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Published: June 2017.
Gary Portelli thanks his lucky stars for the “sliding door moments”, which have helped smooth his path from leading show rider to successful trainer. He believes this luck also played a big part in winning the 2017 Golden Slipper with She Will Reign.
DURING most of his life trainer Gary Portelli has been cultivating and refining his expertise as a horseman and along the way a number of times, what he describes as “sliding doors”, have opened for him. These have served to shape his career from his earliest days as a show rider, through the beginnings of his training career in Orange, to his transfer to Warwick Farm about 25 years ago.
“I believe that a lot of things have happened in my life that have been similar to a sliding door situation,” Gary said. “When I look back, my life could have been much different, but for going through a certain door at a certain time and happily it has all worked out pretty much for the best.”
As the sliding doors have opened, Gary has negotiated his way from landing plunges on country tracks through a period as a struggling city trainer to Gr.1 success. Further Gr.1 victories have taken him to Royal Ascot, Singapore’s Kranji and Hong Kong’s Sha Tin.
His stable also began this year in brilliant fashion when Testashadow, ridden by Deanne Panya, edged home in the $1m Magic Millions Cup-RL on the way to achieving his ultimate objective of winning the $3.5m ATC Golden Slipper Stakes-Gr.1 with She Will Reign nine weeks later. Yet Gary says he was “not fazed” when Darby Racing’s $20,000 purchase crossed the line to the joy of a host of owners.
“My wife Kellie and the 150 people involved in the She Will Reign syndicate went ballistic, but I just took it all in. Winning a Golden Slipper was what I always wanted to do and I remember just tapping the winner’s stall where I had been standing to watch the race. I’d gone to Rosehill knowing the Golden Slipper was mine to lose and as far as I was concerned it was job done, so mostly it gave me a feeling of relief.
“In fact winning turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax because I thought if I ever won a Slipper I’d be euphoric, but I was chilled. It was a weird feeling. It still is and I can’t explain why. I love training the babies and, for some reason, even in my very early days as a trainer I thought I would win a Golden Slipper and now that I’ve done it once I’d like to do it again, and again.”
Although he did not realize at the time, Gary began putting down the foundations for his career as a trainer when a boy living at Oakville, which is in the Hawkesbury district about 50km west of Sydney. His mother Morveen, whose father Jack Carroll had been a jockey, was “into the show scene” and she and his father Joe, had Arabs while they were at Oakville.
“I learned to ride around the paddocks and later I had instruction from a guy called Jack O’Brien, who realised I had potential,” he said. Even before he was in his teens Gary had become a leading rider for his age group at the Sydney Royal Show.
“I was champion boy rider at quite a lot of shows from the age of nine to around 16 and from memory I was unbeaten for four years in a row. Even though my grandfather told me a lot of stories, including some about Phar Lap, from his days as a jockey I wasn’t that interested in racing. I thought my future was going to be in the equestrian world, that I would set up a big arena, teach kids to ride and what have you.”
That view started to change, however, when his father and mother bought a property at Orange around 250km west of Sydney in the central west region of NSW. At that stage Gary had left high school with the idea of establishing a teaching academy for budding equestrians but soon found that plan was not a viable proposition.
“Most of the kids in the area didn’t have to be taught to ride because they already knew how to ride. Besides, they weren’t interested in being taught to ride properly so I was in a bit of a pickle because I didn’t really know where I was going in life.”
As a result he spent the first year at Orange helping on the farm before being employed as a cleaner on the night shift at the local abattoirs. Then one day, in 1985 a sliding door opened for him.
“I was trying to educate a former racehorse named New Jade to become a relaxed show horse but all he would do was pull and reef, giving me a real lot of trouble. I was only about 65kg in those days and later on the locals would refer to me as the two-storey jockey, because I was so tall and skinny.
“Anyway one day we were out in a paddock with plenty of room so I decided to pull my stirrups up a bit on the show saddle and let him go. I had ridden horses pretty well every day of my life but I had never felt anything like the rush when I let him go, it was an awesome feeling. He frightened me he went that fast and the power underneath me was amazing.
“It was at that point I decided to dabble in racing and training. Because I was too young Mum took out a licence and we began working closely together with the horses.”
Another sliding door had opened when, through the show scene, Gary met David Player, who owned Roberts Bakery in Orange and was also a “very good” professional punter. “Dave offered me a job on the night shift at the bakery, which meant starting at nine o’clock,” he said. “At that stage we’d built a team of about six or eight horses and Mum would load them on the truck of a morning to go to the track.
“I’d knock off about five o’clock, go to the track, ride our horses and about half-a-dozen others, go home where we were doing some breaking-in and be in bed by about two o’clock in the afternoon. That was my life for quite a while.”
