Gai Waterhouse marks her 30th anniversary as a trainer at Randwick on Saturday. Racing’s first lady looks back on her extraordinary career with Ray Thomas.
The significance of the date was initially lost on Gai Waterhouse.
She had to be reminded of what March 5, 1992, meant to her and for Australian racing.
This was the day Waterhouse started her training career when Gifted Poet raced at Hawkesbury.
Gifted Poet won – and so it began.
“Is it 30 years? It seems like about two years, the time has gone so quickly,” Waterhouse said.
She’s had more than 22,000 starters since, prepared the winners of nearly 4500 races including 147 Group 1 races, won virtually every major race worth winning, earned Hall of Fame honors and acclaim as a trailblazer for women in racing.
At Royal Randwick on Saturday when Waterhouse has the talented Converge contesting the Group 1 $1m Randwick Guineas (1600), it will be the 30th anniversary of the iconic trainer’s first runner.
“This is a nice race for Converge, he’s going well,” Waterhouse said.
“He could be on the Derby path, we will see how he goes in the Randwick Guineas.
“I have never seen Converge as a Derby horse but I could be wrong.
“We have three-year-olds like Zoumon and Castlereagh Kid who have more staying-type physiques which I think has a lot to do with it.
“But the (ATC Australian) Derby is a race I haven’t won yet and I would really love to win it this year with Adrian (Bott, training partner), it would give me so much satisfaction, I couldn’t tell you .”
In an exclusive interview, Waterhouse looks back on her extraordinary 30-year career and gives an insight into what the future holds for “Racing’s First Lady”.
Waterhouse didn’t immediately find her true calling. After completing an arts degree at the University of NSW, she made a name for herself as an actor in Australian and English television series, and on the stage.
But she was always very close to her father, the legendary Tommy Smith, and began working at his famous Tulloch Lodge stables at Randwick.
“The more I worked with dad – and I had always been around the stables from the time I was a little girl with my pony – I could see what a fascinating career it was,” she said.
“I thought to myself I would like to be a part of this, I would like to be a part of what dad does and be a part of his success because I thought I could contribute to it and do a good job.”
But getting her license wasn’t easy. She applied to the then-Australian Jockey Club on August 8, 1989 and was given approval to train – 878 days later.
She was discriminated against on the basis of her marital status and took her fight all the way to the High Court.
The Federal Government even amended the anti-discrimination law in what was to become the “Waterhouse Amendment”.
The publicity catapulted Waterhouse into the national conscience, she became a cause célèbre – and emerged as a public champion for women in all walks of life.
Remarkably, after being denied her opportunity to train for so long, Waterhouse quickly became the sport’s best ambassador and brought a new audience to racing.
But Waterhouse made the surprising admission should would not want to train if she was starting out today.
“This is a hard slog for a male or female, it is a very hard profession to take on,” she said.
“It’s also very hard to make a dollar because the overheads are so huge, not like in America where they have cheap labour, or Asia where the club bears some of the costs.
“We don’t have that in Australia and we have to pay very high wages. Inflation in the last year has pushed costs up for trainers.
“Although we do have huge prizemoney it is hard to keep pace with it (overheads).”
Waterhouse’s very public battle with racing officialdom to gain her trainer’s license and her stunning success on the racetrack during her 30-year career has helped paved the way for women to make their mark in racing.
But the Hall of Fame trainer doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer.
“I don’t know about that,” Waterhouse said.
“Because I was successful from the start it did put me in the limelight more than maybe other women. Perhaps they could see I was doing it and thought they could do it.
“But women were going to do be successful anyway because the perception of women and what they can do has changed so much.”
Waterhouse always does things her way – so no one saw this coming. In 2016, she formed a training partnership with Adrian Bott.
But this is racing in the modern era, training partnerships are the norm rather than the exception and Tulloch Lodge hasn’t missed a beat since Waterhouse and Bott teamed up.
“Adrian is just outstanding, so sensible, highly intelligent,” Waterhouse said.
“I shoot from the hip but Adrian thinks things out carefully. He always listens to what I say, thinks about it then always comes back with a sensible plan.
“And he’s just a nice person – it’s so good to work with someone who is a nice person.
“He doesn’t rely on me to train them but he asks my advice. We work well as a team and love bouncing ideas off each other.”
