Gray Williamson

published: 11 Mar 2013 in Personality profiles

Taking a gamble on breeding thoroughbreds more than 30 years ago proved a very astute move for Gray Williamson, his wife Jan and their family, as they have developed Mungrup Stud into one of the most successful in the nation and a great advertisement for their home state of Western Australia.

ABOUT 30 years ago, with his father in ill health, Gray Williamson decided to steer the family property at Narrikup, in the Great Southern region of Western Australia, away from general farming into horses. It was an era when times were especially difficult for those on the land, so it was quite a gamble for someone who was only in his early twenties and newly married.
  A life amongst animals and some early successes as a breeder, owner and trainer provided the catalyst for his decision, which has proved to be an absolute winner. Since then Gray, with the total support of his wife Jan, has built up the Williamson family holding from 388ha (960 acres) to 1214ha (3000 acres), complete with two barns providing accommodation for a 60-strong yearling draft, numerous yards and paddocks, floodlit foaling yards and a veterinary facility.
  This has resulted in Mungrup Stud becoming renowned as one of the state’s most prominent thoroughbred agistment and breeding grounds. Currently standing Danehill Express, the highly credentialled shuttle stallion Dick Turpin (IRE), 
Hala Bek (IRE) and Oratorio (AUS) the stud has, particularly over the past dozen years or so, produced a long string of notable performers. The list includes two winners of each of the Railway Stakes, Perth Cup and Karrakatta Plate and the first home, Kalatiara, 
Dr John, Vain Crusader, Moccasin Bend and Clueless Angel, in five of the past 12 editions of the WA Guineas, as well as the 2005 WA Magic Millions winner Lock The Vault, who went on to be successful in Macau and Hong Kong.
  Along the way Gray has played an important part in the administration and direction of the breeding industry on both a state and national level. After being on the WA Thoroughbred Breeders’ committee for “ages” he filled the role of president for five years before stepping down to the vice-presidency. He has also been busy as a member of the committee of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia and Aushorse, where under the chairmanship of Antony Thompson, he sits alongside Graham Ingerson, Ron Gilbert, John Kelly, Adam Sangster, Arthur Mitchell and Tom Magnier. While conscious of a need and responsibility to 
“put something back into the industry” the most important element of his life, however, are the members of his family.
  “The whole family has been an integral part of growing Mungrup Stud,” Gray said. “Ours is and has always been very much a family operation. The main section of the stud was just virgin bush when Jan and I started out and its taken a lot of hard work to develop it into what we have today. Also, for a lot of years, Jan has looked after the foalings, which can go as high as 240 in a season, although she had an easier time of it last year with just 170.”
  Gray says their four daughters, Ann, Kate, Claire and Laura and their partners, are, by their own choosing, making a contribution to the running of the stud. “It wasn’t our intention for them to be involved but the girls have gravitated back here and they love it. Ann and her husband Tom run the office work with help from Laura during the busy periods; Kate helps with the foaling and her husband Ben looks after all the farm management; while Claire does all the veterinary work and has taken over the matings from me.
  “Ann and Tom and Kate and Ben all have young children and Laura is expecting her first child with her husband Bryn, so sometimes it is a juggling act; but at the end of the day it all works well and gives everyone the freedom to be their own boss as well as being able to focus on parenting at the same time.”
  This family tradition stretches right back to 1903 when Gray’s grandfather Kenneth Rankin Williamson started clearing what was virgin country some 350km south east of Perth. His father Kenneth Ian Williamson was playing his part in the development of the property when Gray was born in 1958. Then, after completing his education, which began at nearby Mount Barker, continued in Albany and finished at Aquinas College in Perth, Gray went straight on to 
the farm.
  It was a time when his father was dabbling in racing as an owner-trainer. He had purchased his first horse named Othma from Sheila Gwynne, whose home breds were headed by the 1952 WATC Western Australia Derby and 1953 Perth Cup and AJC Villiers Stakes winner Raconteur. A daughter of Raconteur, Othma opened her account for the Williamsons by winning the 97th running of the Albany Cup in 1966.
  The family’s involvement in the industry went a step further a few years later with the purchase of the Hillary (GB) entire Sir Chatary, who had forged 
a special place in the state’s racing history. In winning the WA Derby on November 25, 1967, he brought up champion jockey Frank Treen’s sixth winner on the seven-race program at Ascot.
