Grassroots: Nigel and Meredith Berry of Illowra Stud

Meredith Berry (Centre)

Little did Meredith Berry know that at university she would meet not only her future husband, but her life would soon be entwined with horses. Although her love for horses started when she was ten years old, when she first started riding, the idea that it would one day become a successful business was far from her mind.

Nigel grew up in Footscray, and was always fascinated by racing, which he listened to every Saturday on the radio with his grandfather. His grandparents bred hunting dogs, particularly pointers, but as the family could not afford a horse, he and his friends would sneak out to the back paddocks and hop on any friendly pony for a quick bareback ride through the rocks and scotch thistles, using a handmade string halter instead of a bridle.

Nigel loved the stories of the great racehorses of the time and this led to a lifelong interest in breeding and genetics.

“On our first lunch date he actually had to leave early to get to the Wednesday afternoon meeting at Moonee Valley, while I trudged off to lectures,” laughed Meredith.

Meredith and her husband Nigel were brought together by their love of horses. Their riding horses were racehorses bought from the Wright-Stephenson sales in Flemington and these horses became hunters, point-to point horses (with Yarra Glen and Lilydale Hunt Club), show jumpers and eventers.

“We established our own stud, Illowra Stud, named after our property in Plenty, north of Melbourne and bought an Anglo-Arabian mare in foal to a thoroughbred stallion, Pop’s Brandy, from a friend. The filly foal developed into a very good eventer, Illowra Sylk, and eventually the combination made it onto the shortlist for the world games. However, by this time Nigel was building up his medical practice and we had young children. Therefore, continuing to event at this level was becoming too hard, then the racing bug struck.”

Illowra Stud

It has now been over ten years since Meredith and Nigel have been breeding thoroughbreds and they haven’t looked back.

Perhaps with Nigel’s interest in racing and the thoroughbred industry, it was inevitable they would become involved in breeding.

“From the time he was a child, Nigel has always been really interested in breeding and Australian bloodlines and New Zealand in particular. He is the breeding buff!”

“He saw a three-year-old filly, Princess Regina, bred in New Zealand but leased to an Australian syndicate going through the sales to dissolve a partnership. It was during the time of the equine influenza and she was unable to go back to New Zealand. She is beautifully bred (Zabeel x Princess Lily – Noble Bijou) but had not performed on the track. We have always preferred middle distance and staying horses, so she was perfect for us. We now have four Zabeel mares as central to our small broodmare band.”

Meredith and Nigel have been based at their property in Plenty where their breeding for both eventers and thoroughbreds started.

“It is a five-acre plot of land which was originally chicken farms and all the neighbours let us use their back paddocks, so we had animals all over the place.”

After struggling with space and the current plots of land being sub-divided, Meredith and Nigel were running out of room for the horses.

“We were lucky that we found this lovely farm, ‘Woodburn’, on the edge of Nagambie. We had a few broodmares at Goulburn Park at Wahring, so we were there regularly. Driving to Goulburn Park one day, we saw that the farm was for sale and fortunately we were able to purchase it. It has been a horse breeding farm off and on since the 1930s, when it was owned by test cricketer Jack, ‘Slinger’ Nitschke for a time. The land was river flats before the weir was built, so the soil is rich and grows beautiful grass. It is a lovely area and the large paddocks give the young horses good feed and plenty of room to grow.”

As relatively newcomers to Nagambie, Meredith and Nigel have found a thriving, friendly and supportive industry. They have also been influenced by a number of people in the industry, such as Joan Walker.

“Joan has been very influential and supportive to us and the fact that she has bred down the same line through all these years and produced good horses like Armadeus as a result, is inspiring.  We attended a talk by Bart and Anthony Cummings some years ago and learnt from Bart’s descriptions of some of his training regimes, particularly from earlier years. Mick Kent, who trains many of our horses, is at the forefront of modern training methods and is commonly referred to as ‘astute’. He and his knowledgeable staff put the horse first and this has certainly worked for our horses.”

Meredith and Nigel are small players in the industry but the dedication and love for their horses is obvious.  Over the years, they have bred a large number of horses both in eventing and the thoroughbred industry but one horse that stands out for them is Princess Regina. “She was a bit of a devil when we first got her, never nasty but she certainly had her moments. She is the matriarch and she knows it! On her personality alone, she is a definite favourite, but of course the fact that she has produced good middle distance and staying horses like Oncidium Ruler (Strategic), Royal Order (Commands), Za Za Zoom (Strategic), and since Yarra Glen races which were held on the 8th of February this year, Royal Crown (Helmet), shows the strength of her bloodlines.

Nigel Berry walks a mare and foal back to a paddock

Both Nigel and Meredith have been working outside of the industry which is quite remarkable as breeding horses is 24/7 job alone and with fourteen mares they are certainly kept busy!

“We are committed to working to find alternatives for our horses after they have finished their racing career and we have been lucky that a number of the horses that we have bred and sold have come back to us. We have a paddock of elderly broodmares and all our nannies are our own produce. We have even managed to track down Comic Set (Reset x Riddles –Distorted Humour), who we sold to Hong Kong. He was meant to be sent back to us but somehow got lost in the system. Recently Nigel was reading the New Zealand Bloodstock race results and saw that he is racing in New Zealand. We have been in touch with the trainer and arranged for the horse to come back to us once his career in racing has come to an end. We are also big sponsors of the TBV OTT competitions at Euroa and Warrnambool agricultural shows but are always looking for other options as well.’

Nigel and Meredith have a breadth of knowledge and passion for the horses and the advice that Meredith would pass on to someone is, “If you really love race horses and breeding, then you can’t help yourself. It is a lot of fun and so rewarding to see the bloodlines you have put together perform on the track.”