Racing’s oldest pin-up boy loving his Gold Watch life

By Dennis Ryan

24 Dec 2021

Racing’s oldest pin-up boy loving his Gold Watch lifeCliff Goss casts his eye over Gold Watch after Chelsea Wilson had put the big chestnut through his p

“Anyone can train a good horse; after that it’s common sense.”
Cliff Goss nods philosophically as he reflects on his life over the past 12 months as racing’s oldest pin-up boy.
Along with his exciting galloper Gold Watch, the 90-year-old horseman has become something of a media star across television, radio, print and digital platforms.
“You sit at home doing nothing and you perish,” Goss said when RaceForm spent time with him at Tauranga racecourse last Saturday morning. “This horse gets me out doing something I’ve always enjoyed.”
“Always” in Goss terms spans something like 75 years, from the time he was an apprentice in Foxton with legendary horseman Eric Ropiha. By his own admission he was no great shakes as a jockey, but his true talents quickly emerged. After gaining his owner-trainer’s licence as a 21-year-old, his first horse won nine races.
He’s had numerous other smart performers in a training career that has taken him as far as Macau, but as the winner of his last six starts, Gold Watch is doing his best to trump them all. After being bought for $15,000 out of a Trelawney Stud stores’ paddock from daughter Cherry and son-in-law Brent Taylor, the giant chestnut’s career got off to a scratchy start, but time was always going to be his friend.
“He finished tailed off in his first start and we found he had some high ligament issues that stopped him stretching out,” says Goss, who races the Swiss Ace gelding with long-time Palmerston North mate Darryl Heaphy. “I knew he was better than that and once the vets got onto the problem they were able to treat it and he eventually came right.”
Beginning with a fresh-up maiden win on his home track in October last year, Gold Watch has raised the bar every time. His most recent start at Te Aroha a month ago was his first in open company, and come New Year’s Day, the anniversary of his third win, he will return to Ellerslie for the step up to the big time in the Gr. 2 Rich Hill Mile.
“Anyone can train a good horse; after that it’s common sense,” says Goss. “What makes the difference is how you place them.
“I’ve had to be patient with this bloke – look at him, he’s a touch over 17 hands and it’s taken till he’s a five-year-old to finally grow into himself.”
Goss accepts there’s a limit to how hands-on he can be with his sometimes cantankerous monster. He’s grateful that fellow Tauranga racecourse-based trainers Jim Pender and Brian McKeagg are able to lend a hand when needed.
“It might be because they say I make them feel young – they’re both coming up only 70,” Goss chuckles. “They’re great though, Brian and his wife Joanne are there to help me saddle him up, which is just as well because he’ll grab you if he gets the chance when you’re girthing him up.
“He can be a bugger like that, but once he’s done his work he’s like a lamb. I guess he just wants to get onto the track and let out some of his energy.
“Jim is the driver when we go racing, he’s happy to take me wherever the races are, then get us home safe. They’re all good mates to have onside.”
The other crucial ally is trackwork rider Chelsea Wilson, who admits she can feel like just a passenger when the big boy stretches out. Her instructions on Saturday morning were to let Gold Watch stride over 1200 metres on the inside grass and bring him in at around 35 seconds for the final 600. Watching with Goss from the grandstand, it’s easy to understand just how deceptive the long-strider can be.
“You were only about a second out,” Goss informed Wilson with a grin. “I made him a tick under 34 for his last 600, but not to worry, he needed a decent hitout.”
Happy that big-money overtures from Hong Kong came to nothing earlier this year, Goss’s life revolves around Gold Watch. The nonagenarian’s retirement village is a “six or seven-minute” drive from the racecourse and his daily routine begins shortly after dawn.
“He knows when I arrive, I can hear him calling out as soon as I get out of the car. He gets his first feed once he’s worked and hosed down. It’s always reassuring to see a horse with its head in the feed bin after a gallop – that tells you he’s happy.
“He takes a bit of filling up. He gets four feeds a day – another one before I head home after trackwork, once he’s had his afternoon strop he’ll have a bran and molasses mash, then his main night feed when I pop back after having my own dinner.”
Goss resisted the temptation to enter Gold Watch in the Gr. 1 Thorndon Mile at Trentham in late January, preferring to wait for the Gr. 2 Japan-NZ International Trophy on his home track in March, followed by the Gr. 2 Manco Easter ahead of an ambitious winter proposition.
“I’m thinking of handing him over to Tony Pike for the Queensland carnival,” Goss revealed. “That makes more sense than taking him myself; Tony does it every year and he’s got the right staff and systems in place.
“There are plenty of races to choose from over there, maybe he’s even a Stradbroke horse. It’s still one step at a time though, let’s get through summer first and then we’ll see.”