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L.B.Loveday lloveday at ozemail.com.au
Sun Aug 26 05:22:57 AEST 2018

Secret behind Gai's success

She's risen above the doubters into the ranks of racing royalty. How did Gai
Waterhouse do it?

By Trent Dalton

Gai Waterhouse. Picture: Harold David

*	From The Weekend Australian Magazine

August 25, 2018

*	18 minute read

02a?login=1#story-comments> 8 

Eggs, soft and scrambled with avocado and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and
memories of her dad. She recalls cold winter dawns at Randwick back when
63-year-old Gai Waterhouse was five-year-old Gai Smith wrapped in the warm
arms of her legendary trainer father Tommy J. Smith and they were sitting on
a cream-coloured pony named Cornflakes riding out to the centre of the track
to watch the horses work circles. She'd watch her father watching those
horses and every morning she'd come closer to understanding what Tommy was
trying to find in all those sprinters and stayers. After enough cold
mornings she realised that, more than a horse's speed and power and rhythm,
he was trying to find a horse's essence. That mysterious element found deep
within it that would reveal to Tommy why and how it would be first past the
post on any given track; what the horse would need from Tommy in order for
it to be the best that it could be. And Gai watched her father watching
those horses long enough that she -eventually realised the elusive essence
could not actually be seen to be found; it had to be felt. 

On their way home, Tommy and Gai would cut through Centennial Park and each
morning they'd inspect the duck nests fringing the park pond and every
morning, without fail, young Gai would somehow manage to find a duck egg
that they'd take home and cook for breakfast. Tommy would beam so wide with
these miraculous -morning discoveries and Gai would laugh with joy because
she knew - she felt it deep inside her heart - exactly what Tommy J. Smith
needed from her, his only child, to be the best that he could be. She had
found her father's essence.

Tommy J. Smith with daughter Gai Waterhouse in 1995. Picture: Nathan Edwards

There's another part to that duck egg memory - something deeper, something
life-changing - but our eggs are going cold and these eggs, -prepared by her
in-house cook, Fernanda, are the best in the world. "The world," Gai
stresses, loud enough for Fernanda to hear at the kitchen sink of this
sprawling top-floor apartment overlooking Balmoral Beach on Sydney's lower
north shore.

Two grand sulphur-crested cockatoos land near a rosemary bush on the
apartment balcony, their yellow plumage like some wild hat Gai Waterhouse
might slay all those younger, less brave, less original, fashion wannabes
with on race day. The Lady Trainer and her plumage, a rainbow of a woman,
perched in the stands, -binoculars in one hand, hope and 30 years' hard work
in the other, clenched tightly to will another beloved horse - athletes, she
calls them - on to victory. Gifted Poet, her first winner in 1992. Te Akau
Nick, her first Group 1 winner that same year. Dear mighty Fiorente,
Melbourne Cup -winner, 2013. (She ran her samurai eyes over that horse on
the morning of that hallowed day and uttered just one word: "Wins".) Dear
courageous Pharaoh, the horse with arthritic joints that was called every
lame name under the Sydney sun before Gai found his essence and turned him
into the champion thoroughbred who won back-to-back Doncasters in '94 and
'95. That's her thing, turning the stable roughies - the outliers, the
-outcasts - into warriors with a mother's love. And they fight to repay her

She loved them like family. Grand Armee. Desert War. Dance Hero. All Our
Mob. All Gai's mob. She's third on the all-time list of winning Group 1
trainers; 136 Group 1 wins and counting. Some 3827 total career wins and
counting. More than $245 million in race winnings in this century alone.
It's the kind of record that puts her up there with her old man and not that
far behind that other god of racing, Bart Cummings. "She's better than me,"
the great Tommy J. Smith -confided to Gai's bookmaker father-in-law, Bill
Waterhouse, not long before Tommy died. But they still underestimate her
because surely a woman who looks like a Hitchcock muse could never train so
many gutsy winners; all those doubters and knockers and tall-poppy choppers
who can't quite believe a queen could ever -conquer the sport of kings.

