IN Racing
Benji Farewelled at the end of breeding industry's biggest week
Dennis Ryan | February 06, 2024
David Benjamin with his wife Masey and trainer Tony Pike following Dimaggio's win at Hastings on Daffodil Day last September.

There was something appropriate about David Benjamin’s farewell taking place in Cambridge last Saturday at the end of New Zealand thoroughbred breeding’s biggest week of the year.

In the large gathering, along with family and friends from near and far, were many of those who had played a part in Benjamin’s life as colleagues, employees and friendly rivals.

The man known universally as Benji, who died just days after his 79th birthday following a long battle with poor health, was one of the breeding industry’s major players during its most defining years, those years that were to shape a future we are now witness to.

Like so many in the breeding game, he approached the National Yearling Sale with gusto and a positive attitude as he set about trading his annual crop, first at Trentham and then at Karaka. He reshaped that side of the business, raising the bar on what has become par de course for any serious yearling sale vendor – client and buyer hospitality – and stamped his presence with sartorial elegance that others might have described as simply garish.

Benji’s trousers, and sometimes his shirts, were unique, based upon his trademark colours of dark green and salmon pink. His sale-time wardrobe ranged from green and pink chequered pants to one leg green, the other pink, and similarly branded variations that he wore with admirable candour. Likewise, the marquee housing Benjamin-inspired hospitality, with its green roof and pink sides.

That characteristic defined Benjamin from his earliest days. Raised in a “non-horsey” Auckland family, he boldly gravitated towards racing and breeding to take a job in the pedigree department of Wright Stephenson in Wellington and then gained hands-on experience at the Fisher family’s Ra Ora Stud at East Tamaki, Auckland.

In the 1960s the trendsetter in him led overseas and employment at studs in England and the United States, first Sidehill Farm in Newmarket and then Claiborne Farm, Kentucky. That’s where he met the woman who was to become his lifetime partner, Masey, who took a leap of faith by joining him on his return to New Zealand and a role as manager of Blandford Lodge, the Matamata stud owned by cheddar cheese magnate Sir Jack Butland.

Benjamin put both his practical experience and his artistic flair to work, reshaping the property from the front gate back by replacing the gnarly macrocarpa trees that dominated the entranceway and replacing them with far more picturesque specimens that remain to this day.

Change came when Sir Jack died in the mid-1970s and the property was sold, whereupon the Benjamins made the decision to raise their own shingle at Field House Stud on the eastern fringe of the Matamata township. The realisation that to establish the stud’s profile it needed to stand a stallion with real gravitas led to the purchase of one of Sir Tristram’s early classic-winning sons, Grosvenor, whose record was headed by wins in the VRC Derby, VATC Caulfield Guineas and VRC Sires’ Produce Stakes.

At a syndication value of A$2.2 million, Grosvenor was expensive, but Benjamin’s determination to secure him in the face of intense competition was well proven from the time the big bay topped the first-season sires’ averages at the 1986 National Yearling Sale and the following season became champion freshman stallion.

Grosvenor, who went on to sire 16 Group One winners amongst his total of 54 stakes winners, was the linchpin at Field House and then Fayette Park, the idyllic property south of Matamata that the Benjamins developed from scratch in the late 1980s.

Over the next decade and a half Fayette Park established its place in thoroughbred breeding, thus it was with an element of sad irony that in 2004, just months after the farm had taken the New Zealand Breeder of the Year title, David Benjamin’s health issues forced the decision to sell the property that he described as his “lifetime dream”.

Having given freely of his time and innovative ideas to organisations such as the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and the Matamata Racing Club – both of which accorded him life membership – Benjamin remained involved, albeit to far lesser degree.

As a form of what he humorously described as “expensive entertainment”, he and Masey took shares in racehorses and to that end last spring they made the trip down to Hastings for the opening day of the Hawke’s Bay carnival, where their horse Dimaggio was a winner.

The Tony Pike-trained gelding won again at Hastings on New Year’s Eve and his stablemate Rudyard scored on the opening day at Ellerslie on January 14 and then did his just-deceased part-owner proud when finishing third in the Aotearoa Classic on Karaka Millions night.

Through his two decades of poor health, Benji was never heard to complain about the cards he had been dealt. Faced with on-going and at times debilitating treatment, he described himself as a walking laboratory, and Waikato Hospital as his second home.

He copped it all with good humour, interspersed with understandable irony, and through it all he was surrounded by family, headed by his beloved Masey, children Blanton and Annie, and five grandsons who he doted on.