weren’t suited to manual labour.”
  With that, Stephen began working as an accountant for an international company. Biddy was employed by a stockbroking firm, which triggered her interest in figures, statistics and charts. “I soon realized I loved working with numbers and it became a lifetime interest for me,” she said.
  After settling in Sydney Biddy’s interest in horses also came to the fore and she and Stephen, who is now an enthusiastic racegoer, began going racing on a regular basis. “Looking back I think a lot of young girls who go to pony club, eventing and that sort of thing develop an interest in racing, and I was certainly on that path.” 
  In the early 1970s fate again intervened when Biddy met Jennifer Churchill who has long been one of the nation’s most highly esteemed thoroughbred industry authorities. “Jennifer showed me how to go about researching pedigrees, and that’s when it all started for me. In those days there were no pedigrees online and I would write sheets and sheets of pedigree grids of horses I was interested in. I can still see the sheets now laid out all over the floor and stuck down with cello tape. That’s how we used to do them before computers.”
  Biddy also became a disciple of books written by respected author Bert Wicks, and for a long time his book, Introduction to Thoroughbred Breeding, was her “bible”. During that era Jennifer Churchill and Gordon Ramsey launched a magazine entitled Racehorse Syndicator, to which Biddy contributed articles. “Unfortunately Racehorse Syndicator did not survive for very long and I think the reason was that the theory behind the magazine was ahead of its time. I mean syndication is so much part of racing now, but in that era it was still rather new.”
  With her interest piqued, Biddy decided to venture into racehorse ownership and in 1976 she bought a gelding named Radical who was by Radames (FR) from the Star Kingdom (IRE) mare Jilly. Radical was a useful performer with a career record of seven wins, all at provincial tracks, six seconds and 11 thirds.
  “He was trained by Nick Flouskos who was at Canterbury at that time. He later moved to Hawkesbury and now he is at Caloundra. Nick is one of those trainers who likes to talk, and I learned a lot from him about training and race categories and about placing yourself in the best company and your horses in the worst. He was a font of knowledge for us.”
  By then she and Stephen had a family of three, Ben, Emily and Sarah, and had developed an intense involvement in the racing industry. “We would take the children out to Canterbury in their pyjamas in the morning to watch Radical in trackwork. Our leisure time revolved around Radical’s campaign. Where the horse went so did we. We had a great time and we learned, as you have to, to take disappointments 
on the chin.”
  A few years after Radical, Nick trained Koryo Lass, who was by Koryo (USA), to win races at Canterbury and Hawkesbury for Biddy, Stephen and friends. Then as the 1980s were opening, Biddy joined a “small group of owners who included Bob Lapointe” in a syndicate organized by Les Young. The partners had early success with a Biscay mare named Coral Beach, winner of four races in Sydney and others at Gosford and Newcastle from just 22 starts.
  While Coral Beach was winning her races, Les bought an American mare for the group named Front Stage (USA) who was by Prince Taj from the Bold Ruler mare Bravissimo. Following a 1983 mating with Zephyr Zip (NZ), Front Stage produced Bravery who went into the Rosehill stables of Brian Mayfield-Smith. A winner over 1000m at Randwick at two, Bravery soared to the heights in the 1987-88 season by winning four races featuring the QTC Queensland Derby-Gr.1 (2400m) and Queensland Oaks-Gr.1 (2400m) with Jim Cassidy aboard.
  “Front Stage had a number of foals, but the one it was suggested we keep and race ourselves was by Zephyr Zip. That was Bravery and it is one of the reasons why I have always had a lot of respect for Les’s judgement. Although I found the feature race days quite nerve-wracking, when Bravery was racing and winning those Gr.1 events it was a great time in my life I can tell you. Through Bravery I came to know Brian Mayfield-Smith and he is another person I have great admiration for.”
  It was also during the late 1980s that Biddy joined NSWBBA. This marked the beginning of her association with the then secretary Lisa Woodhouse, who she soon discovered had a “fantastic, can do” attitude. “I found Lisa’s approach was contagious,” she said. “It wasn’t my style before then, but Lisa felt we could do anything and she was inclined to take risks.”
  Among the memories Biddy has of Lisa is an occasion when she agreed to sponsor a metropolitan race. 
“I can’t remember which club it was, it was probably the Sydney Turf Club or it could have been the Australian Jockey Club. Lisa did this unhesitatingly without our having the funds and without having any agreement from the leading studs to contribute, but she got to work on the studs and raised the money. That showed me all things are possible, and she remains my friend to this day.”
  In those days the NSWBBA was based in the grounds of the Inglis complex at Newmarket. However it was during a period when reconstruction work was going on and for a “while” the office was situated in one of the bunkers under the auction ring. Fortunately the association was subsequently able to transfer its offices into the new Inglis office block. During much of Biddy’s time with the NSWBBA John Kelso, who became a life member of the Australian Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association, was president. “John was a real horseman. He taught me a lot about what to look for in a yearling and he was another person I really respected.”
  It was still in the age before computers streamlined the formation of pedigrees, stallion averages, leading vendor statistics and everything else. That meant much of the work Lisa and Biddy put together was done laboriously with, as she says, “pen and paper”. Further aggravating the job was that troubles abounded around the association. Among them was the winding up of the NSW Bonus Scheme, which was caused primarily by the dominance of the brilliant Biscay filly Bounding Away. 
