“BASTARDS, BITCHES & BLOODY GOOD PEOPLE……”

A short fellah, obviously an ex-hoop, greets me as I alight from the ute and sidle up the driveway of a Killawarra property.

“G’day…. Ernie’s my name. Gaye’s kickin’ around here somewhere. I’ll round her up.”

This leads to my introduction to Gabrielle Gauci Marchant ( née Mullins ), racing trail-blazer, passionate industry advocate, extraordinary achiever…… and true character.

She’s sure blessed with the gift of the gab……And her partner Ernie (Marchant) obviously concurs. At one stage he wanders past and interrupts: “Geez, Gaye…You haven’t drawn breath for about an hour…..Old mate here can’t get a word in ! “

I don’t mind….I suggest she’s got enough anecdotes to write a book about her career in racing……”Yeah, and I know what the title will be”, she quips…. “’Bastards, Bitches and Bloody Good People’”…….

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Her grand-father Gordon Green was a former Carlton captain and represented the ‘Big V’ after heading to the ‘big smoke’ from St.James in 1911. Her nephew, Luke Mullins, played a handful of games with Collingwood in 2004, then participated in dual premierships back home, with Wangaratta. Her three brothers made their mark in footy, cricket, tennis and baseball.

But there was no doubting Gaye’s sporting loyalties. It was probably through the influence of her older sister, Cathy, who was a keen Pony-Clubber, that she became entranced with horses….from the age of about seven.

A crusty old horse-dealer, Jack Gerrand, owned a paddock near the Swan Street Bridge, in which he usually plonked a few unbroken, feral ponies that he’d just bought.

“I couldn’t resist it,” she recalls. “I pinched one, started riding it down the street and Jack spotted me. He said: ‘ I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you ride these ponies. You’ve got three weeks to break ‘em in’…..I had no idea how to do that. They used to throw me off and I’d get back on and ride them around town.”

“Jack would take me to the Horse Sales to sell the ponies. I’d jump on their rumps and crawl through their legs and he’d spruik: ‘Look how quiet these kids ponies are.’……Once he saw how keen I was on horses I went everywhere with him.”

Gaye would turn up at the The Pony Club on a different horse every rally. They shifted their operations to the middle of the Wangaratta Racecourse, but her eyes diverted to the statuesque horses over at Alby Pilgrim’s stables.

“He had this big grey called Robber Chief. I waited until everyone left, then climbed on him and had a ride. I realised then that my life was going to centre around horses.”

Well-known local horseman Lackie Ritchens saw her trying to wrest control of a pony that had bolted, on the Hume Highway. He shook his head and said: “Gaye…you’re gonna get killed one day’

He wasn’t far off the mark. She was hit by a car, and broke several bones. But even that didn’t deter her dream of being a jockey.

She had started penning letters to the Victorian Racing Club from the age of eight, enquiring how she could become a jockey.

Year after year they went unanswered……. until she received her first reply, from Clarrie Bennetts, the VRC Publicity Officer, who advised that : “….As you are only 11 it is going to be four years or so before you can take the necessary steps to become a registered lady jockey.”

If nothing else, Gaye was persistent. She wagged school around her 15th birthday, caught a train and tram, found her way to the headquarters of the VRC, at 415 St.Kilda Road, and sought an interview with the legendary Jack Purtell.

“He sent me to see John Byrne (Head of Licensing), who gave me a bit of a hearing. I convinced him that I‘d been riding trackwork for Hal Hoysted since I was nine, was ready to be a jockey, and that my boss had sent me down. After making a phone call, they kicked my bum, put me on the tram and sent me back to Wangaratta.”

“Hal was very good to me. He used to say: “I think you’re fighting a losing battle. They’ll never licence a girl. But I’ll help you as much as I can.”

A few weeks later the VRC sent a letter to Denis Gray, who had taken Gaye under his wing. They had agreed to release the first-ever articles of Apprenticeship for a Victorian female jockey. Her dreams had finally been answered.