As the 1992-93 season was unfolding he was able to secure his own licence. By then he had come across a horse by Gaston named Talgar (SU), who had originally been brought from Russia to make an attempt on the Melbourne Cup. That did not eventuate but Talgar, with Graham Power aboard, notched Gary’s first official win as a trainer when he scored over 1600m at Wagga on October 17, 1992.
“Through David Player’s influence I had learned how to set horses, to have them right on the day and how to pull off plunges, because it was all about betting in those days with not much prize money around.”
This proved valuable when after winning six races in succession Castle Regent, by Northern Regent (CAN), was being weighted beyond his best. “We devised a plan to get him down in the handicaps by putting him in races he couldn’t win. Once we did that we set him for a sprint at Cowra on Cup day and we backed him from 12/1 to 5/1. Castle Regent jumped to the front and was four lengths clear at the furlong when Ice Cream Sundae, carrying Mike Willesee’s Transmedia colours, came out of the pack but fortunately he held on. It was a huge result and we really celebrated.”
Another winner Gary recalls from those early days was It’s A Gift, by A Gift (USA). “She was a three year-old filly when I took her down to Sydney for a race at Canterbury. We got 125/1 about It’s A Gift and she won by five lengths, giving Chris Munce his first win in Sydney. I still tell Chris I gave him his start as a jockey.”
Despite the successes he was enjoying Gary was still working the night shift at the bakery and began to feel he needed to make a move. “I told Mum and Dad how I felt and you wouldn’t believe it but the same afternoon we saw John Poletti’s advert in the race calendar saying his stables at Warwick Farm were for lease,” he said. “They are the stables I am still in now and there is a massive seven bedroom home on the place.
“After we spoke John said he would help me secure a licence in Sydney, which was another sliding door opening. It was a time when older people were given preference over younger ones, but after a meeting with chief steward John Schreck and the AJC I was granted a licence. I was 25 and I think at that stage I was the youngest person to ever be granted a licence by the AJC.”
Securing a better quality of horse was difficult and although Gary managed to bring off a couple of plunges he was having trouble covering his costs. “Fortunately Steve Engelbrecht, who was flying, heard I was in trouble and gave me half-a-dozen horses to pre-train. The money I received from that, plus an overdraft, enabled me to pay for feed, shavings and the other things I needed.
“I also realised I had to have my own horses so I went out and bought some cheap ones.” Among them was Venticello, who was by Chimes Square from the Zephyr Zing (NZ) mare Magic Zephyr.
“She was a very good filly for me and with her owners supporting me I started getting more winners and it just grew from there. I gradually filled all the 20 boxes we had and I couldn’t take any more of Steve’s horses but I couldn’t have continued training if he hadn’t supported me. So there was another sliding door that opened.”
Not long afterwards Gary’s brother Troy, who had been to university and secured a degree in music, returned to Sydney after travelling the world and decided to become involved. “We kept building up and two years in a row we finished fourth behind Gai (Waterhouse), John Hawkes and Rogey (Graeme Rogerson) on the trainers’ premiership,” he said. “We were pretty big by then and when Troy’s wife Sarah, who is a lawyer, got a good job in Melbourne we decided to establish a stable at Flemington.”
In those early years another sliding door had opened when he met Magic Millions chief executive Vin Cox, who was then with Inglis.
“With Vin being from Mudgee and my being from Orange I thought we had something in common so I went up and introduced myself to him at a sale,” Gary said. “We got on well and I picked up a lot from him. He was quite instrumental in getting my career going.”
Among the prospects Vin steered Gary into was a filly by Kaaptive Edition from the Pampapaul (IRE) mare Myra’s Best, who was bought for just $2400 and raced as Forest Express. She soon proved herself a high-class two year-old by finishing second in the STC Magic Night-Gr.2 and Sweet Embrace-Gr.3 before being transferred to Flemington for the spring when her efforts featured a second to My Sienna in the VRC Wakeful Stakes-Gr.2.
In the autumn of 2000 Forest Express registered the stable’s first stakes victory by capturing the VRC The Vanity-Gr.3 when ridden by Shane Dye.
“Unfortunately Flemington didn’t quite work out for us because, being Sydney-based, we found it a problem attracting Melbourne owners. We had some other highs, especially with Marwin Gold, and of course there were lows. We probably stuck at it for 10 years but in the end we found it unsustainable.”
It was in Melbourne during the autumn carnival in 2002 that Gary met Kellie, who was riding track work at Flemington and now handles the administration for Portelli Racing. “Although there are a few years between us in age, when you know, you know,” Gary said. “I asked Kellie to go to Brisbane to ride track work during the winter carnival up there and we haven’t been apart ever since.”
