Oamaru trainer Phil Williamson recently notched up 500 trotting winners in New Zealand when Astral Ruler won at the Wyndham HRC meeting at Cromwell on 7th January.
He can proudly be known as the first New Zealand trainer to achieve such a feat and his winning record with the square gaiters is expected to last for a long time.
His affinity with the trotting breed is legendary. Bruce Stewart caught up with Phil at a recently held Invercargill Cup meeting at Ascot Park and had a chat with him about his involvement in harness racing.
Bruce: You became keen on horses while at Port Molyneux School. The trainer of the great Stella Frost Len Tilson had a stable next to the school?
Phil: Yes. That’s where my interest started. I used to see them in the paddock next door as they jogged past. It looked pretty exciting. Then I started to listen to the commentaries on the radio and that sounded exciting too.
I understand that when you left school you had a short stint as a jockey before weight caught up with you.
It all started for me on a Saturday when I was supposed to have been going back to school on the Monday for my third year at High School. Bob Beck just happened to be visiting and said he was looking for an apprentice jockey and would I be interested. I thought to myself, that would be better than going back to school for another year. I looked at my mum and asked her if I could. Bob said he’d come back the next morning and pick me up.
Note: Phil’s mother aged 90 is still living at Kaka Point.
You rode one winner, Frosty Light?
Yes. I’ll never forget that. It was here at Ascot Park and it was the first leg of the double. In those days you could claim a 7 pound allowance as an apprentice jockey. The first ride I had I rode 3 pound over so I had a weight problem from day dot.
Alistair Kerslake got you interested in harness horses. How did that come about?
Yes. My first involvement was with Alistair and Betty. I learned a lot there for sure. He was quite a tough man but I learned a lot.
When did you start work at the local Tannery in Oamaru?
When I finished with Alister I came back to Oamaru and started working for Dick Prendergast. I was there for quite a while but ended up going to the Tannery and working nights.
Around that time you married Bev?
When I got to Oamaru I was staying with neighbours of her mother and father and I was working a couple of horses on their track so I got to know her.
Did her father have any good horses?
Yes. We won the Roxburgh Cup with Willow Way. Their best horse though, was Wee Willow. Henry Skinner was their main driver in those days. Then I came on the scene.
Note: Willow Way was by Jack Chance out of Wee Willow. He won the 1991 Roxburgh Cup by half a length with Phil driving him to victory. Wee Willow also left Gemini Jo which won seven races. Phil drove her in all her victories. Bev Williamson’s maiden name was Mills and her father Ron was a hobby trainer.
At this time you were training Role Model.
The owners called in one day and I was doing the night shift. I was just pottering around with a few horses and helping the father in-law at home. These two gentlemen came in and said, would I be interested in training a horse for them. I told them I hadn’t trained any horses before. I asked them what the horse was and one of the guys said I wouldn’t have far to look to see him. Unbeknown to us it was at a neighbours place. It was on rough hilly country and the horse was just at the bottom of one of the gullies.
Role Model was a very plain looking horse but I couldn’t see a lot wrong with him. I went back to Bev and said they seem like really nice guys and if ever we were going to train it’d be now. That’s how I got started.
He won races pacing, but you decided to switch him to trotting?
We used to take him from where we lived to the race course in the cart. I was taking him back one day and he took off trotting and I couldn’t believe it. He was quite neat at it. I asked the owners if they would mind if I worked him up on the next prep trotting. They weren’t that keen. They didn’t want a bar of him being a trotter because he’d already won five races as a pacer. Once we starting trotting him and I took him to the workouts they could see how good he was so we switched him. He won his first start at Addington as a trotter.
He won eight races trotting, including your first group race, the New Zealand Trotting Free For All. How did that feel?
Yeah it was a big thrill that night.
So at what stage did you decide to concentrate on training trotters?
The next horse I got to train was Frances Jay Bee. We’ve won some good races from the progeny of her. At that point I also realised you could get into the higher end of the trotting game because the better stallions were less of an outlay. Sundon was probably standing for around $3,000 but if you were trying to go to the leading pacing sire you’d probably need $12,000. So that made sense to us because we didn’t have a lot of money.
They were also cheaper to buy as trotters were looked at as being second rate at the sales. So I was able to buy into the better end of them for a lot cheaper.
What influence did Sundon have on the trotting game?
To me he’s just been a super sire. He’s the Bettor’s Delight of the trotters I’m sure. He stamped his progeny. They were great looking athletic horses which were a lot different to the older Standardbreds who were big tough horses with roman noses.
When the Sundons came on-line, you had two very good ones early, in One Under Kenny and Allegro Agitato.
You weren’t working with them long before you knew you had something special. They had what the average horses don’t have.
Sundons can be a bit hot headed though?
