Baker from the bush living the Slipper Dream

10 min read
On March 23rd Gary Portelli will aim to win his second Golden Slipper, incredibly uniquely, with a half-sibling to the winner of his first. It's been a long journey to Rosehill Gardens for the boy from the bush, who began his working days as a baker in Orange, country NSW.

It’s 9PM on a weeknight in the Central Western NSW town of Orange and an ambitious young horseman by the name of Gary Portelli clocks on for his nightly shift at Robert’s Bakery.

As he toils away until 5AM kneading dough and making pastries, pies, sausage rolls and all the customary delights you find in a country bakery, his racing dreams take shape.

And his boss David Player doesn’t mind one bit that his young assistant is preoccupied with thoughts about the caper. He’s a mad punter himself and loves the game. Often during shifts, it’s not recipes sprawled out on the bench in front of them it’s horse form. Sheets and sheets of it that occasionally reveal a winner at one of the nearby bush tracks that they plunge on and get a decent quid out of.

When knock off time at the bakery comes around Gary’s working day is far from over. His dedicated mother Morveen pulls up at the front of the shop in a fully loaded seven-horse truck and as the sun slowly rises, they head off to the local racecourse to work their team of racehorses.

Oft referred to by witty locals as a “tall streak of pelican s**t”, Gary climbs down from the truck cabin and swaps his apron for a pair of boots and a helmet, mounts up, rides his own horses track work and then gets on up to half a dozen more for other trainers.

Gary Portelli

Once that’s all done and dusted, he goes home and tends to another team of horses they’re breaking in for a few local trainers. Occasionally they escape the relentless daily routine and venture hundreds of kilometres to major Sydney tracks like Rosehill and Randwick with a 50 or 100-1 shot to try their luck.

But there isn’t much of it. The horses usually run up to their odds and trips home to Orange are long with Gary making up for lost sleep in the passenger seat.

It’s remarkable to think that 30 years on from those hard days out in the bush that the Portelli family are in with a serious chance of winning the world’s richest two-year-old race - the Golden Slipper.

And, not for the first time.

This prized trophy already sits pride of place on their mantelpiece thanks to a filly called She Will Reign (Manhattan Rain) who won it for them in 2017.

In an extraordinary twist, it’s her half-brother Time to Reign (Time for War) that could take them back up 2YO racing’s highest mountain in a few weeks.

“It’s a unique story. I don’t think there have been too many siblings win a Golden Slipper let alone run in one so the pressure is on and even for them each to have won a Silver Slipper is quite uncanny,” Gary tells TDN AusNZ.

From the show ring to the racetrack

There’s no doubt that chapter of life out at Orange laid the foundations for Gary’s down to earth attitude and strong work ethic that has taken him to major success in Australian racing today. But there’s something else he recognises as key to becoming one of the country’s top racehorse trainers and that’s the period he spent competing on the show riding circuit during his teens.

“The hacking world taught me a lot about finesse and having an eye for detail.”

“In show riding horses have to move perfectly, look great in their action and not have the slightest bit wrong in their action and also have the right muscle definition. I have taken that across to racing.”

Gary Portelli show riding

“With joints and tendons, I can see things that most people walk past. I’m not saying I’m a horse whisperer or anything like that but I can see from 20 yards away if there is a slight change in a tendon or if they are not right in the eye. You learn this from being around horses all your life. I really feel I have a connection with them all.”

“In show riding horses have to move perfectly, look great in their action and not have the slightest bit wrong in their action and also have the right muscle definition. I have taken that across to racing.” - Gary Portelli

New Jade, a flashy rogue ex-racehorse Gary was trying to transform into a show hack, was the catalyst for him deciding to try his hand at training.

“I was trying to teach him to be a show horse. He used to be a bolter at the track. He just wore me out all the time so I gave up one day and decided to put my irons up one morning out in a 100- acre paddock that had a really long straight with a hill at the end.”

“I was in a dressage saddle put the stirrups up and said if you want to run then run. So, I let him go and that was the most awesome feeling. He was going so fast I was absolutely s***ing myself. It was so cold I could feel the tears being pulled out of my eyes and going down my face.”

“The power that was coming from behind the saddle of this horse was unbelievable. Thank god there was a hill at the end otherwise I don’t know how I would have stopped him.”

“After that I thought I’ve got to do this and joined up with John and Sue East at Orange. They taught me how to ride track work and it all evolved from there.”

