Last updated on 5 August 2015
This talk was one of a series broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015 with the assistance of a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.
When I was a kid all I ever wanted to do was be a jockey. My father Tom was an amateur jockey who rode mainly for Gren Harris of Ventnor, who had a successful racehorse called “Una”. I was born into horses. I rode a pony to school and after school I’d race boys on pushbikes down Grossard Point Road to get the mail from the post office at Justices.
Years later my cousin Megs Elkington told me about two brood mares I could have for nothing. They were Miss Meredith, from which I bred Island Lass and Split Time, and Lady Tilly, who had Camplight, Tracey’s Luck and Khalene. I had them with other trainers but they didn’t do much good so I got them back and trained them myself and did well with them. That was from 1970. Back then it was hard to make a living out of farming so the extra from the horses was handy.
The first year I had 3 horses. They were: Island Lass, who won 3 at Woolamai; Split Time who won 2 at Woolamai, and Camp Light, who had 5 wins for one season. In the mid-1970s, Rising Flame won several races at Woolamai, and still holds the 1600 metre record. My Echo was a good 1000 m horse who also won 4 races at Traralgon. He had 15 wins altogether – both picnic and professional races. Other winners I had were Alma’s Pride, Khalene, Imperial Duchess, Imprint (who had 15 wins), Star Gleam and Fancy Lad. Fast Seal won 15 races, including a triple dead heat at Stony Creek. There has only been three triple dead heats in Australia since the photo finish came in.
These winners were all ridden by Neville Pearse, Neil McInnes, Rhonda and Vicki Hill – they were all leading riders of their time.
In the 1980s I had many horses win at Woolamai and also win at the professionals. Island Beau was my best Woolamai horse, winning 10 races there. He also won 9 at the professionals. Rhonda, Vicki and Kelly Hill all won on him at Woolamai. My best horse for distance was Island Pride. He won from 1,000 metres to 2,400 metres. He was so quiet I could put a couple of kids on his back and lead him around. But his half brother, Island Beau, was bad natured, so you never know.
Island Pride was one of the best horses I trained, scoring 13 times at the professionals and two at picnics. He won his first race as a maiden at Woolami, then four out of five at the pros. Later on he won the Woolamai Cup carrying 70 kgs and then won over 2.400 m at Pakenham the following Wednesday
My wife Phyl and I ran it as two businesses – the farm and the horses. Sometimes I took money I’d made from the horses to use on the farm, but I never took money from the farm for the horses.
A typical training day for us would be to start about 5 a.m., which was still dark in the winter and we’d have the lights on in the stables. Horse training is such a labour intensive job that you have to start early to get through the work. Also, the flies aren’t bad early in the morning, and flies love horses! At the most I had a dozen horses and they all had to be worked. I had a 1000 metre sand track and a grass track on the place and the horses would be trotted, cantered and galloped or whatever they needed.
I also trucked them down to Ventnor Beach and we rode them on the beach, sometimes as far as Trenavin Park at Woolshed Bight, which is about 3 or 4 kilometres. On the way back we’d walk them in the water from Grossard Point back to Ventnor Beach because the sea water is great for any heat or other problems in the legs. For all the years I had the horses on the beach early in the mornings I only had two complaints, but lots of people would stop for a friendly chat.
Keaston Sambell had race horse stables at Summerlands and in the 1940s used to gallop them on the Penguin Parade beach. He had four stables on the left of where you go into the Penguin Parade now. I used to work my horses there in the winter in the 1970s, going down through Dr Alec Reith’s place.
I also used to take horses to Woolamai race track to train them, and I think that is why I had so much success there.
When we got them back they’d have a roll in the sand roll, then we’d hose them down, feed them in the stables, rug them and put them out for the day in their paddocks. I had two to a paddock and they got on well. They were stabled again at 5 p.m. The last feed would be at 8 p.m. when we would do a last muck out of their stalls for the night.
I also kept their paddocks clean, either picking up or running the smudger over them.
So it was about a 16 hour day, with a bit of a break in the middle.
Christmas Day was the busiest for us because the staff would have the day off, so we had to do it all ourselves. I’d have Christmas lunch with the family and a bit of a nap for an hour or so, then back into it.
On race days we’d drive up to five hours to whatever track we were racing at that day. You had to have the horses there 1 ½ hours before the race. Now most of them are blood tested. I never had a single problem with swabs. When you get your horses to the course you have to give them a good walk to loosen them up. After the race you have to get them to have a good drink or else they become dehydrated. You hose them down, then walk them to cool them off. I usually took 2 or 3 horses, but have taken up to 7.
