Racing this time: chestnut gelding Ocean Billy, with its distinctive three white socks. Photo supplied

Post-script: it finished last!

New Zealand’s best crime writer is putting his shirt – actually more like his house – on his father’s horse Ocean Billy to win the Melbourne Cup. JP (Josh) Pomare, author of four scorching crime novels, urges Kiwis to back the chestnut gelding in today’s race.

The 53.5kg horse has flown from Rotorua to Melbourne to compete in the $7.75 million glamour event. He won the Waikato Cup at Te Rapa in December, the Auckland Cup at Ellerslie in March, and has earned $326,452 for its principal owner and trainer, Bill Pomare, a 73-year-old who is actually more famous in Rotorua as the long-time proprietor of Pomare Electrical, an appliance repair business on Lake Road in Ohinemutu. “You think he’s good with horses,” said JP, “you should see what he can do with a ten-year-old washing machine.”

The Rotorua-raised, Melbourne-based writer’s latest novel The Last Guests received a rave review at ReadingRoom. He tells stories of secrets, pressure, violent release; really, he’s a master of tension. Anything can happen…Ocean Billy recently got thrashed by the Melbourne Cup hot favourite Incentivise at the Caulfield Cup, finishing ninth (although he still earned  $A120,000 for clawing his way into the top 10 on the unsuitable wet track.) But as far as JP is concerned, he’s the horse to watch.

“I think he can win it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. It’s a tough ask against Incentivise, but the thing is – his Auckland Cup run, if he repeats that, and if he’s in the middle of the pack, he has a much better chance than the bookies over here have given him.  

“He’s a genuine stayer, and the longer the race the better. He won the Auckland Cup two-mile race by four or five lengths and could have gone another lap probably. So he’s got a good chance I would say. My advice is don’t leave him out of your trifecta bets. If he runs like he did in the Auckland Cup, I can’t see him being too far off the pace.”

Asked whether he was going to put his money where his mouth is, JP said, “Yeah I am. We’re going to have to remortgage if he doesn’t win. I have put a good bet on him. More money than I’ve ever put on any bet in my life. So here’s hoping he gets up.”

For a win, or a place?

“I’ve gone each way on him. If he almost wins and comes third, I’ll be happy. They’ve got him at really good odds so if he lost by a nose I’d be so happy for Dad.”

JP Pomare was the favourite to win the Ngaio Marsh crime writing award for best novel at the 2021 awards held on Saturday night for his third book Tell Me Lies. He lost but that was due to the stupidity of judges. At the Melbourne Cup, the 24 horses are running on their own merits. First place pays $4.4 million, second place $1.1 million, third place $550,000; fourth place is $350,000, fifth place $230,000, sixth-twelfth, $160,000. Very tidy sums indeed are at stake for owner-trainer Bill Pomare. Covid has denied his attendance at Flemington but JP has been allocated 10 tickets to join the crowd, capped at 10,000. His mission for the posse of 10 is to track down 10 floppy hats and wear them to honour Bill Pomare, who is never seen at raceday without his really distinctive, 100 per cent daggy hat.

Bill Pomare got into horse racing when he bought the mare Flying Beau at an auction in the late 1980s. He’s since won more than 80 races with horses from a single family traced back to Flying Beau, including Call Me Evie, which he named in honour of JP’s debut novel. (He gave his son a five per cent share; the mare won the $10,000 Showtechnix Maiden in Tauranga in 2019.) “They’ve always felt like family members,” said JP. “We’ve always joked there are more pictures of horses in the house than family. He loves them so much and they end up in a farm on a glorified retirement village for horses.”

JP Pomare’s books are full of well-drawn characters – a teenage girl held hostage in Call Me Evie, a psychologist implicated in the death of a train commuter in Tell Me Lies – but he was rather less defined in his remarks about Ocean Billy. “A horse is a horse to me. I couldn’t look at a horse and see anything other than a horse in the same way I couldn’t look at a cow and see anything but a cow.” Well, could he pick Ocean Billy out in a crowd? He thought so; you don’t see too many chestnut thoroughbreds with three white socks and a patch of white on their nose, and he confidently identified Ocean Billy in a photo that a friend showed him on Instagram. “But Dad said, ‘Nah, that’s not him.’”

As for his Dad, he spoke about Bill Pomare with love, and a kind of awe. He said he’d long thought about writing a biography of his Dad’s “eventful” life, and mentioned a few details: borstal, the rumour he came up with the name Mongrel Mob, and literally too many kids to count. “Before me he had something like nine or ten kids, and only knew six or seven, really. I’m the fourth. My mum passed away when I was 10. He’s been the parent for the last 23 years…”

Bill Pomare’s horse training was viewed for a long time by family as a kind of hobby, or like Scratchie cards that sometimes won. “So this is a late twist we didn’t see coming – a Melbourne Cup runner after 30 years of training horses.”

Okay. But to talk about the Melbourne Cup is to take a deep breath, and really only talk about one thing: the power and glory of wonder horse Incentivise, the shortest-priced favourite since Phar Lap in 1930. The bay gelding won the 1600m maiden at the Sunshine Coast in April, and he’s been winning ever since in a string of nine races, many by phenomenal distances. He’s now earned $4.6 million. His trainer Steve Treegea has said, “He must really enjoy it, because he does it so easily.”

But JP Pomare – Ngāpuhi, attended Kaharoa Primary, Boys’ High, Western Heights’ High, and Waiariki Polytechnic, now a very, very good novelist – has a different story to tell.

“I don’t think  it’ll win,” he said of Incentivise. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it winning  over three miles. I don’t fancy it. The story on the day is going to be all about Incentivise but remember that Kiwi horse Prince of Penzance was paying $101 to win the 2015 Melbourne Cup,  and it stormed home. These things do happen. We’ll see how we go.”

The Last Guests by JP Pomare (Hachette, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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