They called Maurie Gray the ‘Gentleman Jockey’.
And that’s a fair assessment of a champion ‘hoop’ who was to establish a reputation for honesty, sincerity and superb horsemanship in a career that spanned almost three decades.
Gray was born in Wagga and rode more than 1,200 winners on North-Eastern, Southern Riverina and city tracks. He smashed just about every riding record in the book.
He often joked that his first ride was on a chair at the family home, at the age of two.
Four years later he was plonked on the back of a stable pony, and from then on became entranced by the racing game.
Maurie haunted the stables which were situated nearby. It was only natural that horses would be his life.
‘Jock’, or ‘Dan’, as he was nicknamed, re-located to Wangaratta in 1931 to complete his apprenticeship under the guidance of the legendary trainer H.F.’Tib’ Hoysted.
It was the commencement of a long and fruitful association with the Hoysted family, as he took over as the leading rider for the stable from the time ‘increasing weight forced ‘Tib’s’ son Hal from the saddle.
Although he was essentially a freelance jockey, he rode the bulk of the trackwork for Hal over the years, and, in effect, was part of the Hoysted household. The Gray-Hoysted partnership was to become one of the most formidable in country racing.
Maurie resisted repeated offers to re-locate to the city and was content with life in Wangaratta. He regarded it as the ideal spot for he and his wife Dot to bring up their four boys, Brian, Dennis, John and Neville.
He was a natural lightweight, tipping the scales at around 7.5 stone, and was always in peak condition. Ballooning weight, the bane of many jockeys, was never a problem and he could tuck into a decent meal and enjoy a quiet beer whilst scarcely adding an ounce to his wiry frame.
It enabled him to pilot many of the district’s finest horses. But there’s no doubt his favourite was Golden Doubles. The sprint star was locally-owned and was good enough to win weight-for-age races in Melbourne, including successive William Reid Stakes and a C.F.Orr Stakes.
Maurie was privately chuffed about his achievement in 1944, when he ‘rode the card’ at an Albury meeting.
His success in three Corowa Cups, a Wangaratta and two Benalla Cups, paled behind his greatest thrill in racing, when he returned to his home-town to take out the Wagga Gold Cup.
The inherent danger of his occupation was chillingly displayed on a mid-autumn day in 1957.
Maurie was riding a handy galloper, Bold Silhouette, in the Albury Gold Cup. In a split second, three horses were down, with their riders laying motionless on the track, as doctors and ambulance men attended to them. All three were unconscious when admitted to the Albury Base Hospital.
Doug Barclay died within a few hours from a fractured neck and skull. Maurie Gray passed away 48 hours later and the third jockey, Ivan Spalding, was the only survivor.
The late Hal Hoysted never forgot the race that claimed his good mate.
“Maurie Gray was the best bloke you would ever meet. It was impossible not to like him. To this day I still shudder every time I see a race fall,” Hal said in an interview forty years later.
Hal trained three Gold Cup winners after that fateful day, but recalled that they were all tinged with sadness.
Maurie’s wife Dot, had encouraged her boys to take up other sports, in the vain hope that their passion for riding would dissipate.
“She really had no hope,” said Johnny when I caught up with him the other day.
“We were all at Champagnat College when Dad’s accident happened, but we couldn’t wait to finish school and follow in his footsteps.”
The youngest of the quartet, Neville (Spider) was just 22 when he died of cancer.
But by the early sixties Dennis had been joined by John, as an apprentice jockey, indentured to Hal Hoysted.
Johnny established a fine reputation during his brief career. He rode 103 winners, including two Albury St.Pat’s Cups and a win at Moonee Valley.
Bullara, the gelding which took him to those Cup wins of 1963 and ’64, was his best-ever, he reckons. But he also has a soft spot for Glen Star, on which he later won a race at Pakenham.
By late 1963 Dennis was the district’s leading apprentice and was attracting keen interest from Melbourne trainers. They detected an uncanny resemblance in his riding style to that of his father.
Dennis won four successive premierships and had his share of success in his occasional forays on city tracks.
He had a strong connection to the Jimmy Hoysted-trained French Poet, on which he won nine successive races.
The biggest of these was on Melbourne Cup Day in 1971, when he steered the gelding to victory in the Railway Highweight.
Eventually, after 14 years, the strain of wasting brought an end to Dennis Gray’s career in the saddle. He rode his last race at Wangaratta in 1976, when he won on the appropriately-named Endall.
Three months later, Endall saluted again at Werribee – this time with Dennis as its trainer.
The transition to his new role was seamless. Armed with an innate knowledge of the craft, and having learned from some of the best in the business, he went on to become one of the leading trainers in the area.
When cancer claimed the life of Dennis Gray just over six years ago, he was lauded as a master craftsman in both spheres of racing.
He had added another layer to the fascinating story of a highly-respected Wangaratta sporting family……….