By Brad Gray
Gary Portelli walks past his Golden Slipper trophy every day. He makes a point of it.
“My Golden Slipper trophy is strategically placed in the hallway as I leave the house. I have to look at it every morning and I turn the light on, it’s now part of my routine. I leave that light on too, because if I turn it off that means I’ve turned the light off on winning another one,” Portelli said with a laugh.
“I want to get a mate for it. It reminds what I’m doing it all for. I get to work at 4am and it’s hard to stay on the bunny but that keeps me wanting to do it.”
She Will Reign is of course the filly that won the Golden Slipper last year for Portelli. He recently had to say his goodbyes to ‘Daisy’ as she was known to staff and her passionate army of owners, after she was sold to international interests to be a broodmare.
“We had all of the owners there on the Sunday before she left and they spent a bit of time with her and the trophy. I went back to her in the afternoon, gave her a pat and got a bit emotional,” said Portelli.
“I didn’t want to see her walk down the driveway. I had trials the next day at Rosehill so was lucky I didn’t have to lead her onto the truck.”
There were a number of “sliding doors” moments that led to She Will Reign taking out the most sort after two-year-old race in the country, none more significant than what saw the horse make it’s way into Portelli’s Warwick Farm stable in the first place though.
Michael Costa, who originally trained the filly, relocated to Queensland but her syndicators Darby Racing wanted their horses trained in Sydney.
“I had just picked up a couple of horses for Scott (Darby) and he was happy with my feedback to clients and level of professionalism. He had to take two horses off Michael. A colt went to Mark Newnham and the filly came to me,” recalled Portelli.
“She was very immature and had a massive knee infection when she came to us. I could have tipped her out but we didn’t want her to go to the paddock with an infected knee, so we kept her in. We decided to give her some work to get a feel of her but from day one she showed above average ability. That was another instant that could have gone either way but we pulled the right reign.
“She had ability but too much speed for her own good to start with so we had to spend a lot of time teaching her to relax and finish off.”
Ben Melham’s association with She Will Reign also came by chance. The Victorian hoop was at Rosehill to trial Rebel Dane, who he steered to victory in the Manikato Stakes at Moonee Valley over the spring. The last start Group One-winner was having a final hit out before heading overseas for the Hong Kong Sprint. Mitchell Bell was booked to ride the rest of Portelli’s four triallers that day but pulled out late due to illness.
“She won the trial by five lengths in 52.7s and Ben was in awe of what he just felt. Right then he booked himself for the rest of the preparation,” Portelli said.
“I was a bit concerned that she was one dimensional and was going too hard within herself but he said that was just me trying to steer her. She couldn’t get around the corners, she was going that fast. At that point I thought we potentially had a superstar 1000m horse. She was too fast to be true.”
A plan was then hatched to target the Inglis Nursey but with no prizemoney in the bank, Portelli sent her for a spin around Kembla Grange on debut with the intention to back her up seven days later. Deanne Panya was under strict riding instructions to win the race but go as easy as possible on her.
“She ran two tenths outside of the course record, basically just letting her do her own thing. By the afternoon she was the favourite for the Golden Slipper, I couldn’t believe it.”
She Will Reign made a mess of her rivals in the Inglis feature as an odds on favourite and then won the Silver Slipper Stakes, despite missing the start. She was beaten in the Riesling Stakes but it was only on the count of Frolic finding the fast lane down the outside fence.
That just meant a better price for the owners come the Golden Slipper according to Portelli, who had lost no faith in the horse. Some of those owners had already backed her at $101 before her debut and then doubled down at $51 immediately after she bolted in at Kembla.
“She changed lives, they were able to pay off their homes, one lady was able to get some treatment for cancer, it was a life changing experience for a lot of owners in this horse,” said Portelli.
It’s Golden Slipper morning and Portelli swings his legs out of bed. “I’m going to win a Golden Slipper today,” he said to himself. He was supremely confident he had the right horse.
“I jumped in the car and couldn’t see for half an hour, the rain was coming down at a 45 degree angle and the rain drops were the size of 50 cent pieces,” Portelli said, resigned to the race being postposed.
“This is the year I thought I had the winner but the weather was going to ruin it for me. I sent a text to Chris Waller in the morning asking him if he was going to start Winx. I was thinking that I have potentially got a top line sprinter here, this could be our Black Caviar. I know it is a Golden Slipper but you are risking your horse on such a heavy track.”
Waller was running Winx in the George Ryder and that was enough for Portelli.
“Before the race I spoke to Dominic Beirne about the form and where we were going to be. He said you’ve got to find the fence, cross them and get to the fence. Four heavy track winners of the Golden Slipper have found the fence,” said Portelli.
“I told Ben we wanted him to give her a good dig out of the barriers. Houtzen will kick up but you just get across. I could see he was not really interested in what I was saying though, he was a bit agitated by my instructions. I asked him what he wanted to do because obviously we weren’t on the same page.”
Melham wanted to take hold. Go straight back to the fence and stay there. They left it at, if she jumped quickly they’d go forward but if not, Melham’s Plan B comes into action.
“They jumped and he was never going forward. He slotted in front of Frolic and just kept railing up, going past horses like he had a lap to go in the trots. He got to the 600m and had Tye (Angland) in front of him on Single Bullet. Tye said he looked back to the inside and no sooner had he looked, Ben had gone straight past. As she straightened up she had Houtzen to run down,” recalled Portelli.
“I was watching it from the winners’ stall, I sound cocky now, but I stood there because I wanted it to bring me luck. I saw everyone starting to scream and I stayed composed. I didn’t want to lose it, I was going to watch every stride she put in. This was something I had dreamt about for so long.
“I watched it as cool as a cucumber and as she went across the line, the owners went berserk. I waited for the rush, the wave of people to come at me like on the previous occasions she had won but this time it was a tsunami, not a wave. I had sore ribs, a sore back where people were whacking me.
“At the time it was a feeling of relief because I knew I had the horse to do it but looking back I see it differently, I feel more emotional now than I did at the time because I honestly thought it was my race to lose, not so much to win.”
*This article was originally published in the October edition of the Racing NSW magazine