They were married in 2007 and now have a five-year-old son Harper, who began his schooling this year. In March 2001 another Group win had been registered when Jim Cassidy steered Coral Salute (NZ), by Woodman (USA), to his win in the ACT JC Black Opal Stakes-Gr.3. It was an event Gary was to win with Down The Wicket, by Over, in 2006 and Delago Bolt, by Delago Brom, in 2009.
A matter of weeks after Coral Salute’s victory another feature race was added to the CV when Perfect Crime won the AJC $1m Inglis Heroic Two Year-Old Championship at Randwick. With direction from Vin the youngster by Marauding (NZ) from the Whiskey Road (USA) mare Perfect Draw had been knocked down to Gary at the Melbourne Premier Yearling Sale for $28,000. Along with other classy performances Perfect Crime earned nearly $700,000 in prize money.
However, a Gr.1 success eluded Gary until Rena’s Lady came along. A winner at two, the daughter of Arena, from the Rivotious (USA) mare Boisterous Lady, won the Adrian Knox Stakes-Gr.3 (2000m) at 20/1 on a heavy track on April 7, 2007. Then four days later, with Michael Rodd again in the saddle and again at 20/1, she again ploughed through the mud to take the AJC Oaks-Gr.1 (2400m).
“I had been earning my stripes the hard way, progressing from midweeks to Saturdays, to Listed and Group races when she came along,” Gary said of Rena’s Lady. “She would be the horse you would least expect to win a Gr.1 with. I thought she was a mid-weeker and even now I think winning the Oaks with her has been the best training performance of my career, by having things just right on the day.”
Towards the end of 2007 another sliding door opened when, with Gold Coast trainer Bruce Wallace sidelined, Glen and Lisa Morton, who were to become Harper’s godparents, decided to send Gold Trail to Gary. After a series of black type victories, including the ATC The Shorts-Gr.2 in October 2009, Gold Trail put another Gr.1 on the scoreboard by winning the Railway Handicap (1200m) at Ellerslie.
“I told Michael Rodd to kick him away between the half-mile and the home turn, which he did and although he was walking at the finish he managed to just hold on to beat Hugh Bowman’s mount. That resulted in us being invited to run in the Kris Flyer Sprint at Singapore where he ran a really good fourth.
“After that we were invited to Royal Ascot for the King’s Stand and although it was an expensive exercise we decided to go. There was a whole group of us. Mum and Dad, the Mortons and a lot of friends. It was a great trip but unfortunately Gold Trail slipped at the start and pulled a muscle in his hind quarter.”
A couple of years later Rebel Dane, by California Dane from More Than Ready (USA) mare Texarcana, who Gary had trained, entered the stables. Racing in the colours of Louis Mihalyka’s Laurel Oak Bloodstock, he established his Gr.1 potential with wins at his first four starts, culminating in the ATC Royal Sovereign Stakes-Gr.2. In September 2013 he earned his stripes at the elite level in the MRC Sir Rupert Clarke Stakes-Gr.1 (1400m).
Subsequently Rebel Dane suffered a throat problem but he was later still able to demonstrate his brilliance and resilience by snatching victory in the MVRC Manikato Stakes-Gr.1 (1200m) at Moonee Valley in October of last year. Gary believes there was “another sliding doors moment” when, because of a misunderstanding before the Manikato, Jason Collett was unable to take the ride, which subsequently went to Ben Melham.
“I asked Jason’s manager Brian Haskins to organize a jockey when Jason wasn’t available and he booked Ben,” Gary said. “I hadn’t seen Ben, didn’t know what he looked like and hadn’t watched him ride, but he rode Rebel Dane an absolute treat and got the money.”
Because of another sliding doors moment when Mitchell Bell was not available to ride in trials at Rosehill, Ben rode Rebel Dane, who was then being prepared for the Hong Kong Sprint-Gr.1, and four other Portelli horses including She Will Reign. After She Will Reign won her trial by nine lengths Ben was locked in for the mount on the filly, who is by Manhattan Rain from the Charge Forward mare Courgette. However, he found himself in Hong Kong with Rebel Dane when the filly bolted in at her debut at Kembla Grange on December 10 with Deanne Panya, riding.
Ben had the mount the following Saturday when she won the ATC $500,000 Inglis Nursery-RL (1000m), as well as in the Silver Slipper Stakes-Gr.2 and Reisling Slipper-Gr.2, when she finished second to Frolic. And, as far as Gary is concerned, there was another “sliding doors experience” when Ben brought She Will Reign through along the rails from last to first to earn more than $2m in the Golden Slipper.
“At one point she squeezed inside my other horse Single Bullet and if he’d rolled in she would have been stopped in her tracks,” he said. “Thankfully that didn’t happen and now that’s she had a spell we are aiming her for the Moir Stakes at Moonee Valley and then the $10m Everest at Randwick in October.” n