Beating sexism and scandal: the Gai Waterhouse story

For the past two decades, Gai Waterhouse has blazed a trail for women in racing.

Horse racing is a glamorous industry where hyperbole abounds but there’s no doubt Gai Waterhouse is a true icon of the sport.

When it comes to horse racing in Australia, they don’t come much more colourful and charismatic than Gai Waterhouse and her late father TJ Smith. The legendary TJ may have been small in stature but he was a giant of the sport and a hard act to follow.

His daughter, after working as an actor in the late 1970s – she appeared on Doctor Who and The Young Doctors – spent 12 years learning the ropes from her father. Yet when she applied for her own trainer’s licence in 1989, she was knocked back by the Australian Jockey Club [AJC] because her husband, Robbie, had been involved in the 1984 Fine Cotton horse substitution scandal. 

With typical tenacity, she took the fight to the Equal Opportunities Tribunal and won, gaining her licence in 1992 and taking over TJ’s Tulloch Lodge stables in 1994. 

For the past two decades, Waterhouse has blazed a trail for women in racing and built a business empire the envy of many. She has amassed more than 120 Group One victories, including the 2013 Melbourne Cup with Fiorente. 

Last year, she sold Tulloch Lodge to Asian interests because she’d come to a stage in her life where she was happy to work for someone else, as she told CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley, in an interview for INTHEBLACK and TV program In Conversation with Alex Malley.

Alex Malley: Gabriel Marie Waterhouse, thank you for the invite to Tulloch Lodge.

Gai Waterhouse: Very nice to have you here, Alex. As my mother said when I was born Gabriel Marie Smith in those days, “Too big a name for too small a baby”.

Malley: You would’ve been a very special child, the only child of TJ and Val.

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Waterhouse: Yes they call only children special children. They sent us into space. Most of the astronauts are only children. You grow up in an environment of very much intimacy, very much treated as an adult from the time you’re born … there’s a hugely strong bond between yourself and your parents.

Malley: We all talk about dad’s impact but how do you reflect now on mum and her contribution to your life?

Waterhouse: I’m a mixture of both my parents but mum gave me great style, she gave me great dress sense. She gave me an understanding of being correctly mannered … and the timing one needs in anything you do in business or life.

Malley: Your racing apprenticeship with your dad was a long one, 15 years on and off. You must have picked up some extraordinary fundamentals that have carried you right through in running a business? 

Waterhouse: I didn’t pick up, I learned. My father was a very good tutor, an extremely good trainer, not only of horses, but of people. He was a very strict disciplinarian but I don’t mean that he didn’t have joie de vivre. He had an amazing twinkle in his eye … he had terrific charisma … I adored being with my father. People were drawn to him because he was such a dynamic person. 

He had an amazing mind, retentive memory, a very intelligent person, not at all educated, he educated himself. He was nice to be around but he was very exacting. If I got things wrong he would tell me in no uncertain terms.

Fighting the gender fight

Malley: The time came for you to apply for a trainer’s licence. You fought a battle for about three years, battling discrimination. Tell me how you felt working through that?

Waterhouse: It was very difficult because no one thought about anti-discrimination. I went for my licence after asking the powers that be at the Australian Jockey Club if I would have a problem and they said, “Not at all, go for it. You’ll have it the next day”. Well it didn’t happen like that. [AJC rules at the time held that the spouse of a person banned from the racetrack, as her husband Rob Waterhouse had been, could not be licensed as a trainer.]

I went first for anti-discrimination and I lost the case. Rob said, “Look, you believe in this”, so we went again and we won. I was about to go on to the High Court. 

"The most successful horses I know have got balance; the most successful people have got balance."

Malley: This was a real challenge … there were a lot of battles within this that people were watching.

Waterhouse: Very much so. They made it an Act of Parliament for women in the workforce to give us a fair go and not be seen as an appendage of your husband. Whatever might happen with your partner or husband, you are seen in your own right. 

Managing the stable

Malley: Now to the business side of racing. You have multiple stakeholders; I’ve heard you say you’ve got the owners, the staff, the horses. The rule, if you’re reading a business book, is “You never do business with people who become friends”. But it seems almost impossible when you’re managing owners that that doesn’t cross the line.

Waterhouse: Rob and I have very few friends and the ones we have are lifelong. I mainly concentrate on my family – my family are all-important to me. When I go home I want to be able to leave my workplace. I have many acquaintances in racing and I very much keep it as a business relationship. I think that’s the best way to be.

Malley: What’s your philosophy around dealing with staff?

