Southern stalwart rewarded with Grand National victory

By Dennis Ryan

18 Aug 2022

Southern stalwart rewarded with Grand National victoryRon Williamson shares in Grand National celebrations with his wife Jennifer, daughter-in-law Gabby,

The southern jumps racing landscape may be something quite different from days gone by, but that didn’t lessen the delight of a stalwart of Mainland racing finally being rewarded with victory in the Grand National Steeplechase.
Every jumper competing at the Grand National carnival was trained north of Cook Strait, but at least one of those was still owned in the South Island. On the opening day the Mark Oulaghan-trained West Coast announced his arrival on the big stage with a comprehensive win in the Koral Steeplechase and a week later he lined up in the Racecourse Hotel & Motor Lodge Grand National Steeplechase as the $1.50 favourite with just four rivals standing in his way of the big double.
In the well-judged hands of Shaun Fannin, the free-going seven-year-old made no race of the 147th running of the Grand National with an even easier win than on the first day. For Oulaghan it was more of the same after six previous successes – two apiece to Dee Cee Seven, Counter Punch and Upper Cut – but for Fannin and West Coast’s owners, this was a first.
“I’m nearly 84 and you might say I’ve left my run a bit late to finally win a Grand National,” said Ron Williamson, who shares ownership with his wife Jennifer, son Henry and his wife Gabby, after he had arrived back at his Twizel home on Monday.
“It’s wonderful though, especially to share it with my wife and the next generation of the family.”
Stalwart seems hardly adequate in describing Williamson’s imprint on South Island racing. He’s lost count of the number of years he’s been directly involved with the historic Kurow Jockey Club; suffice to say he served nearly two decades as president and both he and his wife are life members.
Williamson would also have no idea – not that he would be counting – of how many horses he has raced, nor how many races throughout the region that he has sponsored. In 2009 his hand in racing was recognised when he received the NZTR Outstanding Contribution to Racing award.
Williamson’s time in racing dates back to holding an amateur licence, when his exploits included competing around what was then a far more daunting Riccarton steeplechase course. He had immense success on the showjumping circuit and was a reserve for the 1964 Olympic Games showjumping squad, however an accident that left him with crippling injuries brought an early end to his riding pursuits.
He and a showjumping mate, Hawke’s Bay identity John Frizzell, have a special bond based around their physical challenges and they’ve raced horses together, most notably the 2009 Awapuni Hurdle winner Birchwood Run. Frizzell has been enjoying his own golden run lately as a part-owner of the outstanding jumper The Cossack, while he can also take the credit for breeding, in partnership with his late wife Jan, last month’s Wellington Steeplechase winner Tittletattle, who finished third to West Coast last weekend.
Other horses Williamson has raced include Boroma, who won two Otago Steeplechases for the trainer-jockey combination of Brian and Shane Anderton. The closest he had been to a previous Grand National winner was the versatile galloper Ocean Guard, who was raced by his brother-in-law Henry Ruddenklau, after whom Henry Williamson is named.
The Rex Cochrane-trained gelding won 23 of his 90 starts – 11 on the flat, eight over hurdles and four steeplechases. His most notable success came in the 1988 Grand National Hurdles.
Williamson has supported Oulaghan in the past and, realising that he was the obvious option given the paucity of South Island jumps opportunities, he tasked the Awapuni trainer with finding a likely sort. West Coast was bred by Letham Stud owners Nigel and Adaire Auret – by their New Zealand Derby placegetter Mettre En Jeu – and was initially trained by their son Hamish.
He changed hands as a non-winner two years ago and after a number of flat and hurdle placings, he has found his forte over country. He followed a maiden win with an unlucky third in last month’s Hawke’s Bay Steeplechase when badly hampered by a riderless horse, but even though Oulaghan acknowledged the Williamsons’ desire to target the Grand National carnival, he was no certainty to make the trip south.
“When he got tangled up with that other horse at Hastings, he banged a knee and got a nasty cut to a coronet,” Oulaghan explained. “It was six weeks to Riccarton and that gave us time to get on top of his injuries, but his preparation wasn’t helped by all the raceday cancellations we got hit with.
“Going into the Koral I wasn’t sure about his fitness levels, but I shouldn’t have worried, he’s such a clean-winded horse with no end of stamina. He won with something in hand and pulled up well, so it was just a matter of ticking him ahead of the Grand National.
“It was very satisfying to win the race; Ron and his family are lovely people and he’s such a stalwart of racing down south, so I knew just how much a Grand National win would mean to them.”