"Those pests," she chuckles at the cockatoos. She sprinkles salt over her
eggs. "This is black salt from Hawaii," she says, passing the salt and
pepper. "It's Hawaiian black volcanic salt. Really nice."

She studies your eyes and your lips in conversation. This comes across as a
deep seriousness until you realise it's more a deep concentration. She's a
good listener who can barely hear. "I lost my hearing about 30 years ago
from a fall from a horse," she says. Communicating is a maddening struggle
she buries daily beneath deep wells of grace and deportment-school manners.
"I lip-read very well. You make do in life and get through and just make
sure you can have a happy life. One of those things I've found is that my
eyes have been my ears and I can be very intuitive in seeing things,
especially with people. It's body language. It's quite funny. I've had to
develop other senses."

She shifts her head about randomly, left and right. A sense thing. A body
language thing, sensing that the journalist sitting across from her is
struggling to see properly because blinding morning sunshine is flooding
through her balcony doors. "I'm acting as your buffer from the sun," she
says. A genuine Gai Waterhouse eclipse. A man saunters from the main bedroom
into the living room in his boxer shorts and a sloppy joe.

"My husband, Rob," Gai introduces, and a thousand New Idea headlines from
the 1980s flood your head like that Balmoral sunshine. The great courtship
of Tommy J. Smith's only child and Bill Waterhouse's son. The great union of
two famous Australian racing families.

TJ's Girl In Wedding Stakes!

Will Gai follow in Tommy Smith's footsteps?

Rob takes his seat at the breakfast table. "Show him what you get every
morning," Gai says, with a wry smile. Rob Waterhouse has the voice of a
cheerful librarian who deeply values the human right of quiet but doesn't
mind the odd flurry of whispered gossip. He presents his regular breakfast
prepared by Fernanda. It's a fruit and nut face occupying the whole plate -
berries for eyes, almonds for eyebrows, a glob of natural yoghurt for a nose
and a banana for a smile.

Gai and Rob Waterhouse. Picture: Keith McInnes

The man adores his wife. He keeps photos of her on his work desk in the
living room, despite the fact his desk is directly opposite and within arm's
reach of his wife's. It's not at all difficult to visualise a morning when
Rob approached Fernanda on the quiet and asked her to create a portrait of
his wife out of healthy breakfast choices.

"If I've been a good boy, I get that," he says, his finger tracing the
upward curve of the smiling banana. "But if I've been very naughty the
banana has been turned upside down with a scowl." Gai drops her head in
embarrassment. Rob howls with laughter. "He never gets the upside down
banana," Gai says. Fernanda calls from the kitchen sink: "He's a very lucky
man!" Rob raises his -eyebrows in a kind of warning. "If the banana's
scowling," he says, grimly. "Look out."

Rob's gags are always multi-layered. Two or three layers down in the moody
banana gag is the fact that this businessman and former bookmaker has a
preternatural gift for landing fruit-face-first in the quicksand of
controversy that almost always sees Gai pulled in with him. Both Rob and his
father Bill were accused of having prior knowledge of the Fine Cotton horse
substitution scam of 1984 and "warned off" racecourses around the world,
instantly crippling Rob's bookmaking career. It was possibly the toughest
period of their 38-year marriage; a time, Gai says, that would have ended a
union built on weaker foundations. "But we flow along," she says.

"We're best friends aren't we?" Rob asks, -spooning up the plate's right
eyeball of berries.

"Yeah," Gai says. "Very much so."

It's their empty-nest years but the nest is never empty. Daughter Kate, her
league legend husband Luke Ricketson and their two girls share the apartment
below. Son Tom, a bookmaker, lives with his wife and two kids just a short
walk along Balmoral Beach. "When we became empty-nesters I was delighted to
become the most important person in Gai's life again but I've since dropped
down to about number eight," Rob surmises, selflessly placing himself on the
importance ladder behind Gai's beloved King-Charles-spaniel-poodle cross,

Rob turns his head away with two hacking coughs from a developing cold.
"There was no love for Rob this morning because he was coughing and
spluttering all night," Gai says. "I was very cross with him." But it's hard
to stay cross at a -husband who's busy building you a statue of yourself in
the most glorious moment of your working life. The working miniature model
for the statue sits on Rob's desk amid a pile of horse trade papers and
notebooks. It's Gai in her mint green -Melbourne Cup 2013 dress, wrapped in
a pearl necklace, joyously holding the cup aloft.

