| When Kiwi trainer Stephen Gray was told he had saddled his 700th winner at Kranji with Larry on Sunday, his face lit up with surprise and delight first, but a more solemn sense of self-reflection and nostalgia soon took over. The boy from Waverley has come a long way since he landed in Singapore in 2000 along with track rider Bridget Aiken, who would become his wife soon after.
It’s been a heck of a rollercoaster ride, with many highs like the 2007 Group 1 Emirates Singapore Derby with Lim’s Prestige ridden by pinch-hitting jockey Din Azis or the 2016 Group 1 Dester Singapore Gold Cup with Bahana.
The defeats, the disappointments, the setbacks like his first stable star Emperor Max’s bleeding attacks, or more recently UK raider Lim’s Cruiser’s last-minute injury have thrown more than a few spanners in the works, but such lowlights are par for the course in the life of a trainer.
His close brush with death when he survived a life-threatening intestinal hernia in 2011 was another agonising episode for the father of two, James, 18 (now serving National Service and who went to the races at Kranji for the first time just the other day), and Katie, 16.
But it’s something else which has given Gray a more sobering perspective to Sunday’s milestone when the bon vivant would normally be popping the bubbly with owners, friends and loved ones, and just seize the day.
Gray said the last four or five years have been a “struggle”, even if he did hit the half-century with Pusaka in 2015, another 100 with Darc Bounty two years later, and next thing he knew, another milestone was under his belt.
In the time Larry took to come back to scale as he stood at the winner’s stall waiting, the former rugby player had gathered these mixed emotions and rolled them into one word that keeps coming back: Survival.
“I’ve trained a Derby and a Gold Cup winner here, but you know what’s my biggest and proudest achievement here besides my family and getting my kids, who were both born here, through education?” said Gray.
“It’s longevity and it came through only one thing: Survival.”
Gray had a head brimful of hopes and dreams when he first walked into his empty barn at Kranji with 14 horses, the winner of 411 races in New Zealand, including 13 over jumps – effectively making him the winning trainer of 1,111 races.
Forget the culture shock, a more daunting task faced the wide-eyed newbie: Going head-on against heavyweights like Malcolm Thwaites, Mick Kent, John Brink, Charles Leck or Don Baertschiger (Shane’s father). Eventual nine-time Singapore champion Laurie Laxon and John Meagher, father of current Kranji trainer Daniel, were just starting out, too, but their more awesome firepower quickly turned them into the new superpowers that would rule the roost years on end.
The son of trainer Kevin Gray just wanted to pinch his own little place in the sun at Kranji. Nineteen years later, he was pinching himself as he was presented with a bottle of champagne as a reward for his feat – but truth be told, the vintage years felt remote.
“It’s been a long time. It’s quite amazing when I look back,” he said.
“If someone had told me a few years ago that one day I would have trained 700 winners here, I would say ‘no chance’.
“I got a bit of a shock as it wasn’t too long ago, I hit 500, then 600. It’s slowly but surely crept up on me.
“I must have done pretty good because it was very tough to get going when I just arrived with Bridget. The competition was very strong.
“I was the youngest then. Malcolm Thwaites, Charles Leck, Paddy Busuttin, John Meagher, Laurie Laxon, Patrick Shaw, Mick Kent, Don Baertschiger, John Brink – I eventually took over his barn – were the big names, I always looked up to these guys.
“In the mornings, I would look forward to chatting with Charlie Read and Dougie Dragon at the heath track. They’ve both passed on today, but I have fond memories of such positive vibes.
“I have a picture of all of the trainers at the parade ring in 2002. Most of them have dropped off and today, only three of us are left: Mohd Yusof, Michael Clements and myself.
“I’ve seen a large amount of people come and go. Where’s the time gone? The industry was so exciting then, it was a hive of activity.
“In the early days, races were not on TV, we had no internet, no casinos. Then we had good international races and international jockeys.
“I’ve always loved promoting Singapore as I’ve always said it was a great model. For 16 years, we worked hard and we got the results, but everything has changed now.
“I think we have not kept up with the times. We are playing catch-up against internet betting, casinos, football betting.
“At the end of the day, we need to get revenue. I wonder where it’s all going to end up.
“When we lost our international races (Singapore Airlines International Cup and KrisFlyer International Sprint), we didn’t have the same enthusiasm anymore.
“I’m actually confused to be honest. I’m not sure what to think, what the future holds for us.
“I’m also disappointed. I just have to get owners to buy horses. Last time, I wanted to have a good horse, now I worry about surviving.”
Gray pauses, ruffles his big hand through his hair, and looks up to his collection of racing memorabilia around his Kranji office. He’s ticked that ‘good horse’ box a few times – Given Vision with the great Joao Moreira up, Emperor Max racing before the Queen at Ascot, Lim’s Cruiser’s recent Darley July Cup standing banner.
His eyes twinkle. At times, he felt like upping stumps to return to New Zealand, but the passion that fuels him has been his spark of hope in the last 19 years, and more so now.
If he’s been from the mountains high to the valleys low, and survived, so can racing, he says.
He pauses again.
“No, it has to,” he rephrased.
“Yes, I am concerned where racing is heading, but it’s still pretty good. To me, our racing is the greatest model, but the mindset in the government will have to change.
“I hope it’s not too late as we can have a great business and a great lifestyle. The Club is coming up with bold changes, hopefully, it’ll turn it around.
“I for one have always wanted to achieve big things with racing. That’s why I took Max and Cruiser to England.
“I was heartbroken when Cruiser had to pull out (from the Group Lennox Stakes last week due to a fetlock swelling), but things like that keep me going. Yes, I have to pay my mortgage, but it’s the love of racing, my family, that drive me forward – it’s my passion.
“My dad is still training at the age of 82, but I always told myself I would retire when I hit 1,000 wins here. I’m now 54 and I’d like to do it for another few years until I’m 60 maybe.
“I will survive.”