Norm and Diane Gardner breathed a sigh of relief when Upper House won Saturday’s TAB Highway at his metropolitan debut.
Norm is the breeder, trainer and part owner of the slow maturing four year old gelding. He races the horse in partnership with his wife and mother-in-law Yvonne Langdon, who at 92 is enjoying every minute of the ride.
Deanne Panya picked up the lucky late ride on Upper House when Rachel King fractured a finger in a barrier mishap at Gosford on Thursday.
“Deanne spent part of her apprenticeship with Keith Dryden at Canberra”, explained Norm. “She rode work for me quite often and has actually ridden winners for the stable. When Rachel was stood down we contacted her immediately”.
Nobody could have handled the gelding better. Deanne was able to keep him happy when he started to over race at the 800 metres and turned for home in front of four horses. When the rider of Galapagos made a beeline for the outside, Deanne was presented with a super run between horses. With Zardoro badly held up near the fence, Upper House let down impressively and had the race won in a twinkling.
The gelding’s record now stands at twenty four starts for three wins and seven placings. His Rosehill Gardens victory is a significant step forward from his previous wins at Wagga and Gundagai.
Upper House is the result of a mating between Norm’s mare Bureaucratese (by Bureaucracy) and the former talented racehorse Zariz who raced only twenty times for seven wins, five placings and $450,000.
The Gerald Ryan trained Zariz won the Gr 2 San Domenico Stakes, the Gr 2 Up And Coming Stakes, the Listed Heritage Stakes and the Gr 3 BTC Sprint. Bureaucratese was trained by Norm to win a maiden at Moruya and a BM 56 at Albury from only eighteen starts.
“As a foal and a yearling the Zariz colt was pretty hard to like”, recalled Norm. “Not only was he a plain looker, he was as mad as a hatter. We had people look at him with a view to purchase or lease, but they were quickly put off”.
A stint with respected Braidwood horseman Aaron Clarke improved the colt’s manners, but he had to be treated with caution for many months. “You’d never know which way he was going to jump”, recalled Norm. “He’d charge out of his box and think nothing of ploughing over the top of anybody who got in the way”.
“Every time we gave him a break he’d come back a little better. He’s a totally different horse today”, says the trainer.
Norm Gardner grew up in Wagga where his late father Tom always had a few horses around him, including a pacer or two. Many years later that early attachment to harness horses led Norm to an association with well known Canberra trots trainer Frank O’Sullivan.
Norm and Diane owned a one third share in the very handy Aceetee who won twelve races. One of those wins was the Nissan 4YO Classic at Harold Park in which he beat the triple Inter Dominion winner Our Sir Vancelot.
More recently Norm raced Just Plain Crazy, who won eleven races including three at Menangle.
Young Gardner’s first taste of stable life came when he helped out before and after school at Fred Schadel’s Wagga training complex. It wasn’t long before he was riding work which quickly triggered his desire to ride in races.
He enjoyed every minute of his five years on the picnic circuit. He rarely left the Riverina region where meetings were infrequent, but he managed to win around thirty races including the Wagga Picnic Cup. “I’m glad I got the riding out of my system and the experience I gained has been invaluable”, said the veteran horseman.
Norm’s mother was never comfortable with the prospect of her son spending his life in racing. “To keep everybody happy I enrolled for a plumbing apprenticeship and stayed away from racing for ten years”, said Gardner.
“Suddenly I caught the bug again”, recalled Norm. “I put many hours into educating a young horse I had purchased and couldn’t wait to give it a maiden gallop. I couldn’t believe my luck when it broke down in a hind leg”.
His next venture was more productive. He paid $2000 for a filly by Jon Murray who’d bled during an early preparation for another trainer. “Her name was Sienna Storm and thankfully she never bled again”, recalled Norm. “She won a Maiden at Goulburn and a Class 1 at Wagga with a few placings thrown in. Later she left me a few foals all of which went on to win races. She was very good to me”.
Father and son Tony and Steven Cheung became Norm’s first official owners when they gave him an Arena colt to train. Named Coliseo he went on to win six races with twelve placings for $293,000. “He won a Wagga Cup, finished second in an Albury Cup and a Canberra Cup, and was a good fourth in a Manion Cup at Rosehill”, recalled the trainer.
One of Norm’s all time favourites is Le Cavalier whose record stands at nine wins and twenty five placings for $245,000, with one of his wins at Canterbury. “He’s an old marvel and has just come back into the stable for another preparation as a rising nine year old”, said Norm. “He’s sound and loves his job”.
Saturday’s win wasn’t Norm’s first taste of TAB Highway success. Atom Eve won two of them in 2016, despite a troublesome knee. “She had the knee problem right through a ten start career, but eventually developed a tendon issue”, said the trainer. “She’s currently in foal to Smart Missile”.
Bootlegging with Kathy O’Hara in the saddle was another Randwick Highway winner for Gardner in 2016.
Two other TAB Highway prospects in the stable currently are Caccini and Carruthers. “I’ll be looking for the right Highway race for both of them in the near future”, said Norm.
The trainer lights up when he talks about a filly called Rosy Dawn, a daughter of Al Maher from a Bel Esprit mare. She won a maiden at Wagga recently by a widening four lengths with Matthew Cahill in the saddle. “If there’s anything in the stable with a quicker turn of foot than Upper House, this is the one”, declared Norm. “I think she’ll do a very good job this time in”.
Norm and Diane Gardner live on 40 acres at Bywong on the outskirts of Canberra. They call the property Summerhill Thoroughbreds and this is where the mares and foals are domiciled, and where all horses are spelled.
All training is done at Thoroughbred Park Canberra where Norm has the use of sixteen boxes. He has a staff of four including successful apprentice Courtney Gravener.
The Gardners are the proud parents of daughters Nicolle, Michelle and Belinda and are grandparents five times over. Teenage grandson Ben Wunsch is described by his grandfather as a “racing tragic” with an understanding of racing form and a thirst for information. The twelve year old’s devotion to racing was consolidated at a Canterbury night meeting, when champion jockey Kerrin McEvoy gifted him a set of race goggles.
McEvoy may have unwittingly ignited the spark that could lead young Ben to a life in racing. His Pop is a ready made tutor.