Stephen Gray back where he belongs

By Dennis Ryan

22 May 2024

Stephen Gray back where he belongsStephen Gray with his wife Bridget and parents Kevin and Kathleen

It’s been a tough road for Stephen Gray over recent times as Singapore racing has gone from racing powerhouse to closure in October, but now he’s back home and ready for the next chapter in his training career.
Gray and his wife Bridget made Singapore their home in 2000, when he was licensed by the Malayan Racing Association and took occupancy of the last available stable block at the new Kranji racing and training complex. Much has happened in the subsequent quarter-century: their children James (now 22) and Katie (20) were born and raised there, and Gray trained 825 winners to go with more than 400 in partnership with his father Kevin over the previous decade.
His Singapore tally covered most of the majors on the calendar including the Singapore Derby, Singapore Gold Cup, Queen Elizabeth ll Cup, Lion City Cup, Stewards Cup and Kranji Sprint. But now racing on the island nation is a poor shadow of its halcyon days, much of it due to the Covid pandemic but also the victim of inconsiderate government decisions.
Last June Gray and all other STC licence-holders were blind-sided when summoned to a meeting and bluntly told that racing would cease in 16 months’ time. The reason given for the shock decision was that the 120-hectare Kranji racing and training facility, operated under lease arrangement from the government, was required for housing and community recreation.
In a sad irony, the October 5 finale would be headlined by the 100th running of the Singapore Gold Cup, bringing to an end 180 years of racing in the south-east Asian enclave.
“I had 60 in work when Covid hit, Singapore racing was thriving, but that all came crashing down,” Gray said when talking to RaceForm. “The worst part was that the officials hadn’t developed the ability for betting offshore, and by the time we were back racing, horse numbers had dropped from 1400 to 800 or 900.
“The club was in major debt, most of our feature racing had gone and racedays cut back from two per week to just one. But they had brought in some experienced administrators and told us they were committed to getting things back to something like they had been.
“It was a big boost for everyone to hear that and we went ahead buying more horses and looking with optimism to the future. Something like 140 two-year-olds were bought that year, then to be called to that meeting last June and be told that it was all over – no-one saw that coming, it was a real kick in the guts.”
Despite an initial pledge by the STC to “work with the government to ensure a well-managed exit for local horse racing”, uncertainty and anguish only increased as participants struggled to come to terms with the decision and just how it would play out.
That came to a head in early April at a meeting convened between trainers and government officials in the hope of formalising promised compensation for trainers, staff and owners, as well as assurances around horse welfare.
“About 20 trainers went into the meeting with the government minister and her officials, hoping to get some certainty about how things would play out, but it was a complete waste of time,” Gray said. “Trainers tried to get their point across and it was getting very emotional, most of them were in tears. Then it was my turn to speak and it was just too hard.
“I walked out of the meeting, went home and I had a full-blown meltdown. I said to Bridget I just can’t do this any more, it was mentally crippling, we had to get out.”
Sealing that decision, the next day Gray wrote to officials, giving formal notice that he would be relinquishing his licence to train in Singapore and vacating his stables by the end of April. His next task was notifying his staff and owners – which included members of both groups who had been with him virtually from the start – and doing what he could to find homes for his remaining horses.
“It’s such a pity when you think back to how good Singapore was, that feeling of pride that you were doing well in what I rate an even tougher environment than Hong Kong with having to run the business side of things as well,” said Gray, who at age 59 was the last trainer remaining from the original 2000 draft.
“We’ve got no regrets about the years we spent up there – most were fantastic, we trained a lot of winners for good people, we took horses to Hong Kong and Royal Ascot. I just wish it could have ended better, that’s all.”
Stephen and Bridget Gray arrived back in New Zealand last week, having decided their preferred destination was the familiar environment of the Manawatu, where both sets of parents still live. Having bought a new home in the countryside between Palmerston North and Feilding, they were busy organising their new lives centred nearby at Copper Belt Lodge, where Stephen’s parents Kevin and Kathleen have lived since 2006.
“Given how rough the past few years have been and the way it all ended, we just felt the best thing was to get home where we would be surrounded by family and friends,” says Gray. “The one thing we’ve learnt is the importance of your mental health, so we’re home now and looking forward to settling back into the New Zealand way of life and seeing what the future holds.”
Central to that future is Gray resuming his training career. In that respect he has the advantage of operating on a fully-appointed property that has enabled his father to take his career tally past 1,000 wins during a period that has produced numerous major winners headed by the Group One-winning trio of Daffodil, Legs and Porotene Gem.
“Dad is in his mid-80s now and while he and Mum are still in good health and remain very active, this will be the chance for them to take things a bit easier. I’m looking forward to another challenge and feeling optimistic about the future for racing in New Zealand, especially with the Entain deal that has done so much for stakes and various other initiatives.
“Racing in the central districts has plenty of positives, the Awapuni course proper renovation alongside the synthetic track there should provide plenty of opportunities. Since it became obvious Singapore was all over we considered our options back here and in Australia, but I’m satisfied we’ve made the right decision.
“I don’t believe you have to be based up north to succeed as a trainer in New Zealand, and as we’ve seen time and again, Australia is very accessible if you’ve got the right horse.”
One of the relationships that Gray struck up in Singapore was with businessman John Chew, who has flagged his intentions to compete in New Zealand and Australian racing with multiple purchases at sales in both countries over the past year. Anyone who hadn’t already heard of Chew and ToKing Racing took note in February when he bid $725,000 for the first slot auctioned ahead of the inaugural $3.5 million NZB Kiwi scheduled for Ellerslie next March.
“John asked me and New South Wales agent Peter Twomey, who has also spent time in Singapore, to source likely types for racing in both countries and we’ve managed to pull together a lovely line of young horses,” Gray said.
“Time will tell if we’ll have the right horse for the first running of the NZB Kiwi, but the intention is certainly to give ourselves the chance next year and beyond.”
Further evidence that Gray is bringing more than just memories back from Singapore is the handful of horses as well as some staff, subject to immigration protocols, that will be part of the relocation. Among the horses are his 2021 Singapore Derby and Queen Elizabeth ll Cup winner Hard Too Think, and Silent Is Gold, the winner of two of his last five starts and most recently sixth to the New Zealand-bred star Lim’s Kosciuszko in the Kranji Stakes in late March.
“They’re proven horses that I believe are worth being given the chance in New Zealand, plus a couple of unraced horses that I rate. We’re also doing the paperwork for a handful of our Singapore employees, one of them a stable supervisor, also a work rider and another who I hope to sign up for an apprenticeship.”
Within the Gray family are two who have inherited a passion for racing, next generation members James and Katie, who are currently undergoing tertiary studies.
“They’ve both got involved over the past couple of years with bid-spotting at Karaka and have a genuine interest in racing,” says their father. “James is at the University of Victoria studying international business and film, Katie’s doing law in Melbourne and she’s also been working part-time for the VRC, to begin with on membership and now with owners on raceday.”
While he has one eye on those closest, Gray also points to the wealth of opportunity available in the modern-day racing industry and what that means.
“Where racing in this country now finds itself, it’s a massive chance to future-proof the industry. New Zealand has to set itself up for the years ahead, make the most of what’s being put in front of us and ensuring its viability for the next generation.
“Singapore was our big hit at racing, but now we’re back in New Zealand wanting to give it another shot.”