“I’d driven them mad. They were probably relieved to get me out of their hair,” Gaye says.

“Denis Gray was a top jockey, who had recently retired to be a Trainer. He was everything to my riding career. After my first gallop I wanted to ride in races then and there. But he made sure I was ready, before then allowing me to go to the next stage. He probably pulled his hair out as he was training me, I was that stubborn and determined……….”

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Gaye had her first two rides as an apprentice at Wodonga in June 1980. They set up stop-gap changing facilities for her in the Ladies Toilets. But she rates it as one of the most exciting days of her life.

She rode successive winners at Benalla at her second meeting. One of them was on Scampy Lady, for Bob Hahne.

“She was also my first ride in ‘town’, a couple of weeks later, starting at 330/1 in the Auerie Star Handicap. In the barriers on either side of me were Roy Higgins and Harry White. That made me nice and ‘toey’,” Gaye says.

She continued to ride regular winners, and was 17 when she chalked up the best of them, piloting Rover’s Girl to an all-the-way win in the Albury Base Hospital Cup.

The brilliant ride drew praise from hardened racing men, who’d seen the 2/1 favourite Tantero, with Bob Beasley aboard, attempt to get a run inside her, 200 metres from home. Rover’s Girl fought on again to win by half a length.

“One morning we were standing around the fire-drum at trackwork when I asked Denis if he’d mind me spending a couple of weeks in Melbourne. I picked up the Herald-Sun form-guide and looked at the metropolitan trainers’ Premiership Table and on top was A.A.Armanasco, so I said to Denis: ”I’m gonna ride trackwork for this guy’. He laughed and shook his head.”

“I found my way to 34 Boran Road, Caulfield, and knocked on the big brown doors of this place. Venerable old Angus, answered the door. I said: ‘Hi Mister Armanasco, my name’s Gaye Mullins from Wangaratta. I’m apprenticed to Denis Gray…..I’ve only got a few more trials to go, and I’d like to ride work for you for a couple of weeks. You don’t have to pay me anything. I just want to learn…..”

“It was an eye-opening experience. The long and the short of it was that when I out-rode my Claim in the country, Angus invited me to spend the last year of my apprenticeship with him. Denis consented, so it worked out perfectly.”

Gaye had ridden 86 winners from 895 starts when she retired as a jockey after completing her apprenticeship. In that same year, 1984, she married Mick Gauci, who’d been courting her for six years.

Mick landed a contract to ride in Mauritius, and with infant son Danny in tow, she also headed over to the beautiful Indian Ocean Island nation. She spent time pre-training horses for the Gujadhur stables, and was sent over to South Africa to trial horses before they were purchased.

“I found out there were bigger places than Wangaratta on the map. They were good years, good money….It was a lovely place, and we had lots of fun.”

“But we went our separate ways when we returned home. He was a city boy and I was still a country girl. He’s a loveable rogue, Mick….but we’re still good mates………..”

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Gaye and Danny returned home to Wangaratta. She applied for – and was granted – a Trainer’s licence and set up ‘Forbern Lodge Racing Stables’, named after her dad -and keenest fan – Bernie.

With a stable of up to 14 horses, she was flat-out, doing all the odd jobs and maintenance, and riding as much trackwork as she could…..That’s when Ernie Marchant came into her life:

“He stopped off at Wang, en route to Sydney, after finishing a very successful apprenticeship in Melbourne. He hung around for a few days to ride Jovial Dancer for Roger Hoysted, in the Albury Gold Cup.”

“Roger also had a chestnut mare, Natural Wonder, on which Ernie won a few races….So he decided to settle here…..He’d ride past my Stables on Roger’s horses and, I think, felt sorry for me because I had all these horses to work……..”

“He asked me if I’d like him to jump on a couple…..we just clicked….He never left…..”

“Ernie has the same passion for horses as me. I’m proud of his achievements. He was a top Apprentice in Melbourne and rode roughly 1060 winners…..including many in Singapore and Malaysia…”

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Illness struck in 1994, when Gaye was diagnosed with Bone Cancer. When she began chemotherapy she decided to reduce her stable to just three horses. One of those was her all-time favourite, Dancing Jug.