Trainer Gai Waterhouse after winning the 2013 Melbourne Cup. Picture:
Colleen Petch

"In 100 years' time all they will know me for is the Melbourne Cup," she
says. They won't recall every detail of her journey to it. How she started
her working life in acting, landing theatre work in London, a stint on Dr
Who. "It was December 1977, and I woke up one morning and I thought, 'No, I
want to go back to Mum and Dad, I want to go back to Australia'," she says.
"I closed that acting door and came home."

Her uncle Dick had passed away and she knew there was an opportunity to come
back and work in the family business. "But I don't think Dad or anyone
imagined that I'd work in the business as a trainer. I think they thought
I'd come in as a PR girl or something but I used to go in the morning and
clock the horses for Dad and watch them. I really enjoyed being in the
stables. The more I enjoyed it, the more I wanted to be there. Then it
became a bit of a difficult time with my uncle Ernie, who was the stable
manager at the time. I think he saw me as a threat whereas all I wanted to
do was learn and be part of their team."

It was the first flash of a theme that would define Gai Waterhouse's career:
the glamorous, intelligent woman having to fight for her place inside a
world of not-so-glamorous but fiercely intelligent men. "It was terrible,"
she says. "It got terribly sour to the point where we couldn't stand the
sight of each other. It got to the point where if I said it was black, Ernie
would say it was white . and Dad, of course, totally supported Ernie because
they'd worked together longer and that was his brother. I put in for my
trainer's licence and Ernie erupted.

"I'd driven Dad mad to give me a little stable of 10 boxes and I said, 'Just
let me train out of there, you can do what you like with the rest of the
-stables'. And that was the final straw in the relationship and Ernie
erupted publicly and there was a split. He and his son, Sterling, went off
and took out licences and Dad was terribly hurt. He just couldn't believe
this could happen and he saw me as the wedge that caused it. He said, 'I
can't believe you've broken the family up'. And I said, 'I haven't, Dad',
and I said, 'But this has happened and we just have to work through it. I'm
here to help'."

Classic Gai Waterhouse. The eternal optimist. There is nothing - no glass
ceiling, no fear, no death of a beloved rock of a father - that can't be
fixed by waking at 2.15am every day, going down to the stables in the
freezing pre-dawn and working, working, working toward the winner's circle.

A filly from the Waterhouse stable recently ran last in a key race, passed
the post 20 lengths behind the entire field. "Gosh, she ran well," Gai said,
trackside, to her loyal and gifted co-trainer Adrian Bott. "Her action was
great and she really got into things for a while there." Adrian turned to
her and said: "That's the most positive spin I've ever heard, Gai, on the
worst run I've ever seen!"

Rob's not sure exactly where the Melbourne Cup statue will eventually stand
- "Maybe the -Victoria Racing Club can hang hats from it or something", Gai
says - but he hopes those who pass it might consider for a moment the cost
of Gai's success; the hills she had to climb in her muddy black gumboots.
"Gai has never had the support of the upper echelons of racing," Rob says,
matter-of-factly. "The major studs, the larger -stables, Gai has missed out
on [support from] nearly all of those people. It's a." - he chooses his
words carefully - "surprise to me that she hasn't had more support from the
racing establishment."

They turn to each other, silently contemplating the underlying reason for
this. Gai's reluctant to say it but Rob isn't. "I think being a woman," he
says. "And I think it's also because she generates so much publicity.
They're resentful of it."

There were times when she felt it was "impossible" to find her place in
racing. "It had been really impossible and it has been a lot of times since
then, hoping that you might get an owner to give you a horse to train and a
lot of times it will go to someone else," she says. "So it's constant."

