GAY NOT GIVING UP ON ROYAL DREAM
Nick Townsend speaks to the diligent Gay Kelleway who picked up the training reins from her father Paul
If he could have seen her now. What, you wonder, would Gay Kelleway’s late father, the Classicwinning trainer, Paul, have made of his daughter? Unconvinced initially that his obsessive offspring could follow him into this most challenging and precarious of professions and make a real success of it, he used to tell her she’d be far better off getting married and providing him with a brood of grandchildren. “Father simply didn’t approve of me starting training. He said ‘the game’s too hard. You can’t do it’,” Kelleway recalls.
Twenty six years later, she has thoroughly disproved his contention – and the only type of breeding she’s studied is that which produced her most talented stable charges, including prolific winner Vortex, whose 17 wins victories, one at Group 3 level, financed the purchase of her Queen Alexandra Stables in Exning, near Newmarket.
How her father, a former leading jumps jockey – partner of Bula, What A Myth and Crisp, among others – who later forged a remarkable training career, would have relished witnessing the achievements of a woman who has so clearly inherited his ability to procure the optimum from economybudget resources.
Admittedly, before his premature death from pancreatic cancer, aged just 59 in 1999, he had recognised the error of his original conviction and declared that she’d make a better trainer than him. “He told me ‘you’ve got the gift of the gab and you work hard’,” recalls the 54-year-old former professional jockey.
‘Pattern Race Paul’ was the affectionate epithet of the London-born but Yorkshireadopted Kelleway because of his audacious, but frequently successful, assaults on major races with bargain-buy horses. They included the 1978 Champion Stakes winner Swiss Maid, for whom Kelleway laid out 6,000gns and subsequently sold on for 325,000gns.
His daughter has inherited her father’s instincts for smart buys. She once told me: “I love a bit of value. There's something of the Arthur Daley in me.” Today, she remains a confirmed wheeler-dealer. “I go all over the world looking for horses to buy privately,” she says. “I bought Cosmelli (from stables) at Pisa. Recently, he won the Northumberland Vase at Newmarket at 33-1 and another race at 25-1. The owner’s very happy because he’s backed it each time. The horse has paid for himself three times over.”
Kelleway adds: “He’s an exciting horse to have. He has an entry for the Ebor, and could end up being a Melbourne Cup horse next year if he goes on improving.”
Where she and her father differ perhaps is her approach to business. “Father had a Group 1 (Swiss Maid) and a Classic winner (French Oaks victor Madam Gay), but he didn’t leave the game a rich man,” says Kelleway. “There was nothing for us three kids (Kelleway, her brother Anthony who now works for her as travelling head lad and sister Sarah) and enough just to support my mum (Gillian). Father was into the bank and some fella who owned a quarter of the place. There wasn’t a lot of change left. That’s why I vowed there’d be nobody else involved in my place. Just me.”
She adds: “I own my own place, thanks to Vortex (formerly owned by Khalid Abdulla, and purchased for 18,000gns, he earned £340,000 in prizemoney). Every bit of money I get from the business, I either buy more horses or put back into the property and facilities. I can’t take any more than 35 horses. I’m absolutely maxed out.”
For Kelleway, racehorses are a life-long obsession, “a drug”, as she describes it. She partnered the first of 60-plus winners as a 17-year-old and remains the only woman to have ridden a winner at Royal Ascot, on her father’s Sprowston Boy in the 1987 Queen Alexandra Stakes, after which her yard is named. In total, she has amassed 592 winners and this season has recorded 15 winners from 30 horses.
“It’s still a tough old game for the smaller trainer,” she says. “Ability’s never really got you on in racing. It’s who you know, not what you know. Initially you have to have a lot of money behind you to become a trainer. Gone are the days of the Clive Brittains and the Barry Hills (both started off working in stables). I probably wouldn’t have started now in this era, not here”
She adds: “If I was starting over again, I’d probably go to France. You’ve got better opportunities there, as a small trainer. I have very good friends, Nicolas Caullery and Marine Henry. I remember when they started they had ten horses six years ago, and now they have 80 (in Chantilly).”
Kelleway, right, whose partner and assistant trainer is a French woman, Anne-Sophie Crombez, travels to Deauville in August. “I’ll be taking some Frenchbred horses I haven’t raced yet. One’s a very nice horse called Fairy Tale. To be honest, France would be a golden opportunity for a young trainer who hasn’t got a lot of money. Forget about here. It’s a rich boys’ club.”
Kelleway aims straight for the solar plexus with that aside. But then she was never one for diplomatic niceties, particularly when it comes to equality of opportunity – or lack of it - in racing.
A study completed last year has revealed that, of 75 Newmarket trainers, there are only eight women. Ask her for an explanation for this disparity, and she refers you to the preponderance of Middle East owners. “Name me a woman trainer who trains for an Arab, a big one,” she retorts. However, press her further on why there are not more women in the training ranks overall, and she responds: “It’s a hard bloody business. Today you’ve got to deal with so much. You’ve got to be a social worker, an accountant, you’ve got to be tough, be able to get up early in the morning, and you can’t be wearing make-up every day. You don’t have time to put it on.”
Last year, the trainer made the news pages of the nationals when she claimed that, throughout her career, she had received sexual harassment and abuse by high-profile jockeys and trainers.
“Just because they didn’t want me to ride I got harassed. It was a joke – a girl riding,” she says, in the manner of Lady Bracknell speaking of a ‘handbag’.
Ask her whether sexism persists in the sport, and she maintains: “We still live in the dark ages, so yes, very much in racing, I think.”
And yet, attitudes have certainly progressed, you suggest. Three years ago, for instance, that she had opined: “You don’t see the big Arab owners queuing up to put woman riders up.” Today, you remind her, Josephine Gordon rides for Godolphin.
“She started riding for Godolphin after there was a lot of publicity that female jockeys don’t ride for them,” says Kelleway. “She should be their stable jockey – she’s good enough. She’s way ahead of some of the lads. She’s a jockey. Not a woman jockey.”
Kelleway admits she would voraciously seize the opportunity to ride in today’s environment, if she could wind back her years. “God, yes. Give my right arm. I was so hungry when I rode. I just wanted to be a jockey. I lived for it. My dad said: ‘You’re ten years too soon’. I was bloody 30 years too soon!”
Today Kelleway has one significant outstanding ambition. “I’m desperate to complete the double at Royal Ascot – ride and train a winner. Do you know what, I’ve had second, third, fourth and fifth. Fajr was beaten a length in the Buckingham Palace Stakes in 2007. That’s as close as I got to training a Royal Ascot winner.”
Given her dedication to the cause, you suspect her day will come.
“It’s still a tough old game for the smaller trainer. Ability’s never really got you on in racing. It’s who you know, not what you know”
Ebor bound? Cosmelli is an exciting horse for the yard
The late Paul Kelleway