By Mike Bayley
Ray Coupland loves his racing. And he does everything within his means to ensure it flourishes. Not content with racing a string of beautifully-bred horses, he also makes substantial contributions to the financial lifeblood of southern racing as a major sponsor.
Obviously, he hasn’t always been in a position to be so grandly benevolent. It’s taken a hefty dose of business acumen, commitment and sheer “balls” to achieve the necessary financial means.
And it’s taken time. Ask him about his early years, and he’ll tell you that he was always keen on “making a bob” that he had £124 to his credit in his Post Office Savings account by the time he’d left primary school. One of his money-making projects, an early morning milk run he’d taken on at age 11, led to a master at Timaru Boy’s High School unsuccessfully persuading him to give it up because he kept falling asleep in class!
Perhaps influenced by his father, a shearer, 15-year-old Ray joined the Timaru branch of the National Mortgage and Co stock firm, where he spent the next four years honing his skills as a wool classer, including a three-month course at Lincoln College.
But the entrepreneurial streak, which characterises him surfaced in 1959 when, aged 19, he set himself up as a wool and sheepskin buyer. And he quickly learnt a valuable business lesson, to “stick in there.” Ordered off a farming property on his first visit, he returned six months later with an empty truck and drove out with a full load of wool and skins!
Married at 21, and with wool prices declining by half, he decided there was a more secure living to be had buying a milk round in Timaru and for the same reason, two years later, taking one over in Christchurch.
Much later, as a very successful businessman and committee member of the Christchurch Jockey Club for three years, he was able to chuckle when telling fellow committee members (most of whom went to Christ’s College) that he too “went to College.” Puzzled, College old boys said they couldn’t remember him and Ray derived pleasure in telling them “I went there for three years when I had a milk round!”
When opportunity knocked yet again in 1969, he moved back to Timaru to take over a milk bar and tea rooms: “A very successful business, even before I decided in 1972 to manufacture my own pies.” Working late into the night, and mincing meat by hand, Ray turned out 4000 pies a week which were so popular he decided to build his first bakery in Timaru.
“To be honest, I had a few ups and downs over the first couple of years.” But then came a sharp upturn in fortunes when he transferred his catering business to the Timaru Racing Club in 1976: “We once served five-and-a-half thousand meals and suppers to delegates to a National Junior of Chamber Conference over Easter - quite a challenge for a wool classer!”
Still wide awake to further opportunities, he read of a hot bread shop in Sydenham, Christchurch, which was in receivership. After his first year of ownership, he’d turned it around and saved $100,000 - enough to buy a house.
Following the disposal of his Timaru tea rooms and catering business in 1982, he bought a second business in receivership, this time Stevenson’s Pies, which at that time enjoyed a monopoly in the South Island. However, staff morale was low and the factory and vehicles in a very run-down state, requiring a significant injection of capital before meeting Ray’s very high standards. But it was a successful move, enabling him in 1987 to open new premises in Dunedin, his first shop outside Christchurch.
Now on a roll, in 1996 he built a new state-of-the-art factory in Carman Road, Christchurch. Still a landmark in earthquake-troubled Christchurch, it features two waterfalls and magnificent gardens set on half a hectare of prime real estate.
Ray continues to spread his wings since building a large factory on 1.2ha in Hamilton in 2010. He’s built up his bakery empire to 27 shops - 19 in the South Island and eight in the North Island - with more to come. He employs 450 staff “of whom I’m very proud”and sells 400 different lines of bakery goods.
Success as a racing owner has paralleled his business accomplishments. Since starting modestly with a win at Kurow in 1976, he’s gone on to win some 350 races – with that number likely to increase before this story is published!
But Ray Coupland came very close to walking away from racing after that first win. Trainer Wattie Hogan, a frequent visitor to the Timaru bakery, persuaded the young rookie to take a half share in a Country Dance gelding called Videlco which won first up for the partnership at Kurow. Euphoria turned to dismay when, two weeks later, race course detective Ken Sampson turned up at the Coupland front door to inform Ray that his horse had tested positive.
Ray, somewhat reluctantly, was persuaded to carry on in the partnership. And just as well, as it became clear that no drugs were involved. When Videlco cleared out from the field in course record time at his next start at Waimate one of his good mates yelled out jokingly: “They’ve doubled the dose!”
Having since raced horses on all but five or six tracks in New Zealand, as well as in Australia and Singapore, there have been many memorable racing moments, notably nine Group 1 victories - four with Darci Brahma and five with Princess Coup.
Ray bought champion mare Princess Coup as a yearling out of the Magic Million Sales on the Gold Coast for $A260,000 and after winning him $4.3 million in stakes he sold her at auction as a potential broodmare for $4m. He retains a 10% share in champion stallion Darci Brahma.
Yet, despite the success of these two great horses and others, his favourite horse remains Coup Align, which he raced in partnership with his wife Jill. “In his time, he was the fastest horse in New Zealand,” says Ray. “I put up $100,000 for a match race with any horse in New Zealand, winner takes all, but no one would have us on.”
Apart from employing “Snooky” Cowan as a private trainer for nearly five years, Ray has spread his horses around, notably with Michael Pitman, but also with Terri Rae, Graeme Richardson, Danny Champion , David Howarth, Chris Waller (Sydney), Sam Pritchard Gordon (Mornington) and Mark Walker (Singapore).
Ray has been a generous sponsor of racing throughout the South Island, with the Canterbury Jockey Club a notable beneficiary. He poured substantial money into the NZ 2000 Guineas for eight years, but when naming rights were not acknowledged by the media switched his allegiance to the Group 2 Coupland’s Bakeries Mile, run last year at the New Zealand Cup meeting for a massive $230,000. He also organised suppliers to Couplands Bakeries to each contribute a $7000 sponsorship to every other race on that day’s programme.
A worthy recipient of a national award for his Contribution to Racing in 2002, Ray, with 17 horses currently in work, should have more exciting race track moments to cherish before the season ends. His New Year wish list would include bettering his 42 wins in the 2004-2005 seasons.
And the icing on his 2014 cake - to have the Group 2 Coupland’s Bakeries Mile reclassified as a Group 1 feature.