  Gray says his father and mother Gladys had bought Sir Chatary to serve “a couple of their mares”. “They had begun racing a few mares and fillies,” he said. “That led to them deciding to keep them to breed from and that’s where Sir Chatary came in. That’s when racing started to draw me in. I’d go with my father to meetings at Mount Barker and Albany or up to Bunbury and other places like Toodyay. Naturally that spiked my interest and I began reading all the racing magazines I could find and I’d study the breeding.”
  He graduated from there to training a “few” himself including Amazing Red who was by Sir Chatary from Othma and notched up victories in the 1981 Albany Cup and the following year’s Toodyay Cup. Those successes proved to be most timely with Gray and Jan starting a family after having been married in 1979.
  “Jan was from a farming family but although she hadn’t had any real background in horses we decided that there could be an opportunity there.” With that Gray contacted former journalist Barry Farmer who was managing Heytesbury Stud at Keysbrook for entrepreneur Robert Holmes a’Court. He came away with Steel Glow, a son of the brilliant 1963 STC Golden Slipper Stakes winner Pago Pago who, after a successful stud career at Lasater Farm, Florida, had in 1979 been repatriated to Heytesbury.
  Gray says he “really loved” Pago Pago, but Steel Glow who was out of the stakes-placed Tudor Melody (GB) mare Kallissima, had been unable to show his ability on the racecourse because of a throat problem. “I would never stand a horse again who had undergone 
a throat operation, but in those days I was pretty naive. We were fortunate, though, because Steel Glow managed to sire a lot of winners in the area. On different occasions he’d have the trifecta in races at Albany and Mount Barker as well as producing some horses who went on to win some pretty fair races.”
  By that stage, Steel Glow began standing at Mungrup in 1984, the accent was turning very much towards the thoroughbreds and the roster steadily grew with the addition of the likes of Warring Nations (USA). Impeccably bred, as he was by Seattle Slew from the English Champion Two Year-Old Filly Durtal, his popularity received a significant boost with Crying Game’s wins in the 1995 WATC Derby and 1996 Perth Cup. That period, the mid-1990s, was particularly momentous for the stud with Hideyoshi (USA), Poliuto (IRE) and Metal Storm (FR) all beginning to stand in 1995.
  It was Metal Storm, a Gr.3 winner at Chantilly by Kenmare, who provided what Gray describes as “probably the biggest break” for Mungrup. “I really liked Kenmare and I was looking for a horse by him when David Medbury, an agent in Ireland, found Metal Storm for me,” he said. “The horse came from a fairly inglorious background but he was out of 
a Habitat mare and had some features about him that I really liked.
  “To begin with people preferred Hideyoshi and Poliuto to Metal Storm and he was just getting the leftovers, but at the end of the day he turned into a super stallion for us. He sired horses like Railway Stakes winners Old Fashion and Covertly, Lee-Steere Stakes winner Avenida Madero, Karrakatta Plate winner Metal Master and the WA Guineas winner Kalatiara.
  “Further underlining Metal Storm’s accomplishments was winner-to-runners career ratio topping 70% and his stakes winners to runners ratio was just under 10%. Unfortunately on September 25, 2001 when he was just starting to hit his straps we lost him to snake bite, which was quite devastating when he had a book of 140 mares to serve.”
  Always searching for stallions Gray had, in 1998, secured Don’t Say Halo (USA), who was Australian Champion Two Year-Old and First Crop Sire of 1989-90. “We got Don’t Say Halo from Harry Perks at Toorak Park and we had a really good run with him. We found he filled a gap in WA so that helped salve the wound from Metal Storm’s loss because all we could do was shake ourselves down and get on with the business.”
  Another addition was Kenvain, a son of Kenmare who had won the VATC Oakleigh Plate-Gr.1 and, like Don’t Say Halo, had been standing at Toorak Park after starting out at Blue Gum Farm. “Kenvain was an older horse when we got him but for some reason Kenmare has worked really well in WA. At different times, his statistics elevated him to among the better stallions in the state where he’d only just been an okay stallion on the east coast.”
  Gray also has a liking for Nureyev-line horses, which led him to Oratorio who is a triple stakes winner by Stravinsky (USA) from the Success Express (USA) mare Express A Smile. “I went over to Victoria to inspect him. I liked what I saw because although he wasn’t a big horse he was strong and I thought he would be ideal for some of the mares we have on the property and for WA in general.”
  His judgement has proved correct with Oratorio siring the likes of Karrakatta Plate winners Motion Pictures and Gold Rocks, WATC Guineas winner Clueless Angel and Waratah’s Secret, who has won four black type events. Furthermore his pedigree has been upgraded with Express A Smile becoming the dam of triple Gr.1 winner Sea Siren, who is raced by Mungrup Stud supporter Keith Biggs.
