What was supposed to be a two-week trip to North Otago for Rory McIlwrick has extended to eight months – and it is not looking to be over any time soon.
The Canterbury-born harness racing driver moved to Oamaru to give Phil Williamson a hand at his North Otago stable in March, while he was temporarily down to two staff members earlier this year. Phil’s son, Matthew Williamson, was going to Sweden for the world driving championships, and Matthew’s partner, Charlotte Purvis, was expecting their first child.
McIlwrick, a junior driver premiership winner, had previously worked for Phil’s oldest son, Nathan Williamson, in Southland, and jumped at the opportunity after returning to New Zealand following an overseas trip.
“The Williamsons have been a big part of my career,” McIlwrick said. “It was meant to be a wee short stint, but we’ve made it a long one.”
The harness racing fraternity in New Zealand is very family-oriented, so McIlwrick is a bit of an anomaly, not coming from a racing family.
When he was 14, he phoned leading trainer Mark Purdon and asked for a job, and six months later started working at his stables before school.
“It was just fortunate I went to Mark. It was a good place to get the grounding and get the base knowledge.
“It was a great place to start, but travelling and getting further afield was probably the best chance of getting opportunities, so that’s what I did.
“It is hard to break in and a lot of people find it tough who don’t have family and I’ve probably been quite fortunate.”
Of his 133 career wins as a driver, McIlwrick singled out winning on Show Day at Addington in 2016 on the John Ryan-trained Golden Gate as a highlight.
Ryan, a Gore-based trainer, had supported McIlwrick from early in his career.
“Our job is based on getting the job done. There is a little bit of money involved and people put a lot of time into their horses. When things don’t go right a lot of people tend to look for a change, especially when it’s a young junior starting out – but John stuck in there.
“Those are the moments you live for, over winning premierships and bigger races – it’s more for the person who’s given you the chance to get it done and do them proud.”
McIlwrick is gearing up for a busy summer across Otago and Southland.
“It’s great when people come out and support those one-day meetings.
“They’re important and a lot of fun.”