Sports correspondent & historian
The recent passing of Mitch Grafas closed another chapter on the thoroughbred racing exploits of the Grafas family from Te Puke, which stretched back to the 1920’s.
Mitch Grafas inherited his love of horse racing from his father, Nick, who went from riding donkeys on Crete to owning and training the winners of some of the most prestigious jumping races in New Zealand.
During the 1960’s through to the 1980’s, the Grafas family raced three of the hardiest and toughest jumpers of the time,
A teenage Nick Grafas arrived in Auckland, by way of Australia, in 1913 and began his New Zealand travels, that eventually saw him set up home in Te Puke.
Fishing in the Hauraki Gulf and working in the Waihi mines, led to Nick selling provisions and clothes in the Waikato, after purchasing a horse and cart.
From there, Nick progressed to running general stores in the remote Waikato saw milling villages of Mokai and then Te Whetu.
It was while living in Te Whetu that Nick made his first step into racehorse ownership, when he purchased a pacer for 25 pounds, which was trained in Cambridge.
After four years in Te Whetu, Grafas answered an NZ Herald advertisement for the lease of the Alliance Hall in Te Puke, with the Grafas family arriving in their new home in March 1928.
The old Alliance hall was transformed by Nick Grafas into the 850 seat Capitol Picture Theatre.
The Capitol theatre, which saw the transition from silent films to talking movies in the early days, remained in the Grafas ownership for over half a century.
Nick Grafas continued his involvement with harness racing after relocating to Te Puke, but gave the pacing game away when the sport shut down during the depression.
He did have some good success, with the best being Gold Star which won a race on the old Alexander Park grass track, at long odds.
The purchase of Exaggeration in 1938, started a Grafas dynasty that still has connections to racing today.
The mare was brought as a horse in training on a Wednesday, with the Te Puke horseman wasting little time in racing her, in winning at Paeroa just five days later.
One of Exaggeration's progeny was Greek Silver, who produced Cretan. Greek Silver in turn left Gypsy Princess, who was the dam of another of the fine Grafas jumpers in King Minos.
Cretan won the Grand National Hurdles at Riccarton, before winning the two big steeplechases at the 1965 Wellington Racing Club winter meeting.
The Te Puke trained gelding simply blitzed top class fields in both the Wellington Steeplechase and the Eric Riddiford chase, to grab punters' attention.
King Minos repeated the Grafas victory in the Grand National Hurdles and also won a host of other jumping races.
In the mid 1970's, Nick put his mare Queen Minos to Ron Khan's stallion Mahbub Aly at the nearby Khan stud at Paengaroa.
The subsequent foal was named Greek Boy, in keeping with the Nick Grafas tradition of naming his horses to recognise his Greek heritage.
Greek Boy went on to become another top-line jumper, following in the hoof marks of Cretan and King Minos.
The Grafas family's newest jumping star was given plenty of time, with the gelding’s first win coming in a flat race at Paeroa during November 1979.
With the passing of Nick Grafas in 1980, the ownership of Greek Boy passed to Nick’s youngest son Mitch.
On September 15, 1981, Greek Boy broke his maiden status as a jumper taking out a hurdle race at Rotorua.
Another winning double came in May 1982, with the Grafas jumper first past the post at Gisborne before winning again at Rotorua.
A difference in opinion with his then trainer, resulted in Mitch Grafas taking out a trainer’s license for the first time.
Switched to the bigger steeplechase fences, Greek Boy produced his first victory over the big fences at Gate Pa racecourse at Tauranga, during June 1983.
The following season, another winning double came when Greek Boy won both steeplechases at the Poverty Bay Turf Club September meeting.
Ridden by top jumping rider Laurie Cavanagh, Greek Boy took out the Manawatu Steeplechase from Celtic Sun and Region.
A Manawatu Hunt Cup completed his jumping victories, with the Te Puke jumper finally retiring with 12 wins, 11 seconds and 9 thirds on his ledger card.
In recent years, Mitch continued to race horses with sons Andrew and Bryan, with the Grafas connection to thoroughbred racing likely to remain into the future.