After 30 extraordinary years, where do you start when discussing career highlights?
Waterhouse has achieved just about everything in racing, setting all sorts of records in the process, so determining the highlight of her career is an impossible task – or is it?
“I think the trifecta in the Golden Slipper was a very special moment in my career,” Waterhouse said.
The year was 2001 and Waterhouse was dominating Sydney two-year-old racing.
She had multiple runners in the Golden Slipper, a race her father had won a record six times, and the media focus on her leading up to the big race was intense.
This writer remembers interviewing Waterhouse at Tulloch Lodge during Golden Slipper week that year when the trainer admitted she was feeling the pressure and expectation.
“I don’t know what I am going to do if I don’t win this race,” she said.
Waterhouse did win her first Golden Slipper, training the trifecta in the process with Ha Ha defeating Excellerator and Red Hannigan. She now holds the training record in the world’s richest juvenile race with seven wins.
But there’s so much more.
“Te Akau Nick winning The Metropolitan (1992) when I had only been training for a year is something I will never forget,” she said.
“I’m proud of our record in the Doncaster and Epsom (seven wins each), winning the Melbourne Cup (Fiorente, 2013) and Caulfield Cup (Descarado, 2010)….”
Waterhouse’s voice trailed away. She was lost in thought. There are so many highlights and space is my enemy on these pages.
She’s trained her share of elite racehorses, too. In the early part of her career, there was Nothin’ Leica Dane, All Our Mob, Juggler, Pharaoh and Stony Bay.
The new millennium began with Assertive Lad, Ha Ha, Carnegie Express and Lotteria, then Grand Armee, Desert War, Dance Hero, Tuesday Joy and Sebring.
Her stables have kept producing the champs in the last decade with the likes of Pierro, More Joyous, Vancouver, English, Farnan, Sweet Idea, Global Glamor and others.
So, who is the best horse Waterhouse has trained?
“Pierro,” she said without hesitation.
“He was such an amazing horse and it gave me so much pleasure training him.
“Very few two-year-olds go right through and win the Golden Slipper, Sires Produce and Champagne Stakes then come back as a three-year-old and do it all again like Pierro did. They don’t do that – they just don’t do that.
“Dance Hero won the triple crown as a two-year-old but he didn’t win another Group 1 until he was a five-year-old.
“More Joyous was a great mare, Vancouver was such a brilliant horse, and we have had Grand Armee, Desert War, Juggler and others.
“Luckily I have been able to go to the sales and find champion horses so each year there is always a good horse coming through our stables.
“I look at a horse like Zoumon. He’s very promising and could be a Derby chance – it’s exciting.”
Waterhouse’s days of winning Sydney trainers titles are over. This is the Chris Waller era, he has won 11 successive premierships and there is no likelihood of his dominance ending.
But there is a mutual respect between the two Hall of Fame trainers and Waterhouse has nothing but admiration for her rival.
“Chris is an amazing man,” Waterhouse said.
“He has come over here with very little from New Zealand, one could say he was an outsider who has come in and worked very hard.
“He has made Australia his home and has become ‘king of the racing castle’ in a very short time.
“Chris is exceedingly thorough, everything is so well thought out, and it takes a lot to ruffle his feathers.
“He’s a very nice, polite man who does a brilliant job.”
The famous Smith-Waterhouse training lineage is going to skip a generation at least.
Given the financial and personal demands on trainers, Waterhouse is almost relieved her children, Kate and Tom, have decided to pursue other career interests.
Kate has forged a successful career in media and Tom flirted with booking but these days operates a tipping service for punters.
“They have both gone their separate ways,” Waterhouse said of her two adult children.
“I’m a great believer in letting people follow their own calling in life.
“Just because I wanted to follow my father doesn’t mean they have to follow their mother.”
Retirement is a dirty word with Waterhouse. She’s not going anywhere.
Although she has won just about everything worth winning, Waterhouse still gets energized whether one of her horses wins a provincial maiden or a Group 1 race.
“I love watching our horses develop and win races,” she said.
“I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t enjoy it,” she said.
“There is always mountains to conquer in any business and racing is no different.
“There is lots of things still to do and we will just keep going along and tackling each challenge as they come.”
Originally published as Gai Waterhouse celebrates 30 years as a trainer at Randwick on Saturday