Stephen McKee is calling time on his training career. Photo / Trish Dunell
Top trainer Stephen McKee has stunned the racing industry by announcing his shock retirement.
The man who along with his late father, Trevor, trained one of New Zealand’s greatest horses in Sunline will close his South Auckland training operation on September 30, with no plans to return to training.
“I am just exhausted,” 58-year-old McKee told the Herald.
“I have been up well before dawn, often at 4am, almost every day since I was 14 and I have had enough.
“I want to do some other things with my life. I asked [wife] Fiona the other day when was the last time I had been on holiday with her and the kids? I was floored when she replied ‘four years ago’. I still love racing and the horses but I don’t want to train full-time anymore and I am just not finding it is worth it.
“To make any real money training horses you either have to sell them or win the biggest races and both those things are getting harder to do.”
While the economics of horse racing are getting tougher — albeit with stakes improvements coming — McKee says for him the numbers no longer added up.
“I charge $75 a day but to make any money training I need to charge $90 a day and I can’t do that when some stakes are $10,000 [soon to be $12,000].
“I realise it’s okay if you have good horses but plenty of horses are in that lower bracket.”
McKee says rather than burn out he will walk away from the industry in any full-time capacity next month.
“It is funny how if a sports person or even a jockey wants to retire it is normal but people expect horse trainers to keep training until the day they die. I don’t want that so I am making this decision for lifestyle, family and financial reasons.”
McKee, an immensely popular figure not just in New Zealand but Australia and further afield, says training Sunline was the obvious highlight of his career, so much of which was spent training with his late father.
“When you get a horse like her, one of the true champs, that is just luck.
“You still have to train them and do the right thing by them but actually getting them to train is luck.”
Although Sunline’s biggest wins, such as two Cox Plates, came in Australia and she also won a Hong Kong Mile in 2000, McKee (solo and in partnership) has still trained the winners of just under $30 million in stakes in New Zealand from 1551 domestic wins.
The McKees were talking with staff and owners about the future of the farm and working with everyone involved to find the best outcomes for all concerned, both for staff and for the stable clients’ racehorses, Fiona McKee said.
“We have a dedicated and loyal team — some have been with us for 40 years,” she added. “We are so grateful for their years of hard work and enthusiasm.”