Waterhouse: It’s pretty simple: My way or the highway. It’s a bit like stepping into a medieval fiefdom in a way, because you’re dealing with multicultural people, and different age groups. 

I mainly have young people working with me. I love their energy. You’ve got to have energy with this business, and I like to teach, so it’s my way of teaching people life skills through the horses – and we have a lot of fun.

Malley: Something that would fascinate people is to know what you are looking for when you’re making a decision to buy a horse. 

Waterhouse: I do my homework, with my feet and my eyes. I walk around all the studs, and go and see all the horses beforehand. I say I’m a bit like a cook or an artist: I’m creating something. 

Waterhouse celebrates yet another winnerI’ll see a horse and something chemical will happen. It might be something about the way it moves, carries itself, or its intelligence that just catches my attention. And I think, “That’s something I want to train, I want to be with that animal.” Others can clod out. 

It was the way they walked, the way they hit the ground. You don’t want a heavy horse, you want one that’s very light on its feet because it’s an athlete. It’s like a ballet dancer, that’s what you’re looking for. I can look at a horse and say, “That’s a good sort.” You don’t have to be told, mum and dad didn’t teach you; that’s something that comes from the gut.

Malley: In most businesses it becomes quite scientific, provable, verifiable … 

Waterhouse: Well most people in business can’t cope. And that’s one of the difficulties. You have this training in an age where everything is able to be Googled

I say a horse can’t read a book. The horse is a creature of flight … you have to be able to read them. When they come out in the morning I have to be able to use my eyes to see he’s changed slightly. Why? 

I have 150 horses in training, and they’re all trained very differently. When they start, it’s a bit like kindergarten, they all do the same thing. Then as they start to progress, I see that certain horses need certain types of training. Their feeds are tailored to them. 

It’s like being the headmistress of the boarding school. The most successful horses I know have got balance; the most successful people have got balance. Balance is the most important thing with a horse.

Winning the Melbourne Cup

Malley: Just before you won your Melbourne Cup [in 2013 with Fiorente], you spoke with such certainty about your horse. Literally two months later it happened as planned. What was the training regime leading up to the Cup?

Success at the famed Flemington carnival with jockey Stephen Baster and co-trainer Adrian Bott.Waterhouse: You’ve got to have the right horse for the race, and Fiorente was the right horse. The year before, he stepped out of quarantine on Melbourne Cup Day and ran second to Green Moon, and paid his purchase price in one go. 

He came back and won several stakes races, and group races at shorter distances. Then, boom, Melbourne Cup Day 2013 loomed. It’s so funny … that morning, everyone, especially in Melbourne, said, “It’s your Cup, Gai. It’s your Cup.” And I said to Rob that morning, “I don’t think I’m going to the races.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I don’t want to let them down if we don’t win.” He said, “Just go out and win the Cup.”

“Dad was a very strict disciplinarian and if I got things wrong he would tell me in no uncertain terms.”

Malley: Do you remember the emotion you felt when you won?

Waterhouse: Until you win the Melbourne Cup you cannot describe to people what a big event it is. It is recognised throughout the world, because the VRC [Victorian Racing Club] has done such a wonderful job of promoting it over the last 25 years. 

Everyone in your own country, everyone overseas knows you won it. You feel elated and you feel wonderful for the owners that you’ve given them the dream of a lifetime.

The business of racing

Malley: They talk about the Sport of Kings but how tough did it get for you and your dad from a business point of view?

Waterhouse: It got very tough. I didn’t want the public thinking in any way that dad wasn’t an honorable person and hadn’t tried very hard all his life to do the right thing by people. 

When dad was older, there were a lot of young trainers like Lee Freedman and his brothers who were the new guys on the block. People were defecting and going to all the different young trainers, and dad’s stable dwindled dramatically. 

Waterhouse with her legendary father and inspiration TJ Smith.I can remember bringing the horses from the back yard to the top yard on a Sunday, so that all the heads would be sticking out so everyone would think we had a full stable, when in reality we had a very small stable.

Malley: Your dad, if he’d seen everything that you’ve done to date, what would he be thinking?

Waterhouse: He’d be very pleased that I’d sold the business. He’d be very pleased that I had such a happy marriage and life. But he’d say, “Train more winners.”

Malley: How did that feel, selling the business? Was that a symbolic moment for you?

Waterhouse: Yes it was. I felt that I’d come to a stage in my life where I was happy to work for someone, and to be able to carry on the business. I’m much better working for people. Adrian Bott is a wonderful co-trainer, and an inspiration to work with. He’s intelligent and sensitive. He’s got balance, and he’s got enormous dedication and passion. 

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