“I used to want to ride him in track work all the time, but I’d be so weak I’d have to stop and have a rest around the course. He was such an inspiration to me……He gave me the incentive to get out of bed every morning.”

“ ‘Juggy’ won 16 races – 2 Tatura Cups, a Wodonga Cup, a Wangaratta Cup…lost by half a head in another Wang Cup…won for me in Adelaide….. He’d go out on Saturday and throw his heart over the line and chase it…..and if he didn’t win he’d give it a shot.”

A week before she went into remission, in 1996, Gaye was thrown off a horse in Adelaide, and broke both legs, an arm and her jaw. “They’d warned me not to break a bone in this period, but luckily, all is okay now,” she says.

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She notched up 147 winners during her 10-year training career, then, on the recommendation of champion trainer Lee Freedman, enjoyed a two-year stint as assistant-trainer to Michael Kent in Singapore.

During her time in racing, Gaye felt a strong leaning towards the lesser lights of the industry – the strappers, stablehands and assistant-trainers, track-riders, Race-day attendants and the like……

This led to her and Ernie setting up ‘Equine Goals and Dreams’, a non-profit organisation aimed at helping people who have the dream of working with horses.

She also assisted Wangaratta TAFE in the preparation of work-based training programs, and was part of a working-party that helped launch the National Centre for Equine Education, in Tone Road.

She also joined another group, under the auspices of the VRC:

“We got together and began listing all of the jobs that are part of the industry,” she said. “We ascertained that there were 45 different occupations that you could obtain qualifications for. We gave them job descriptions and set down the skills that were required for each job. Out of that came the very first racing courses…..It just grew and grew…..Then each of the states combined to devise the ‘National Racing Industry Training Package.”

In March 2013 she was selected to attend a Super Trades Mission in the Middle East, representing the Victorian Equine and Racing industry.

Later that year she was invited to be a Guest Speaker at the HH Sheikh Mansoor Bin Zayed Al Nhyan Global Arabian Racing Festival conference in Abu Dhabi, to address a room of 400 people from 80 countries.

An agreement was subsequently drawn up between countries to formulate a world’s best-practice approach to Equine skills training, known as the International Federation of Horse Racing Academies..

In another tribute to her standing in the sport, she received a Fellowship to attend a study of Racing Industry Training in the United Kingdom, following the release of her paper on The Australian Thoroughbred Industry.

Gaye’s determination to obtain some recognition for Stablehands and strappers (the lowest-paid of any employees in the racing industry), saw her spend a year or so as an Education and Training consultant with RVL.

“After getting around, speaking to them, it was obvious that they felt an insignificant part of the racing picture,” she said.

So she became a driving force behind the introduction of the Victorian Thoroughbred Employee of the Year Awards.

She was invited to South Korea to consult with their National racing authorities on Best-Practices around stables, horsemanship, stable-management practices and nutrition.

“The object was really to give them an idea where they sat on the international stage, as they’d only been racing for 25 years. They were very receptive, and it was a great experience,” she says.

She left the Korean Racing Authority with a detailed dossier, ‘The Changing Face of Korean Racing – Sensible and achievable solutions to advance racing in South Korea to a higher standard’.

Ernie went to South Korea as assistant trainer for Brian Dean, and they opened the first foreign stable in Seoul.

On return to Australia Gaye and Ernie jointly headed up John Sadler’s Racing Stable at Caulfield until August last year, when Ernie had an horrific accident, riding trackwork. They are both back on their farm whilst he recuperates.

It seemed, to the outsider, a long time coming, but in 2015 Gaye was honoured with the Victorian Wakeful Club Lady of Racing Award……..The tiny girl from Wangaratta, who used to clamber aboard feral ponies almost fifty years earlier, had come a long way……………….

P.S: Gaye still retains her passion for horses, and is a Sales Representative for Hygain/ Mitavite Feeds.