  The Mungrup Stud roster began presenting another potent influence in 2008 in Gr.1-placed stakes winner Danehill Express who is by Danehill (USA) and from the Co-Champion Three Year-Old Filly of 1987 Savana City. A brother to Rose O’War and a half-brother to Mr Vitality and Gunnamatta, Danehill Express’s oldest progeny are three and are working towards making a name for their sire.
  Two years later, in 2010, Gray cleverly read the state of play when he bought Hala Bek (IRE) through David Medbury to inject staying blood into some of the mares he and Jan own. By Halling from the Sadler’s Wells mare Place de l’Opera, Hala Bek had finished fourth, beaten a short head, a head and a short head, to Sir Percy in the English Derby at Epsom in 2006.
  “We probably pre-empted what has gone on in the past few years with people becoming more aware that we are not producing stayers in Australia. We bought Hala Beck to breed some stayers for ourselves and now people are thinking more about breeding stayers because, while they might take time, that’s where all the big prizemoney is. So far it is working very well because we are really pleased with Hala Beck’s first crop of yearlings.”
  Then last year a telephone conversation with Adam Sangster led to an agreement being reached with the English National Stud to stand Dick Turpin (IRE), who is by the Nureyev son Arakan from the Sharrood mare Merrily. He was an outstanding racehorse with his nine victories featuring Prix Jean Prat-Gr.1 (1600m), at Chantilly, the Premio Vittorio di Capua-Gr.1 (1600m), at Milano, as well as Gr.2 races at Ascot, Goodwood and Sandown. Added to that Dick Turpin’s efforts featured seconds in the English 2000 Guineas (8f), St James’s Palace Stakes (8f) and Poule d’Essai des Poulains (1600m) at the elite level.
  “We were looking for another horse and I just happened to mention that to Adam and he said his brother wanted to find a southern hemisphere home for Dick Turpin,” Gray said. “We are very happy that everything came together. He was a great racehorse and of all the stallions we’ve had over the years Dick Turpin is the easily the best performed. Besides that he is a really good looking animal, has a perfect temperament and a high fertility so you couldn’t ask for more.”
  Dick Turpin’s presence is again timely for, with his vast experience in the business, Gray is expecting a resurgence to occur in the industry in coming years. 
In anticipation of this he and Jan have, in recent times, built up their broodmare numbers to 100 or so by often buying in-foal mares at the Inglis sales in Sydney or the Magic Millions sales on the Gold Coast. Among their holdings is Palace Alice, by Palace Music (USA), who is the dam of 2011 Perth Cup winner Lords Ransom. She is owned in partnership with highly valued clients Lex and Shirley Piper who are also close friends of the family.
  Another is Just As Beautiful, by Beautiful Crown (USA), who was bought just as ATC Pago Pago Stakes-Gr.2 winner and Carrington Park Stud stallion Salade was about to come on to the scene. Two other notables they own are the Speed Week mare Scuffs who was a multiple stakes winner, and Silver Empire who was a Gr.1 placed stakes winner in South Africa.
  “Silver Empire was actually bred in WA and we bought her back after she’d raced in South Africa,” Gray said. Although primarily breeding to sell, the Williamsons will race horses, mainly those who are passed in or ones they have a special interest in. One of those was by Maroof (USA) from the Bletchingly mare Milharo (NZ) who raced as Shout From The Roof and won the WATC Perth Stakes-LR and was second in the Karrakatta Plate.
  Those performances generated the interest that had been missing when he had failed to attract a bid at the yearling sales. and he was later sold to Macau clients and re-named Natural Blitz. He went on to win nine races for his new owners including the Hong Kong Sprint-Gr.1 (1000m) at Sha Tin, to notch yet another major milestone for the stud.
  Gray believes that the secret of this and the many other successes achieved by Mungrup’s graduates comes from the stud’s location and its size. “I believe one of the big advantages we have is that we live in a green belt which means we have quite a long growing season,” Gray said. “That’s good for all the horses and most beneficial for the weanlings and yearlings as they are growing out.
  “Another advantage, with our large acreage, is that we can comfortably accommodate up to 600 horses. We have a farm for wet mares and foals, a farm for spellers, a farm for dry mares and a farm for young horses, who are kept in small numbers in 30 acre (12ha) paddocks. The excellent growing environment we have is combined with a strict hand feeding regime, and I think all this is being reflected in the numbers of winners we have bred and reared at Mungrup Stud . . . and hopefully that will continue.” n