Oamaru’s Phil Williamson has had a long and successful career as a harness racing trainer which, along with the input of wife Bev, was recognised with an outstanding contribution award at the national harness racing awards recently. Oamaru Mailreporter Daniel Birchfieldspoke with Phil for Radio Waitaki’s Saturday sports show, which the former co-hosts.
Considering he did not grow up around the sport of racing, Phil Williamson has made a pretty good fist of his chosen career.
Originally from Kaka Point, south of Balclutha, Williamson had never given thought to a career in the racing industry until a fateful day in the 1970s that would prove to be a life-changing one.
“Mum and Dad had no racing interest whatsoever. My father was a carpenter by trade and my mum was a housewife and raised us nine children.
“One day, a bit of a fairytale thing happened. A friend called in to our home at Kaka Point and spied me as quite a small person and asked me what I was doing. I said ‘well, I’m supposed to go back to school on the Monday’ and he was at our place on the Saturday. He said ‘you’d make a jockey … Would you be interested?’ I looked at my mother and said ‘I’d be interested’ because going back to school didn’t seem too exciting to me. He got back to Phillip Beck in Riverton and said yes he’ll take me if I wanted to come. He picked me up the next day and off I went.”
Essentially, Williamson went from planning to go back to school one day to packing up to start a new career the next.
With about as limited riding experience as you could possibly get, Williamson had to start from scratch when it came to virtually everything about horses.
“I had to learn how to ride one,” he said.
“A friend had a pony I’d actually ridden a few times, so that’s all the horse experience I’d had … as time went by I progressed from going for a licence to an apprentice jockey.”
However, weight issues meant Williamson never really had the opportunity to hit his straps while in the saddle.
“I think I had about 16 rides … I managed to win my second-to-last one and I ran third in my last ride.”
It was at that point Williamson decided to leave Riverton for Invercargill, where he found employment at a wool scour.
During that time, he worked horses co-owned by one of his employers, John Matheson, and Jim McKenzie in the mornings before he started work.
After three years, he got an offer to get into harness racing.
“I went to Methven and worked for Alistair Kerslake,” Williamson said.
“From there I got a licence, but I never actually drove in a race from his stable. I was only there for about 12 months.”
He linked up with Dunedin-based trainer Ali Knox for a short time before a visitor to the Knox stable offered Williamson a job he could not refuse.
“Dick Prendergast passed by one day and he called in and asked if I was interested in a job. He was training in Oamaru and I went to work for him and I’ve been here ever since. He gave me my first drives, and away I went from there.”
Williamson drove “for a good 20 years” and had some good success along the way.
He said his most memorable moment was driving a group 1 winner at Addington in Christchurch, a horse he and wife Bev owned.
“That was a big buzz that night,” he said.
“Every time you win a race it’s a thrill. I think I’ve won about 330 or 340 races or something like that as a driver and every one of them was a thrill. Even today, I still drive on the odd occasion and it still gives you a buzz.”
He may have been a trainer for close to 25 years, but at one point in time that was not what the future held for Phil.
His decision to train fulltime was not one driven by the man himself.
“It was probably my wife who pushed me along that path. I was working nightshift at the Pukeuri freezing works for a good 20-odd years, I think I spent there, and just doing my driving on the weekends.”
In the early 1990s, Williamson was offered a horse to train. That horse, Role Model, would go on to win 17 races.
Williamson’s first win as a trainer came in 1993. After that, he never looked back.
“Once that started we decided maybe I should have a crack at it full-time. The family were just young at the time so it was a bit of a plunge into the training arena because it’s not always about the money you can make that’s for sure. The lifestyle was what we wanted … I love working with horses so we gave it a crack and I was able to be pretty successful at it.”
His training career started at an Ardgowan property owned by Bev’s father, before the couple established Williamson Racing at Totara, where there are about 30 horses in various stages of development.
They have been based there ever since and, over the years, have trained dozens of horses to hundreds of wins.
In fact, Phil’s 500th straight-out trotting win came in January – a first for New Zealand harness racing.
“It’s just a statistic, really,” he said of the milestone.
“I think what made it so special was it’s never been done before. I’m the first in New Zealand to ever train 500 trotting winners. That in itself was a big buzz because there’s an awful lot of good trainers out there.”
Some of his biggest wins as a trainer include the Dominion Handicap with Springbank Richard in 2009, the group 2 New Zealand Trotting Championship in 1996, two Rowe Cups in 2007 and 2009 with One Over Kenny, three Harness Jewels wins and the Australian Derby and Australian Trotters’ Grand Prix titles.
There have been plenty of others wins along the way, which Williamson said was all down to good old-fashioned graft.
“I think you’ve got to have a pretty good work ethic to be good at anything you do. It’s pretty hard for someone to break down when you’re talking about yourself … if you’re going to do something, I always like to think you try and do it well. And it doesn’t matter how small the task is, you like to try and do it well. I think if you keep doing everything you do well, you’ll obviously succeed. I think I’ve just been given that determination to try and succeed at whatever I was going to do and we’ve been able to achieve it through hard work I guess.
“You have to work smart as well and kind of have the ability to read horses as well. I figured out what was required pretty early and I was able to see what other people were doing and take some good from that. I’ve always had an open mind to try new things too. Don’t be too one-eyed about things – you’ve always got to look at how other people are doing things and if they have a better way to do it. Learn from it and be prepared to change too.
“There’s so many different elements now with training techniques and feeding .. there’s always things to be learned. If you want to keep going on the upwards spiral, you’ve got to keep learning.”
Oldest son Nathan, based in Invercargill, has proved to be an adept trainer himself and was only 25 when he broke the record for the highest number of season wins for a Southland trainer.
Phil hopes one day his other sons – top drivers Matthew and Brad – will one day take his place.
However, he reckons he is still a few years away from retirement.
“I’ve been asked that question a bit lately. I must be getting a bit older. I’m 62 now .. it’s just really about how passionate I am about the game. It hasn’t waned at the moment so I’ll just keep going and maybe as the boys get a bit older they’ll say ‘Father, it’s time you turned away and gave it to us. We’d like to take the training on’. That’ll definitely be something I’ll look at if they kind of show they’d like to take it on.
“But, I’d never give up entirely … if I could continue doing a few in 10 years’ time then I’d still like to be doing that if possible and continue right up until my time is up so to speak.”