Saba Sam

Saba Sam – born 1957- died 1987


“We had an amazing 12 years together – he was the most courageous little horse and a great mate. I was so fortunate to be his owner and rider (albeit a passenger) throughout his illustrious career. He is undoubtedly the greatest horse I ever had,” – the late Graeme ‘Hec’ Hansen

Where do you begin when writing about arguably one of the greatest jumpers to have ever come out of New Zealand?

Saba Sam captured the hearts of a nation in the 1960s – much the way Charisma did with Mark Todd later in the century. With the late Graeme ‘Hec’ Hansen he flew the silver fern at the Tokyo Olympic Games and jumped his heart out across the Tasman.

He then chalked up championships and triumphs from England, where he was ridden by Pat Pharazyn, before heading home to New Zealand and Hec Hansen in Gisborne.

It is this mighty little black horse for whom the Saba Sam Shield is named for.

They achieved much together including being presented the Gold Cup by Queen Elizabeth for winning the main event at the Royal Horse of the Year Show in Auckland in 1963.

It is just one highlight in a career that spans so many shows in around 12 years.

Saba Sam was bred by Bill Iorns in the Wairarapa – by Sabaean and out of Patter, a Nigger Minstrel mare owned by Bill. Saba Sam’s lineage traces back to the Blue Peter line.

His dam, who was 32 when he was born, died immediately after having him and Saba Sam was hand-reared by Nancy Williams of Te Pari Stud in Masterton.

As a yearling he was bought by Sam Gudsell, Hec’s uncle, and after a disappointing racing career he was retired.

In May 1957, as a four-year-old, he was given to Hec and it didn’t take long for the combination to show they were a duo going places.

For Hec there were three main highlights – the Gold Cup, going to the Olympic Games and then there was the Masterton Show in 1963. 

It seems an odd addition to such a prestigious line up but in those days, Masterton was one of the big shows on the circuit.

That year Saba Sam won champion hunter on Friday morning, the champion round the ring jump in the afternoon, champion hack on Saturday morning, after cleaning up all the way there, the grand prix after lunch and topped off the show with the puissance at 1.95m in the last class of the show.

Hec always said Saba Sam was “an exceptionally versatile horse” who could do anything.

The combination first represented New Zealand in 1959 at home, followed by 1961 in Australia, 1962 back in New Zealand, 1963 Australia, 1964 Tokyo, 1965 England and 1967 Australia. He was retired in 1968. In 1960 and 1968 there was no national team and in 1966 he had a year off.

Saba Sam won champion hack and hunter of the year at the Horse of the Year show and the puissance three times in a row, but the grand title of Horse of the Year always eluded him.

They did manage a few seconds and placed every time he started in the class but never the top crown.

Hec was known for his love of the puissance and always said he got more satisfaction as a rider in winning that class because it was the one that the best horse of the day would win.

The puissance just keeps getting higher and higher until only one combination remains.

Some fences were so high you simply couldn’t see over them. It took a horse with a brave heart, a lot of courage and plenty of ability to accept the challenge to jump those big fences. Saba Sam may not have been a big horse, but he had a huge heart and a lot of ability.

If ever there was a problem going over a fence, Saba Sam would find a way of getting them through unscathed – usually.

Hec first presented the Saba Sam Shield in 1971. He was driven to ensure young riders would experience the challenge and pressure of team riding. Back in the day the Rutherford Cup – then a teams’ event – was like the Ranfurly Shield.

Competition to make the teams was ferocious and many riders would be chuffed to just make one of their district’s B teams, let alone an A team.

So, Hec decided the shield was a good way to get younger riders prepared for tougher challenges ahead and give experience on how to ride in front of a big crowd in the premier ring at the Horse of the Year Show.

He was always very pleased at how the competition had worked and felt it was creating New Zealand’s stars of tomorrow.

In 2024, the class will be contested on Tuesday (March 5) where ESNZ area pony teams will go head-to-head to find a fitting victor. To date, Northern Hawke’s Bay and Waikato are the most successful teams having won the shield six times apiece.