  Under Tommy Smith’s care Bounding Away won the STC Golden Slipper Stakes, VATC Blue Diamond Stakes, AJC Champagne Stakes and three other races as a two year-old. At three there were Gr.1 victories in the AJC Oaks, Flight Stakes and STC Orlando Wines Classic on her way to amassing $1,482,000 
in prizewinnings.
  “Money had to be sorted out,” Biddy said. “It had to be paid out and then paid back. After that there was the Night of the Stars when $20-odd million worth of yearlings Bart Cummings had bought on behalf of a syndicate couldn’t be paid for and had to be put back through the ring. It was all very difficult and our office was suffering criticism for not doing enough to promote sales and in helping breeders, who were certainly doing it tough.”
  Following Lisa’s departure she became secretary of the association. Biddy recalls that at that stage David Bay, who has remained a friend, was secretary of the ABBA. “David had an office on Anzac Parade and was very supportive when I was in charge of NSW breeders,” she said. “I very much appreciated that support because it was not an easy position to hold.”
  While at NSWBBA Biddy says she came to respect the contribution of the smaller breeder. “I soon found how knowledgeable the majority of smaller breeders were. They also did so much work themselves and yet just one mishap could be calamitous to their core annual income.
  “Sadly though, as the years have gone by, many of them have disappeared from the industry, and these days the smaller breeders who have survived are described as boutique breeders. At the same time, although sad, I feel that it is simply a fact of life that so many of the smaller breeders have dropped out.”
  After leaving the NSWBBA in 1992 Biddy spent six weeks at the Australian Stud Book before accepting an offer from John Messara to join Arrowfield’s Sydney office. “Being at Arrowfield proved to be a very inspiring time for me. Danehill was just about to begin his reign as a supersire.
  “He hadn’t had any runners at the time I went to Arrowfield and I can remember John ringing around all the trainers asking how the Danehills were going. He was sure he was on to something great, but he still wanted the trainers to confirm his opinion. It was all very exciting then, as you can imagine, but there was no sadder day in the office than when Arrowfield lost out in the auction to buy Danehill outright.”
  As a result, in a deal valuing Danehill at $24m, he went from Arrowfield in 1995 to begin standing at Coolmore the following season. Exacerbating the loss was that by then Danehill had been Australian Champion Sire twice, Champion Juvenile Sire three times, had sired three STC Golden Slipper Stakes winners in Merlene, Flying Spur and Danzero, plus the likes of Nothin’ Leica Dane, Danewin and Danarani.
 The blow was softened to some degree when in 1996 Arrowfield secured Flying Spur who went on to win multiple sires’ championships, and another star-studded sire in Redoute’s Choice four years later. This came, as Biddy soon learned, from John Messara’s brilliant business sense.
  “He is an exhilarating man to work for,” she said. “While I was at Arrowfield there was never a dull day in the office. John was so often coming up with some idea or plan or thought, and suddenly everyone would be working on whatever it was.
  “There is no doubt that for me, working with John was life-changing and no words will ever express how grateful I am to him for that opportunity. He is also a perfectionist and I really loved working for someone like him, who as well as everything else has a regard for the correct use of English as I have.
  “I also very much enjoyed working with Arrowfield’s chief financial officer Martin Story who was an important part of the team completing successful acquisitions, stallion syndications and international partnerships. Martin kept my feet very firmly on the ground with his own rational approach to the industry.”
  Towards the end of her stay at Arrowfield John bought the last foal from Bravery, who was named Chile Bravado by Biddy. Raced in partnership with Arrowfield and trained by Paul Messara, Chile Bravado won races at Muswellbrook and Kembla Grange.
  “I remember his win at Kembla being one of the best days of my life,” she said. “He was only a little horse but he won like a champion that day, which happened to be my birthday, and I’ve learned to appreciate that it’s a great day, if you have a winner.”
  On reaching a “milestone age” in 2009 and with Stephen having been retired for some time Biddy decided, that after sixteen and a half years at Arrowfield, she should stand aside. However, before long she realised she just was not ready for retirement, which led to her accepting three days a week from Peter McGauran at Thoroughbred Breeders Australia.
  “In order to have more political muscle Peter offered free membership to TBA and we have ended up with 3800 members from all states of Australia. Combining that with existing Aushorse records I think TBA must now have the strongest data base in the industry.
  “Of course that was also the time of the long running artificial insemination case, and we expended a lot of effort trying to raise donations from the studs to pay for the legal costs. I have been lucky to work with three TBA chief executive officers, Peter McGauran, Chauncey Morris and Tom Riley, who each brought different talents to the position. Also I am so very lucky to have two extraordinarily knowledgeable, supportive and kind work colleagues in Rowena Smith and James Peters.”
  Now Biddy is moving closer to retirement, and at the end of last year she began working from home compiling black type results and putting news on TBA’s website each day. She and Stephen are also edging closer to “eating and racing” their way around NSW racecourses. “We are trying to complete our plans to visit as many NSW racetracks as we can,” she said. “I believe there are 123, so that’s going to be quite an assignment.” n