Rob has another coughing fit and Gai winces but somehow returns with
positivity and love. "I'm glad you're coughing all that up," she says. Rob
nods, finds more momentum in his thoughts. "When Gai got her trainer's
licence there were five other sons or daughters of trainers who got their
licence," he says. "All very prominent. It would be no exaggeration to say
you were regarded as the least likely to succeed, and almost as a joke,
compared with the others."

Gai shrugs her shoulders, nods.

"Everyone else had better credentials and, of course, they've all fallen by
the wayside," Rob says. "People forget how hard it is training horses. The
attrition rate is very high and it's soul-destroying. Gai is the only one of
them - and there were six - who managed to not only survive but thrive."

And, yet, he says, there remains an influential element of the racing
establishment that still refuses to believe Gai has been the chief architect
of her own success. "I think it is an extraordinary thing, especially from
people who you would think would know better than that. Big names, they sort
of don't see Gai, her record, her strike rate, her great success, it sort of
is always."

"Someone else," Gai says. "It's always someone else behind it."

Early riser: Gai Waterhouse training. Picture: Kate Geraghty

"They can't come to terms with Gai looking so glamorous and actually doing
the work," Rob says. "But, of course, Gai's up before all the other trainers
are." He coughs again; Gai reels back in her seat, less compassionate than
last time. "It's remarkable," he continues. "The more success you have,
people can be resentful. I'm not sure you've had much repeat business from
many of the -Melbourne Cup-winning owners have you, Gai?"

"Oh, a few of them," she reasons.

Gai's growing frustrated by the thread of this conversation. "I don't know,"
she continues. "There are always a few loyal people and it's nice. I love
loyalty." Rob explodes in another coughing fit, the straw breaking the back
of Gai's patience. "Oh, go away cough drop!" she bellows.

It's the ugliest purse ever made. Mauve-coloured, apple-shaped, the size of
a basketball with clasps at the top, resting on Gai's coffee table. Her
fashion sense, she says, was born from her own inherent creativity and
femininity. "The actress in me," she says.

Her beloved dad loved good clothes as much as she did. But he loved them
because, as a child beset by poverty and struggle in the NSW -Riverina, his
family could barely afford shoes let alone a sharp grey wool racing suit.
"Where do women get to dress up?" she asks. "We don't dress up at home
anymore. We go around in daggy clothes. The office, you wear the same old
thing, maybe even a uniform or. ewwwwwww, black! Where do you dress up?
Weddings don't happen all the time. The one place a woman can dress up and
really feel feminine, really have fun as a woman, that's -coming to the

She leans forward on her sofa, opens the oversized pumpkin of a purse on her
coffee table. And you realise nothing is quite as it seems with this woman.
It's not a purse at all. It's a cosy for a -teapot containing her beloved
-ginger morning tea. "Isn't that a hoot!" she says, slapping her thigh. "A
girlfriend from England bought it for me. I thought to myself, 'That is the
ugliest purse I have ever seen in my life - how could she possibly buy me
something so ugly?' Then, of course, she opened it like a clam and there's
this teapot."

Classic Gai Waterhouse. Assume she's going one way and she'll dart the
other. You think she's hard as nails talking about how disciplined she is in
the stables - not a haystack, not a horse hair, out of place - then she
talks candidly about the crushing loss of her mum, Valerie (she died in
2008, a decade after Tommy) or her nerves on that fateful Melbourne Cup day
in 2013, and you think she's brittle as butterscotch.

"I don't know if I can go to the races today," she confessed to Rob over
breakfast that Melbourne Cup morning. "What are you talking about?" scoffed
Rob. "I can't let all the little people down," she said. "What are you
talking about?" Rob said.

She was talking about the literal little people, a series of short and kind
old men on the gates of Flemington racetrack who had been saying to her all
week, "It's your Cup this year, Gai, it's your Cup!" She'd been seeing their
faces when she tossed and turned in her sleep. She saw, in her busy mind,
the disappointment on their faces as she exited Flemington a big-time,
well-known, fashionable loser and, make no mistake, the worst part about
being a horse trainer is that most mornings you drive to the track thinking
you're heading to a wedding and most nights you drive home having attended a

"Some of those people like me and some care about me and I couldn't bear to
let them down," she says. So that's what she thinks about when she
contemplates winning the Holy Grail of -Australian racing. Not redemption.
Not legacy. Just a series of short old blokes in hats, smiling so wide they
might burst.

