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Thoroughbred horses bolt to NSW Southern Highlands

Greg Griffin is the principal of leading New Zealand Thoroughbred breeding operation Lime Country that is moving its operations and expertise to the NSW Southern Highlands in February.
Greg Griffin is the principal of leading New Zealand Thoroughbred breeding operation Lime Country that is moving its operations and expertise to the NSW Southern Highlands in February.

One of New Zealand's top boutique Thoroughbred breeding operations, Lime Country, is transferring its business across the ditch to the NSW Southern Highlands - avoiding the Hunter Valley because of fears for the valley's future.

Lime Country will partner with Think Big Stud, owned by Malaysian horse owner and breeder Dato Tan Chin Nam, the supporter and friend of legendary horse trainer Bart Cummings.

While the deal helps secure Think Big Stud's future, it has also made a strong statement about the threat mining poses to the Hunter's role as Australia's Thoroughbred capital.

Lime Country follows in the footsteps of a number of recent arrivals on the Southern Highlands, including Waratah Thoroughbreds, MIlburn Creek and the China Horse Club.

Australia's First Lady of racing, trainer Gai Waterhouse, has agisted horses on the Highlands for many years and has now bought the property Dunsinea near Mittagong as a lifestyle base.

Lime Country is owned by husband and wife team Jo and Greg Griffin, based at Hawkes Bay, North Island, NZ. It is one of New Zealand's major consignors of mares, weanlings, yearlings and two-year-olds. After their last sale in New Zealand, Lime Country will take over management of Think Big's Burradoo property on February 15, with 150 horses on the property.

Jo Griffin said she was excited at the new location for Lime Country for lifestyle reasons and for security.

''With the uncertainty around the Hunter due to the ongoing mining issues we felt this area was best suited to us both from an actual farming/agronomy perspective and for long-term security,'' she said.

"We won't have invested in an area which seems to be continually undecided if some of the key players are staying or going. The Southern Highlands and this farm in particular has a number of specific attributes which we know will help us produce some outstanding bloodstock over the coming years. From an international perspective the racing environment in NSW is right up there with the best in the world for facilities, prize money and production of world class bloodstock.''

Think Big has a proud history and there were suggestions Dato Chin Nam may close the venture at Burradoo. But the link up with Lime Country preserves the breeding, spelling and racing operation for many years. Think Big will own the property and keep the horses at the stud, to be renamed Lime Country. The stud and broodmare farm has a strong association with Bart's grandson, James Cummings, who trains many of Think Big's horses. It has a 700 metre track for training as well. The stud's managing director Duncan Ramage said the Highlands, with its vibrant pastures and consistent rain, offered a pristine environment for breeding and raising Thoroughbreds.

Stud owner and businessman John Muir (pictured on front cover with stud groom Ashleigh Campton) echoes Mr Ramage's sentiments about why he chose to move Milburn Creek from Grose Wold to Wildes Meadow, just outside Robertson.

"We moved here because stock does so well here, rainfall is so good, soil is so good, sometimes you think you are in England or Ireland, and we don't need irrigation.'' Common grasses grown in the area and used are cocksfoot, red clover and ryegrass. The average rainfall for nearby Bowral is 895 millimetres a year (compared to 650mm at Scone).

Milburn had the famous triple Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva paddocked at the breeding operation for some time. The stud has a relationship with the mare's owner Tony Santic who often sends his yearlings to Milburn. Milburn's offerings at the major horse sales, including at Newmarket, are always keenly sought.

"There is one proviso for anyone moving here though," Muir says. "You're looking at paying about $2 million for 100 acres here, unimproved.''

One of the new investors has been Waratah Thoroughbreds which is reputed to have poured $30 million into its breeding operation with horse barns that rival the biggest in the US.

The China Horse Club, owned by a Malaysian tycoon, is also increasing its highlands holdings every year.

But it is not all roses on the Highlands. It faces its own threat from coal. Hume Coal wants to re-open a large coal mine south-west of Berrima and landholders fear the loss of water from depleted aquifers. Hume has spent millions buying up about 800ha of grazing land near the proposed mine including the historic 500 ha "Mereworth".

Highlands real estate agent Bill Carpenter of W.MCL. Carpenter and Associates, said there wasn't a huge area studs could buy into in the Highlands. Some areas, such as out at Kangaloon, were quite rocky. Large amounts had been poured by existing studs into operations, including the China Horse Club who paid $4.8m for the 33ha Southern Highland Wines. Nearby Sutton Farm equestrian centre, comprising 20ha and 28 horse boxes, was sold for $2.9m in 2015. Dato Chin Nam expanded his Burradoo assets in a unique manner - he bought one neighbouring property with the prize money from Viewed's Melbourne Cup win, and another property from So You Think's stunning Cox Plate win. - John Ellicot, The Land.


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