Brand new Gai: The gun trainer taking over racing

With her deep love of horses, six months in the ‘school of Gai’ Waterhouse, and tireless hard work, trainer Annabel Neasham now dominates in the traditionally male industry. It’s no surprise that Annabel Neasham has made her mark as one of the country’s top horse trainers – she learned from the best and, in turn, does her best, every day.

Talent is one thing. Knowledge essential. But hard work for the animals she loves – that’s what drives her. A lot of trainers or even people that work in the breeding industry have all done a stint working for Gai – I call it the school of Gai – and I think everybody should spend time with her – she’s an absolute marvel,” says Neasham, who did six months in the school of Gai” Waterhouse when first arriving in Sydney from her native England. She came with one purpose – to make it in the world of horseracing. Gai has been doing it for so long, and so well for so long, and her attention to detail is just unwavering,” she says. Probably the main lesson I learned from her was – presentation and hard work. Although I’m not sure I’m particularly presentable – but if your hair had a couple of knots in it, she’d get the hairbrush out,” Neasham laughs.

More at home doing track work before dawn than on the track in a dress and heels, her love affair with horses started as early as she can remember. Today, it’s clear how far she’s come in such a short time, and her track record speaks for itself. Neasham’s very first runner, a horse named Commanding Missile, got her off to a flying start when he won – fittingly – at Scone, the nation’s thoroughbred capital and birthplace of countless champions. Little more than two years later, she has won five majors and houses one of the top ranked racehorses in Australia – Zaaki. Zaaki, who was foaled in England in 2015, has won his owners the best part of $7.5m with the promise of more to come. In Melbourne this weekend, Zaaki will add another $870,000 to his earnings if he can successfully defend his 2021 MRC Underwood Stakes crown and, all going well, will feature in the $4m AJC Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Randwick in April next year, aiming to avenge his narrow defeat in the 2022 edition.

He’s just one of her horses. She’s got 90 at her Warwick Farm stables in Sydney alone – a place that was occupying so much of her time, she moved there from Double Bay, just to make life easier. Then there’s another 30 in Brisbane, and 10 in Melbourne for the upcoming Spring Carnival. Life as a horse trainer – and a force of nature at that – doesn’t stop. Alarms sound at 3.30am for track work at 4, with not even time for a coffee on the way, and there’s not much spare time before she tries to be tucked up into bed by the very reasonable hour of 8pm. Although these days, that too is rare.

When speaking to Sydney Weekend, Neasham is running from one thing to the next, ever the multi-tasker, always on to the next thing. She’s just flown in from London where she spent 48 hours for her brother’s wedding. She chats while getting her hair and makeup done – multi-tasking again – so she’s not wasting time, ready for our meticulously timed photo shoot that will see her make her 4pm flight to Melbourne on time. But one upside of a daily 3am wakeup? Jet lag. That’s for amateurs. She’s only upset she couldn’t stay an extra day to farewell the Queen at her funeral along with the rest of the world. Because that’s another feather in Neasham’s race hat – she worked for Her Majesty the Queen herself, bonding with our longest-serving monarch over their love of horses. I did meet her a couple of times at her private stud at Sandringham that was her Christmas, winter base – and she loved her horses,” she remembers fondly.

She was a very special lady and obviously it’s a very sad time at the moment that she’s gone. I suppose it was going to come to an end at some stage, but I think everybody felt she was invincible.” Neasham’s passion – or obsession as she puts it – for horses, started when she was little girl growing up in the Northamptonshire village of Croughton in the UK. Begging her parents – who still get up at all hours of the night to watch her races – for a pony when she was six. The day she turned seven she got Buttons, her first pony that did not do much else than spur her obsession. She did showjumping, hunting and events and was steered into breeding – until at the age of 20, she fell into racing.

In 2016, she came to Australia – for what was meant to be a working holiday of one year. That was six years ago, and here” is now firmly home. I was warned off trying to go down the training routes in England because it’s just such a hard game to break into, so I got steered into the bloodstock world. When I look back to where I was six years ago, it’s all happened very quickly, but it doesn’t feel like it has … it does seem like forever, but it’s certainly been crammed in. I certainly call Australia home now, without a doubt – but I didn’t come here thinking I would.” After six months working under Gai Waterhouse, Neasham relocated to the Caulfield stable of Ciaron Maher, where she worked with Group 1 winners including Jameka and Merchant Navy. In 2018, Maher put her in charge of the Sydney branch of the stable and under her watch, the stable recorded more than 50 victories in NSW in its first two seasons. For her, it was only the beginning.
Honestly, it’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do,” she says. I dabbled with a non horsey job in London, but it only lasted about nine months – it just wasn’t for me because for me, it was always the horses. But it’s certainly harder and much tougher to get into the industry – particularly in training – in England. There’s very little prize money and as soon as they got a half decent horse, they’re being sold to Hong Kong or Australia. The industry is well behind what it is here in Australia.”