In one breath over a warm ginger tea she'll declare the importance of
equality for women in the workplace; remind you how her regular -nickname,
"The First Lady of Racing", is essentially an insult suggesting her success
came by -virtue of a ring; then drop a gentle clanger like this: "Look, it's
probably a bit of an old-fashioned idea, but I think women nowadays have a
really tough time being happy. I think they so want everything that they
forget sometimes you've just got to take a deep breath and say, 'Welllll.' "

She shrugs. She believes women have parts of it all in 2018 - love, work and
family - and appear "dissatisfied" with the sum of those parts. She's good
with male horse owners because she's grown up around them, knows what they
want and need from her, knows their essence.

She doesn't employ staff based on gender, only effort. She often hires
foreigners on work visas - she struggles to find young Australians willing
to work hard for her in the early morning stables because life's "just a bit
too good in Australia", she says. "It's unbelievable. Nowhere in the world
would you find higher wages, nowhere in the world would you find better
working conditions."

We settle into the sofa, flipping through a series of old photos. A 1975
black and white shot for her acting portfolio where she looks like some
knockout cross between Ingrid Bergman and one of Charlie's Angels. She
giggles, embarrassed by the shot. "One of the Indian chaps who works for us
saw that shot once," she says, adopting an Indian accent. "He said, 'Ohhh,
soooo beautiful, so beautiful'. Then he looked from the photograph up to my
face and said, 'What has -happened?' " She leans back, howling.

Picture: Harold David

Later, Gai has her face up close to an oil -paintingon her wall, staring at
the image of another girlfriend from England, Her Majesty The Queen. It's a
scene at a racetrack depicted by -Australian narrative painter Garry Shead.
The work tells the story of the profound period in Gai's life in 2012 when
the Queen sent her a -difficult horse to train, "a -barrier rogue" named
Carlton House. Gai turned the horse from a feisty troublemaker to an
impressive placegetter with the help of several people in the painting -
renowned horse whisperer Monty Roberts, the Queen herself, the Queen's
racing manager John Warren, Rob, Tom and Kate. She smiles at the way Shead
has captured Tom and Kate as joyous, unencumbered kids. She's reminded how
much easier it is training barrier rogue horses than it is raising kids.

She's thinking about time. She's thinking about the past you can't get back.
Her dad always told her not to live in it, the past and all its regrets and
even its glories. "Life's very tricky for everyone," she says. "It's no
easier if you've got money. Life's a battle for everyone. You've got to work
hard to make sure everything works.

"The track demands a huge amount from you and it's very important to get the
balance. The -balance makes life enjoyable. What are they going to put on
the tomb? Part of me might hope they'll say, 'Gai Waterhouse was the most
intuitive trainer', but they won't. Really and truly what I hope it would
say is, 'Good woman, an all-rounder, she did have a lot of time for her
husband, she did have a lot of time for her family and, just as importantly,
had a lot of time for those horses'."

Everything working in harmony. Family, work, life and you. It was Tommy J.
Smith who taught her that, the man in Garry Shead's painting -floating as an
angel above the whole track scene, -racing hat on his head, eyes fixed
firmly down on the great mysterious essence of his life, the girl who always
found the duck eggs.

One morning beside the banks of the -Centennial Park pond, Gai - by then a
little older - discovered the secret behind her uncanny knack of finding all
those delicious duck eggs. She accidentally bumped into her dad and an egg
cracked in the pocket of his coat. And the truth was even more beautiful
than the fantasy. Every single morning, before he thought about the horses
or the weather or the track, Tommy J. Smith thought about -pocketing an egg
from the kitchen fridge for his daughter.

She never found another duck egg after that. She never needed to.


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