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The life and times of Sir Kevin and Sir Gus

Sir Gus (No 11) wins the St Leger - Photo NZTM website
Sir Gus (No 11) wins the St Leger

Photo NZTM website

The recent winner of the Listed Hyland Race Colours New Zealand St Leger, Sir Gus (Zed – It's Only Me), may have been a 20 to one long shot, but his win didn't surprise his trainer Kevin Gray.

"He never surprised me with what he did in the race. It was one of the better St Legers with a strong field, and there was good representation from the North with all the known trainers having runners, but he is such a good clean winded beautiful horse," said Gray who bred the horse with his wife Kathleen.

He races him with old mates John Dodunski, Tony Jones and Gus Gulliver, who also raced the mother It's Only Me (Deputy Govenor[GB]- Annaore).

A three-year-old, Sir Gus has now won three races. He won his first race over 2100 metres at Otaki on a slow track in early January. He failed miserably at his next start at Trentham over the same distance but on a hard track rated a good two. Back at Otaki in early February, again on a slow track, he won again over 2100 metres, and two weeks later contested the St Leger trial at that distance on that track and finished fourth.

"Sir Gus is a lovely horse - you can do anything with him, he is a beautiful horse, I have 45 in work here and he just fits in," he said.

It's rather ironic that Sir Gus should win a stakes race at Trentham as he was only conceived after Kevin Gray won a free service to Zed after winning a race at Trentham in 2009.

"I am not even sure what I won the race with," quipped Kevin Gray, "all I know is that if you won a race that day you got a free service to Zed.

"Anyway I wasn't going to send any of my good mares so I sent It's Only Me. She was by Deputy Governor out of a mare I had won four races with called Annaore, and I had a few placings with her but she tweeked a tendon so I sent her to stud. She had had a couple of foals at that stage so she was the one I sent to Zed. She has since died but has a yearling colt by Tobrique(AUS).

"Originally she wasn't going to be in my broodmare band, but I had had a bit of success with the stock of Deputy Governor and he had a lot of success in Singapore, so it just sort of worked out right.

"I never knew what I would get when I sent the mare to Zed as some of the Zabeels can be a bit tough, and It's Only Me was a bit difficult to train, but he has a lovely temperament and now I have sent two mares True Belt and Suzy Harris to Zed."

"I think Zed (Zabeel-Emerald Dream[AUS]) covered about 160 mares. He has a lovely pedigree, and Murray Baker really rated him as a racehorse.

"The Grays have eight broodmares at their Copper Belt Lodge property in the Manawatu including the two in foal to Zed. True Belt (AL Alkbar – Spanish Delight) is the dam of Silk Belt (Alamosa) who was placed for the Grays on the same card as Sir Gus, and Pop Ya Belt (Strategic Image[AUS]) a winner of two races. True Belt has a lovely Alamosa yearling colt.

Suzy Harris is by Centaine (AUS) and is a sister to Our Umaga (Centaine) who won 11 including the Listed Pegasus Stakes. They are out of the Bletchencore(AUS) mare Bobby Harris, who Gray trained to win five races as well as being stakes placed on many occasions. Suzy Harris has a No Excuse Needed colt at foot. She is also the dam of Katie O'Reilly who is in foal to Road To Rock and has a Road to Rock foal as well.

"I have eight mares and that's too many. They are all in foal, to the likes of Keeper, Power, Burgundy Mastercraftsman, Pour Moi, Alamosa, Road to Rock and two to Zed. At my age I don't know why I am doing it. It's getting hard for us small breeders. I haven't had a bad run and I have some nice mares. I can get their progeny up and running and if they win a trial I can move them on. It's not hard for me to do that, but it's hard for me to get them into the sales.

"Three of my mares are related to Celtic Prince who was third in the Group One Auckland Cup recently. I sold the mother of Celtic Prince, Centa Belt, to Garry Chittick. I have had a long association with Garry, anyway we bred Centa Belt – she was by Centaine – and she was a difficult mare on the racetrack, I had a few of her relations so I offered her to Garry and he has had a bit of success with her," he added.

Besides the Group One placed Celtic Prince, Centa Belt has also left Said Com (O'Reilly) ,a winner of three races in Sydney, and also Group One placed. Centa Belt's dam Lady Di was raced by the Grays and won four races. At stud she left six foals, and four winners including the Group One 2000 Guineas winner Master Belt (Masterclass [USA]), Minnie Belt (Oregon[USA]) and Buckle Your Belt (O'Reilly).

