Family matters

15 May 2019 Written by Celia Purdey

Often blending into the background, red coats and all, clerks of the course are a critical part of racing.

Responsible for chaperoning horses to the starting gates and dealing with any issue that may arise during the race, it’s a job that requires a calm demeanor and excellent horsemanship. The Gray family has both, borne from years of devotion to the animals, as well as a family history in the sport. We spoke to Remi, the first female Clerk of the Course at Flemington about why the job – and sharing it with her father and brother – is so special.

In 2018 Remi Gray was given the opportunity of a lifetime – to be clerk of the course at Flemington during the spring carnival. As the first female in this role, dad Peter, also a clerk, was extremely proud. While Remi too was overjoyed to be at headquarters in such an incredible week of racing, she hoped that she was also recognised as just a clerk of the course, without the gender being the biggest part. “Women are just as capable as the men,” said Remi, who comes from a long line of horsemen and has loved horses since before she can remember.

“Our family’s passion for horses started a few generations back. Dad’s family has been involved with horses for a long while, starting with my great grandfather, George Gray, a jockey, and my grandfather Ray Gray, also a jockey as well as a horse trainer. So horses and racing has always been in our blood.”

Peter Gray is a former trainer who switched to clerking when children arrived, as it provided a more stable income. “Dad loves his job because he loves reading what horses are going to do before they do it, as well as working on the safety side of things,” says Remi. Taking Remi to the races with him since she was a tiny baby instilled a love of the animals in her, and she has “always been on horseback any chance I can get. I could ride before I could walk!”

Brother Bede, now a barrier attendant and a clerk wasn’t as enamoured with the equines as quickly as Remi, and wasn’t that interested in riding until a little later. “He always had a pony,” said Remi, “and then at 10 he started playing polocrosse and has loved horses ever since.”

Herself a former polocrosse player, Remi represented Victoria in the sport, demonstrating her excellent riding skills from an early age. At 13 she started breaking in horses and by 17 was a cadet clerk working alongside her father at Ararat. “I went straight into clerking in year 10 and haven’t looked back since,” said Remi. It may not always be just horses in her future though, with other dreams on the horizon, too. “I completed VCE and may continue onto uni in the future. I’ve always wanted to be a school teacher and work with indigenous children.”

For now though, the Gray family trio live and breathe horses and racing, clerking in the Wimmera area. They own 20 horses, 12 of which are thoroughbreds and eight stock horses, using them for work, polocrosse and allrounders.

Breaking and re-training horses is a skill that comes naturally. “It’s in our blood,” said Remi. “Dad has taught me everything I know and it is now being passed onto Bede. I broke in my first two racehorses a few years ago; Little Robyn and Sold Tha Car. Both are racing now and being trained by Paul Preusker.” Remi and Bede also re-train Off The Track (OTT) thoroughbreds to play polocrosse, and currently have five playing and getting prepared to play the game.

The strong family bond and respect for each other makes working as a team easy. “We get along pretty well at work. We all know where we stand and we all know each one of us is capable of doing our job well. We will always have each other’s back,” said Remi.

A typical day for the Grays starts early, and runs like clockwork. “We’re up early to wash the horses and get them prepared for work. We pack the car and make sure all our gear is clean and in good working order. We get ourselves ready then off to work we go. We arrive an hour-and-a-half before the first race, saddle up the horses, check in with the stewards, mark down any leads and cross off any scratchings. We get on the horses 20 minutes before each race and start letting strappers and trainers know that it’s almost time to parade. We send horses up into the mounting yard 15 minutes before the race so they can parade. We always keep an eye on the horses’ behaviour in case one misbehaves and a jockey needs our help unexpectedly. Throughout the day we lead any horses that need to be led. Sometimes jockeys need help pulling a horse up after a race and occasionally a horse will get loose and we catch them. The last race comes around, we unsaddle and take the horses home. We come home and feed all the other horses and get prepared to do it all over again.”

Their love and respect for the horse is a huge driver for Remi and her family. “Our horses work hard for us, but get rewarded and that’s why they love their role. I love their power, presence and the trust they have in us. They have such a forgiving nature, and always know when you are having a bad day. Then they either push your buttons or try their hardest to do their best. All the best horses have their own quirks but that’s what we love most about them.”

It takes a special horse to do the role of clerk horse, and the Grays prefer OTT thoroughbreds, as they are used to the raceday atmosphere. “Thoroughbreds have enough speed to catch loose horses and are already adapted to the race day atmosphere,” said Remi. “We are currently using five OTT thoroughbreds as clerk of the course horses, ranging from four to 24 years of age. One of my horses, The Freak (Freaky) had some problems during racing. He always wanted a mate and would misbehave if he didn’t get led to the barriers. He was easy to re-train [to be a clerk-of-the-course horse] and was working at the races only a month after his last race start. Now he is more than happy to do anything we ask of him, from going to pony club or working at country cup meetings. He is just happy to be out and about. He loves having a mate so leading horses is something he loves to do,” said Remi.

“All of our work horses enjoy going to the races for a day out. They each have their own quirky personalities but love their role, and also love nothing more than pats and snacks from the general public.”

You do get out what you put in though, and Remi believes treating horses with utmost love is the key. “If you love and respect them they put in 100% and always give their best. But they also need to know who is boss.”

As well as healthy respect for the animal, a good clerk must also have good instincts and skills. “You need to be able to read stock and to try and predict what is going to happen before it happens. You must be a good rider, and able to control both your own horse and the horse you are leading. You also need to be able to stay calm in stressful situations. If something goes wrong like a horse gets loose, you need to make a split-second decision how to capture the horse in the safest way possible.”

This quick thinking also means that there is never time for nerves to set in, something Remi doesn’t ever worry about.

The clerks must have a good rapport with trainers and jockeys, also. This is a part of the job that Remi and Bede really enjoy. “Part of the reason Bede and myself love clerking is because of the relationship we have with trainers and jockeys, as well as the horses,” she said. Horses may need a heavy rein at times, but jockeys also need a helping hand, especially if they are physically exhausted after a race.

With her goals for the immediate future to simply keep working alongside her father and brother and to continue to look after jockeys and horses, it seems the Gray family will carry on their family’s legacy of racing involvement. Looking up to and learning from their dad will always be the way that she and Bede work, says Remi, praising Peter for his skills with horses. He may not be as useful in other areas, though. “If anything goes wrong with a horse we go straight to dad. But if something goes wrong with our car, we don’t go to dad,” Remi says with a smile.