Something important to Neasham is helping women feel comfortable in the traditionally male dominated industry people like her and Waterhouse have broken into and, subsequently dominated. One of her initiatives, the Stiletto Sprinters, advocates female-only syndicates to draw women in – and it’s working. That’s a great fun group of ladies – I think there’s nearly 100 of them now. We had our first winner the other day, which was really exciting,” she says. It’s been great getting a lot of first time owners – they might only own a hair of the horse, but the whole point was that you can own a tiny share in the horse and still have as much fun as owning a horse, for a fraction of the cost. The whole idea was to make it accessible and affordable and, above all else, fun.” She’s also luring women into the industry as a career path, not just as casual punters.
For example, I’ve got Jamie Kah riding Zaaki in a Group 1 on Sunday and he’s a favourite and that’s a girl trainer, girl rider. We’ve obviously a number of staff working for us now and I actually think it’s pretty equal,” she says. There’s a lot of talented young girls coming through as jockeys – I think every time I look at new apprentices, particularly in Victoria, I’ve noticed most of them seem to be girls.

I think it’s got to that stage now, probably thanks to the likes of Gai, where it’s becoming much more normal.” Something important to Neasham is helping women feel comfortable in the traditionally male dominated industry people like her and Waterhouse have broken into and, subsequently dominated. One of her initiatives, the Stiletto Sprinters, advocates female-only syndicates to draw women in – and it’s working. That’s a great fun group of ladies – I think there’s nearly 100 of them now. We had our first winner the other day, which was really exciting,” she says.

It’s been great getting a lot of first time owners – they might only own a hair of the horse, but the whole point was that you can own a tiny share in the horse and still have as much fun as owning a horse, for a fraction of the cost. The whole idea was to make it accessible and affordable and, above all else, fun.” She’s also luring women into the industry as a career path, not just as casual punters.
For example, I’ve got Jamie Kah riding Zaaki in a Group 1 on Sunday and he’s a favourite and that’s a girl trainer, girl rider. We’ve obviously a number of staff working for us now and I actually think it’s pretty equal,” she says. There’s a lot of talented young girls coming through as jockeys – I think every time I look at new apprentices, particularly in Victoria, I’ve noticed most of them seem to be girls.

I think it’s got to that stage now, probably thanks to the likes of Gai, where it’s becoming much more normal.” Speaking to her personality, once Neasham sets her mind to something, she does her best to achieve it. Take the Mongol Derby, for example. It’s the world’s longest horse race, run over 1000km across 10 days – an extraordinary test of stamina and skill of up to 14 hours in the saddle per day. In 2018, she teamed up with Adrian Corby to take it on – and not only did they finish – they won. Of course they won. That was an amazing experience,” Neasham recalls. It was tough, but it was incredible … a real cultural experience. If I decide I want to do something, I usually try not to give it too much more thought, and I just do it. I jump into things, but I’m sure sometimes that’s detrimental,” she laughs. But then I tend to go full steam into it.
If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you learn from it and do something else, you do something different next time.” Something else on her list of things to do” is to run a full marathon. She tried last year and this year but both times was too busy. Maybe next year,” she decides.

At the moment it’s just so busy, anything outside of what I’m actually doing now is on the back burner,” she says. That’s why it’s good her boyfriend Rob is one of her racing managers, she says – or else she’d never see him. It really is seven days a week and all the time, so there’s not too much time to think about anything else,” she says. So we are sort of in it together at the moment, and it seems to be going well.” Asked how old she is, Neasham pauses. Not because she objects to the question – because she can’t quite remember. I’m 32 – oh hang on, I’m 31 … wait – I’m 32 in November. Wow, I really have to think about that,” she laughs. This life, she says, was never really the plan – but despite the pressure, the gravity of nail biting wins and losses, the all-encompassing hard work – she wouldn’t change it for anything. I think one thing that’s probably really struck me was how much young people are given a go here,” she says. A lot of owners were prepared to give me a horse, and nice horses as well.

They put that faith into me … it was a time to sink or swim really. We’ve just been fortunate that we had a good first year and it’s kept rolling so far. But it’s always going to be a game – you’ve got to keep performing, you’ve got to keep results going up – you’re only as good as your last winner, so you can never sit back and put your feet up, that’s for sure. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.

Sometimes you have bad days – often you have bad days – but don’t let it get to you too much. Because at the end of the day, they are horses running around in circles. If you simplify it down to that, it makes you realise that actually, there are other things that go on in the world other than horse racing – but when you’re in it, you feel like you’re in a bubble and it’s all you ever think about, and all you ever do. It’s a massive thrill and they are just incredible animals to work with – I’m very fortunate that’s what I do every day, so it’s not like working at all.”

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