I’ve gone as far as St Arnaud and Wodonga to the races. We usually got home about 9 or 10 p.m. if we’d had a long trip. Maurie Duffy was with me the whole of my career and he would drive to the races while I had a sleep, then help with the horses, then I’d drive home.
I only ever had at most 12 horses in work. I always worked the horses six or seven days a week. It was easier to get a good jockey for a race than it was getting good track riders for training, so we were lucky and we were grateful for our staff. They didn’t work for us, they worked with us.
My wife Phyl was never a horse person – she never rode in her life – but she knew how to run a stable and keep the staff happy. She was the stable foreman. She always kept the young ones in order and shared a joke with them. She also did her share of mucking out the stables. We also had 2 or 3 stay with us, so she had to cook for them too. I could never have done what I did without Phyl’s help. She kept everyone happy and of course that’s good for business.
I raced and won on every Gippsland track except Canni Creek, near Buchan. I had a lot of handy horses. I won two good races at Sandown with Queen Lillie. I bought her in New Zealand for $525. She also won 8 open handicaps in the country. After she retired from racing she had six foals and they were all winners.
Camp Light was the best money-wise. Phyl and I owned him with Lyell and Elaine Williams. I wasn’t a betting man, but Lyell was, and one day we raced Camp Light at Traralgon and after he won, Lyell gave the girls his tickets and told them to go and collect. He’d paid $20.50 for the win and $4.50 for the place, and the tote didn’t have the cash to pay out – he had to give the girls a cheque. He said “You must own this horse!”, and they said “Well, yes, we do.” He won five races that season up to 2,400 metres, at Traralgon, Bairnsdale, Mornington, Woolamai and Geelong. Later he won over 2400 at Sandown backed from 33 into 6 to 1.
1986 was my best year, winning 38 races for the season. From the 1990s to 2004 I had many winners that were ridden by Debbie Waymouth, Gavin Bady, Ray Douglas, Craig Blackshaw, Vicki Hill and Adam Bodey. During 2000 to 2003, my final year’s training, I won the horse of the year at Woolamai on each occasion. Riders for me at the professionals were mainly Trevor Snell, David Opitz, Graham McLiesh – who rode Fast Seal in the triple dead heat – Bobby Skelton who rode a Melbourne Cup winner Van Der Hum for one of the big trainers – Caroline Ferguson and Scrooge Robertson, who also rode winners and rode a lot of work for us.
The high points of my career included winning the Woolamai Trainers trophy 30 times, winning about 200 races at Woolamai and winning about 450 races overall. I was the leading trainer in Gippsland in 1986, the leading trainer at Bairnsdale for 1995-96, and the leading Victorian Picnic Trainer in the 1990s.
Maurie Duffy was my offsider through all of this. He was a character and had quite a few funny sayings. He’d say “You can’t help bad luck” and “You can’t educate idiots”. He also said “An expert is a drip under pressure”. He loved his VB and smokes, so when he was going shopping he’d say “I’ve got to go and get the essentials”.
Phillip Island was a wonderful place to train racehorses. We’ve got the beaches and undulating country. Horses don’t mind a bit of wind – it blows the flies away. What they hate is muggy weather.
I attended the first race meeting at Woolamai in 1945. Back then they had two meetings at Woolamai. In 1946 they formed a club at Wonthaggi and one at Phillip Island, and they had a meeting each, so four meetings in all. I trained my first winner at Woolamai in 1957 with a horse called London Boy, bought by my father and I for 15 pounds. He beat a field of 14 from the old six furlong barrier and was ridden by Hugh Donavon, a leading rider of those days who was later a VRC steward.
Racing at Woolamai has always been a big part of the Price family. Phyl had a share in most of the horses I trained. Woolamai Races are a great day out for the family, with the shady old trees, and the spectators are so close to the action. You can take a picnic hamper along and no one searches you, though they do have security there of course. Woolamai has always had good volunteers running it and keeping it financial. It’s also a great way for local charities to raise money. There’s no problems there, though I have seen the odd streaker at times.
Racehorse training has been special for me because I’ve had lots of high points and met lots of people with the same interests. I’ve made life-long friends really. And on the track everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter how much you pay for the horse, it’s how it all goes on the day.
The thing I enjoyed most was all the good people that I trained for and the good people that I met through racing. Many are life-long friends. Maurie Duffy was with me all the years I trained. Caroline Ferguson and Deidre and David Opitz worked with us for 12 years and they were all part of the family.
I think everyone has a special gift, and mine has been with the horses and livestock. I love working with animals, and I’ve been very lucky to have had such success. I couldn’t have done what I did without my wife Phyl and my family, and my loyal employees.