While he may have recently celebrated his eighty-second birthday, there is no suggestion that well-respected Central Districts horseman Kevin Gray is showing any signs of slowing down.
Gray will enter his fourtieth season of training in 2019/20 with the same enthusiasm that he did when it all started for him back in Waverley in 1980.
“I guess you can say that I’m a lucky man in that in the fourty years I have been training I’ve enjoyed pretty good health all the way through,” Gray said.
“I’ve had the odd injury like a broken leg and the like but really nothing that ever put my training career in jeopardy.
“I’ve loved every minute of it and I’m looking forward to next season just as much as I did when I first started.”
Born in 1937, Gray’s love of horses began during his formative years when he would ride a pony to school.
“I think I started riding ponies when I was about eight or nine as that’s how we got to school,” he said.
“I started work in the Patea Freezing Works when I left school at 16 as my grandfather was a foreman there.
“Back in those days they used to bring the stock in by train and I used to be involved with unloading them.
“When I left the works, I started as a stock agent which I did for about 23 years. Back then I was riding showjumpers and eventers while riding trackwork for some of the trainers in the local area.
“I rode work for people like Brian Deacon, Herb Bergerson, Wally McEwan and the like and learned much of what I know from them.
“I was doing a bit of pre-training and with so many good trainers around at that time, I tried to soak up what I could.”
Deacon’s decision to move from Waverley to Takanini in 1980 was the forerunner for Gray to take out his own trainer’s license at the urgings of Deacon.
“Brian made his move up north and he said to me then I should take out a license of my own,” Gray said.
“I started off with a permit to train and then moved on from there. I ended up training for some of the biggest owners in the Taranaki region and we had some great success.”
After more than twenty years at their Waverley base, Gray and his wife Kathleen moved to a new 52-hectare property outside of Palmerston North in 2006, which carries the name of their top-class galloper Copper Belt, who Gray had purchased as a yearling from the annual sale at Claudelands in Hamilton back in 1973.
“Brain Deacon trained Copper Belt for us and he was just a magnificent horse,” Gray said.
“He really helped to set us up and that is why we named our property after him.
“It is a beautiful property with its own training track and all the modern facilities that we need to do the job we do.”
While Gray may be known for training horses of the calibre of Gr.1 AJC Oaks (2400m) winner Daffodil, it is his record with moulding some of the best riding talent New Zealand has produced that he is also justifiably proud of.
“I guess when you look at our record, it would be the people we have mentored that gives Kathleen and I as much delight as any of the horses we have had,” Gray said.
“Riders like Hayden Tinsley, Eddie Lamb, Paul Shailer, Bruce Herd and Lisa Allpress all started their careers with us and went on to achieve big things in the game.
“Most, if not all of the staff we have here at the property have been here since we started or have come back to us and that gives you a special feeling as well.
“When I celebrated my birthday the other day, I think there was something like 30-40 texts or messages from people who have worked for us over the years, so I found that very touching.”
Looking ahead to the new season, Gray is quietly confident he will have some significant firepower available to him once the tracks start to dry out.
“I don’t tend to have too many go around in the winter as the tracks are just too tough.
“We have some lovely younger horses coming through which I’m quite excited about once we start to get the drier spring surfaces.
“We have lost one of two of our better ones from this year as I’ve always been a trader and have sold them on but I do like the look of what we have coming through.”
Gray is also hopeful that the new Racing Industry Transitional Agency (RITA) will bring about the positive change required for the stagnant racing industry.
“I have had some dealings with Dean McKenzie, who is in charge of the new agency, and I think he is a very passionate and capable person,” Gray said.
“I know they have a hell of a lot on their plates but one thing I would like them to look at is the racing surfaces we operate on.
“There just hasn’t been the level of spending we need to keep the tracks up to scratch and I think that is one of the fundamentals they have to get right for any progress to be made.” – NZ Racing Desk