It’s probably a fair enough comment but you know if you’ve got a V8 motor in there somethings going to happen if you have an altercation in the early days. They may pull back and break a rope because they have the power to do it. But they can do things other horses can’t do because of their motor. You’d give up a bit of the hot headedness for the motor every time.
One of your first speedy Sundon trotters was Lets Get Serious – he had a fair bit of talent?
He was a very good horse. He didn’t show it in the very early days. When you take a good horse off the place they normally step up. That’s the difference between a good one and an average one. A lot of horses can work well at home but can’t take the next level. Every good horse I’ve had has always stepped up. He was like that.
With trotters you have to be patient?
You’ve got to have common sense. Some horses take time and you just have to understand that.
As a trainer who’s been an influence on your career?
Dick Prendergast was a big influence in those early days. He was a great horseman and had a lot of success and a bit of it has rubbed off on me. When I first went to Auckland I stayed with Barry Purdon and learned a lot there particularly getting the young horses going. Tony Herlihy is another that’s had an influence on me. We’ve stayed with him a lot on our recent trips.
Jasmyn’s Gift was a special trotter as well?
She was, because we bred her and it was good for us just starting out. When you have a horse that can race in the Dominion Handicap it’s special.
Note: Jasmyn’s Gift ran third in two Dominion Handicaps in 2005 and 2006. She also provided Nathan Williamson with his first Group One winner as a driver when she won the 2006 New Zealand Trotting Free For All at Addington.
As you’ve mentioned, The Dominion Handicap is a very special race for trainers of trotters.
It’s such a difficult race to win and everything has to go right on that special day. Springbank Richard was able to do it for us. I’ve had numerus placings with other horses.
Do you have a horse that has the potential of winning a Dominion?
No. My son has. (Dark Horse)
Springbank Richard was another great horse you trained?
He came along and was a super good horse. He had a big V8 motor and a lovely gait and was just an all-round great great horse.
Note: Springbank Richard has been Phil Williamson’s biggest stake earner to date (see details below) and only Dominion Handicap winner. He provided Nathan Williamson with his first Group One winner in Australia when he won the Victoria Trotter Derby in May 2007.He also won back to back Harness Jewel titles winning at three in 2007 and as a four year old in 2008. He was driven on both occasions by Nathan.
How important is shoeing? Do you do your own?
Malcolm Oakes has shod my team in later years and before that Bruce Wallace did a lot of the shoeing in the early days with Role Model especially. Ken Kinzett before that. It’s very important to have their feet right. It’s more important to have a good horse though. Brendon Franks looked after the shoeing while we were in Central.
Most of the trotting races are from a standing start. Are trotters more difficult to get away?
The thing about the good ones Bruce, is that they can miss away and still win because they’re just better. All the time they’re getting that practice in and by the time they’ve had a start or two it’ll come to them. Springbank Richard was a slow learner when Tony Barron had him. It’s just the manners and time brings that right. I was just lucky to get him at the right time. Manners with trotters just come with experience.
Of the horses you have trained there must have been few that haven’t reached their potential. Do any come to mind?
Leighton Hest. He was a bit of an underachiever. He won a Jewels. He was troubled with soreness. He was a very very good horse.
Note: Leighton Hest provided Matty Williamson with his first Group One winner when he won the 2009 Four Year Old Ruby at Ashburton in May 2009. He won seven of his nine starts at four and ended his career with a record of 43-12-6-6 and $205,242.
Are there any other horses you’d like to mention?
Springbank Sam won twenty races for us and was placed second five times in Group One races. He’s now in America.
Note: Springbank Sam was sold at the sales as Jack Galleon for $26,000. He went on to win $319,756 for Alister and Denise Smith. He won in every season that he started from a two year old to an eight year old. He ran second to Paramount Geegee at two and three in four Group One races. At four he was beaten only by Charlemagne in the Four Year Old Ruby at Cambridge. His last Group placing was in the 2013 Rowe Cup when he was beaten by Stig. He’s a national record holder, the only one on the Omakau track, recording 3-12.8 for the 2600 metre mobile.
What’s the fastest trotter you’ve trained?
It’s between Allegro Agitato and Springbank Richard.
And trotter with the all round game?
One Over Kenny. You don’t win a million dollars unless you’re a very good horse.
Are you excited about where trotting is going? Some meetings have up to three trotting races on their card now.
I think people are starting to see that’s there’s good money in trotting now. Back in the day people had the perception that trotters all galloped and who would want to have a trotter. Trotters can race consistently and earn well if they’ve got a bit of ability. A lot of people have woken up to the fact they can be good earners and in some cases earn better money than pacers.
Your three boys all drive. Do you notice any differences in their driving styles?
Matty’s probably the most aggressive of the three. Nathan and Brad are very similar. Nathan was always very talented from the get go. Brad’s probably had to work at it but he’s made a good fist of it of late. It’s pretty hard to come out of the shadow of two pretty successful brothers. Now I think he drives as good as his brothers do with the right opportunities.