Gary in his early training days

Ready to close the door

Gary’s journey in racing has had its fair share of ups and downs since then. Before She Will Reign was quite literally walked across the road from the Michael Costa stable to join his team, in what he describes as a “sliding doors moment”, the 49 year old was considering giving training away.

Struggling to get a horse into the stable he was faced with the grim picture of empty boxes and rapidly declining confidence in his own ability.

“I was in a dark spot and very negative and it was hard to get out of that rut. Trying to be successful can sometimes be like holding sand in your hands and the harder you try the more it slips out.”

“I lost a lot of confidence seeing my clients with other trainers and all that sort of stuff.”

“It’s a funny game you are only as good as your last winner sometimes and when you are having a bad run people soon move on and I felt that I was depressed by it all.”

“I thought of an exit strategy and whether I was just going to be one of those trainers shoved out the back. I was going the wrong way. I could buy a horse and I would not have been able to sell it. Nobody was interested in my stables.”

“I didn’t want to be one of these trainers who used to be a good trainer and have nothing to fall back on.”

Gary Portelli

As his despondency grew to concerning levels, Gary’s wife Kellie stepped in and gave him a swift “kick up the bum.”

“The main thing was the wake-up call that Kellie gave me which reinstalled the fact you don’t forget how to train a horse but you do forget to be confident in the decisions you make.”

“I didn’t want to be one of these trainers who used to be a good trainer and have nothing to fall back on.” - Gary Portelli

Those powerful words were enough to jolt Gary back into action and his luck soon changed. She Will Reign came along and won them a Golden Slipper and now just two years on their fortunes continue to improve with Time to Reign now headed along the same glittering path.

Unique in their own way

To this point, their race records are almost identical but, in the looks and temperament department, they are markedly different animals.

“He’s stretchy, taller and has more leg under him than her. But they have a similar stride the way they got down and finished the Silver Slipper off you would have thought they were the same horses.”

“She’s got a prettier head. She's got great conformation. He’s got great length through the hip and deep gaskins and he’s a very sound horse.”

Temperament-wise the two horses are also poles apart.

“He’s a very alert horse and likes to be aware of everything going on around him. His sister was the opposite. She would not know if a bomb went off, she’s such a quiet horse. You wouldn’t know whether she was sick or well, she’s such an introvert, she was hard to read. She would walk around the parade ring like a 5-year-old mare and nothing fired her up until the barriers, whereas he could hear a pin drop 2km away and he gets really scared of storms.”

"Nothing fired her (She Will Reign) up until the barriers, whereas he (Time to Reign) could hear a pin drop 2km away and he gets really scared of storms." - Gary Portelli

It’s obvious Gary has a real soft spot for Time to Reign, a colt by a son of Snitzel, Time for War, who died of a suspected colic attack at Kitchwin Hills in 2016.

“It’s easy to train 2YOS like him. He’s got four good legs and he’s light on his feet which is important for the babies. He’s very intelligent at track work and goes out like an old horse and is easy to ride.”

“He’s affectionate and doesn't bite which is unusual for a colt. He just rests his head on you, he’s a beautiful horse with a great temperament.”

Time to Reign

She Will Reign (Manhattan Rain) and Time to Reign (Time for War) are from the Charge Forward mare Courgette. The dam of just three foals to race, including the Bjorn Baker trained Rosina Kojunup (Shamus Award), she’s establishing herself as a blue hen of the Australian broodmare ranks.

Her value will soar even higher if Time to Reign can win the Group 2 Todman Stakes (1200m) at Randwick this Saturday. The Todman Stakes/Golden Slipper double has been won five times and the there are some illustrious names on that honor roll - Luskin Star (1977) Marauding (1987), Tierce (1991), Pierro (2012) and Vancouver (2015).

"If you can win two Slippers it’s up there with miracles.” - Gary Portelli

“Now that he’s won last start it’s game on again.”

“We have beaten the Slipper favourite and so people are thinking it will happen again, but on that day so much can go wrong with barrier draws and conditions. If you can win two Slippers it’s up there with miracles.”

It probably would be a miracle. Gary’s had enough trips in a horse truck back to Orange after a day of defeat at the Sydney races to know that it’s an achievement just to get this far with his colt.

And with a glint his his eye he signs off with typical self depreciating humour: “things have come a long way from making meat pies at the bakery. Someone once said to me don’t forget the meat pie recipe because you might end up back there one day."