Minnie Belt won six races including the Listed Canterbury Breeders' Stakes twice, and Buckle Your Belt won five including the Listed Rangitikei Gold Cup. His sister Xtra Belt and Minnie Belt are in the Gray broodmare band. Xtra Belt is in foal to Keeper. Minnie Belt is currently in foal to Burgundy and her daughter Grand Belt (O'Reilly), a winner of four races, is in foal to Mastercraftsman(IRE) and has a Cape Blanco (IRE) filly foal at foot. Minnie Belt is also the dam of Metallic Star a winner of four races in Hong Kong.

Marcey's Belt (Golan[IRE]-Stray) won three races before she was retired to the broodmare paddock. She is a half-sister to the stakes placed winner Pump It (Savabeel [AUS]), from the family of Maldivian. She is in foal to Power (IRE) and has a filly foal at foot by Keeper(AUS).

Another stakes-winner bred by the Grays was Supa Belt (Blues Traveller[IRE]- Spanish Delight) the winner of 10 races including the Listed Warstep Stakes and Wanganui Cup. A top mare, she ran placings in numerous stakes events, but unfortunately only produced one foal - the aptly named Special Belt (Pentire [GB]). A winner of two races she is in foal to Pour Moi(IRE) and has a filly foal by Alamosa at foot.

"I have a share in Alamosa, and he has such a lovely temperament and all his foals seem to have good temperaments as well. I think he will make the grade," Gray said.

"In all my breeding endeavours I support the people that support me. I don't have any fancy way of doing pedigrees. My grandfather raised me and he would take me to horse fairs in Wanganui when I was just a youngster and the horses would go on the train back to Patea. We would then break them in and sell them. He had all kinds, show ponies, stock horses, racehorses. I used to ride in the shows all over New Zealand. I competed against the late Dennis Gray and Terry Wenn, and I used to ride show ponies for Freda White.

"I starting riding track-work when I was ten or 11. I was a shepherd on a sheep station for a number of years and then became a stock agent for 25 years. I used to break in horses for Noel Eales, Brian Deacon, Wally McEwan, and Garth Ivil. Alexander Fieldes and Johnny Boon both learnt their trade off me as well, and then in 1980 when "Deac" (Brian Deacon) moved to Takanini I decided to take out my trainers licence. We still break in our own horses - I am a hands on man seven days a week, I pride myself on what I do.

"Of course leading up to that I had had all that fun with Copper Belt (trained by Brian Deacon at Hawera), who won 23 races from 54 starts. He won his last race carrying 62 kilos being ridden by Peter Hurdle! In those days horses with weight used to struggle to get into races, and now in the big races they have fields going around with about seven or eight horses.

"When I started training in 1980 a maiden race was worth $4,000 now it's only $7,000 - so sad. You take the races last Saturday at Trentham. They put up the money and the horses were there. There is a rating 85 at Wanganui next week for $8,000. Why would you race in that, there is no money in it and if you win you get three points and you then have to compete against open horses."

"I can tell you that some of the young trainers around the place are eating the paint off the walls. You can't blame them for on-selling their young horses. If we can keep some of our good horses here our industry might be in a better state.

"We have already had offers for Sir Gus but none of us is short of a dollar, and the boys all love going to the races and having a punt so we won't sell him. I probably would, as I have to find $15,000 in wages every week - this game is too damn hard, especially if you haven't got good staff.

Gray started training at Waverley where he lived for 30 years and still owns the original Copper Belt Lodge there. He was also involved in racing club administration and was the first licensed trainer to be a president of a racing club. When he was president of the Egmont/Wanganui Hunt Club, he also served as president at the Waverley Racing Club for two years. A few years ago he bought the new Copper Belt Lodge off Anne and Wayne Herbert and moved south to the Manawatu.

"Its 130 acres and I have my own private track. I shifted down here as it's more central than Waverley. Its 10 minutes to Palmerston North, 20 minutes to Woodville and half an hour to Foxton. The track is made out of river silt as the river used to go right through here. There is a lake in the middle and each day we just need to harrow it and put on about 10,000 litres of water and it's like working on the beach.

"We have been here six years and I have trained five Group One winners off the place in that time. I have 14 staff including some very good track riders. I have trained some good apprentices in my time as well, Bruce Herd, Eddie Lamb, Kim Clapperton, Hayden Tinsley and Lisa Allpress.

"I don't have apprentices now, as kids can do what they like. There are no contracts so it's a complete waste of time. It's so sad really, the Hong Kong Jockey Club sends down apprentices for us to train down here, and they pay everything, their wages, their board, everything, we just have to train them and then they return to Hong Kong to ride.

"I have had a lifetime in horses with a really strong client base without going out and syndicating horses. I have trained for people from all walks of life who have just rung me up and asked me to train for them. I have a passion for racing - I love it, I love the company, and I love having people around me," he concluded, "it is hard work though, and at my age if someone came and offered to buy my set up I would probably retire tomorrow. - Michelle Saba


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