How important was it to get to 500 trotting winners for you?
We’re proud of the fact that we were the first to do it. But I’ve always got my feet on the ground.
Have you ever ventured to America or Scandinavia to see trotters race?
I never have. It would be nice to do it someday. Tony Herlihy who goes to America and Canada a bit tried to get me to go but I haven’t got there yet. There’s been no break in the workload to do it Bruce.
You have good staff with your boys, Steve Allen and Charlotte Purvis. And your wife Bev plays a major part in the operation?
She does all the business side of the operation, like accounts. I don’t even turn the computer on. That’s Bev’s department. I learnt not to get involved there. In the early days Bev use to drive. She’s a capable driver around the workouts and trials. She used to beat me plenty of times. She’s got a great work ethic.
Note: In these later years Phil and Bev have taken a working holiday in Central Otago and their trotters have dominated the New Year circuit. At Omakau, Springbank Eden, Royal Kenny, Springbank Sam, Brad’s Kenny and Jasmyn’s Gift all hold track records. At Roxburgh, Davey’s Gift and Pyramid Monarch are in the record book.
An enjoyable interview with Phil Williamson. It’s easy to see that he identified trotters as his speciality fairly early on and has crafted out a career that’s rewarded him with 500 winners - a remarkable feat. As trotting ranks start to increase markedly we can be rest assured there are a few more winners to be added yet.
Phil Williamson’s fact sheet on 500 winners:
First trotting winner: Role Model - New Zealand Metropolitan June 1995
500th winner: Astral Ruler - Wyndham HRC at Cromwell January 2017
Leaving drivers of the 500 trotting winners: Matty Williamson drove 151, Phil 100, Nathan 94 and Brad 94.
Winning tracks: Addington 98, Forbury Park 84, Ascot Park 80 and Oamaru 41.
Biggest winners 10 wins or more: Allegro Agitato (21), Springbank Sam (20), One Over Kenny (19), Jasmyn's Gift (17), Springbank Richard (17), Lets Get Serious (10), Monnay (10), Monty Python (10) and Role Model (10).
Note: One Over Kenny won 32 races in her career including the Australasian Trotters Championship in 2007. She was trained by Tony Herlihy in the latter part of her career. She won a total of $1,098,007 in stakes.
Biggest winners by stakes: Springbank Richard ($403,567.50), One Over Kenny ($372,936.25), Allegro Agitato ($353,476.25), Jasmyn's Gift ($164,651.21) and Springbank Sam ($150,935.00).
Biggest stake won in one race by any horse: $138,220.00 (Springbank Richard 2009 Dominion Handicap).
First Group win: Role Model 1996 New Zealand Trotting Championship (Group Two).
Group One wins: 10
Group Two wins: 9
Group Three wins: 5
Multiple wins - Group races:
Four Year Trotter Championship (Group Three): Lets Get Serious (2006), Springbank Richard (2008) and Leighton Hest (2009)
Ashburton Trotter Flying Mile (Group Three): Allegro Agitato (2004 and 2005) and Springbank Richard (2009).
Cambridge Trotter Flying Mile (Group Two): Allegro Agitato (2005 and 2006) and One Over Kenny (2007).
Lyall Creek Stakes (Group Two): Allegro Agitato (2006) and One Over Kenny (2007).
National Trot (Group One): Allegro Agitato (2006) and One Over Kenny (2007)
New Zealand Trotting Championship (Group One): Role Model (1996), Allegro Agitato (2004 and 2006) and Jasmyn's Gift (2005).
Important overseas wins: 2007 Victoria Trotting Derby (Group One) Springbank Richard, Interdominion Trotting Championship Heat winner - Shepperton (Group Three) Springbank Richard and 2005 VHRC The Holmfield One Over Kenny.
Harness Jewels winners: Springbank Richard – Three Year old Ruby and Four Year Old Ruby and Leighton Hest Four Year Old Ruby.
DG Jones Memorial/Banks Peninsula Trotting Cup (Group Three): Springbank Richard (2009 and 2010)
New Zealand Trotting Free For All (Group One): Allegro Agitato (2005) and Jasmyn’s Gift (2006).
Ordeal Cup: Jasmyn’s Gift (2006) and Springbank Richard (2009).
Other Group Wins: New Zealand Trotting Oaks (Group Two) One Over Kenny (2005), Northern Trotting Derby (Group One) One Over Kenny (2005), New Zealand Sires Stakes Trotting Championship One Over Kenny (2005), Dominion Handicap (Group One) Springbank Richard (2009), Rowe Cup (Group One) One Over Kenny (2007) and Southern Lights Trot (Group Three) Springbank Sam.
Best season (wins): 2015 and 2016 (58 winners)
Best season (stakes): (2007) $693,861
Total trotting stakes won (500 winners): $3,486,646.91