Trainer Lorna Gray looked as chipper this spring at Assiniboia Downs as she did 40 years ago, which is amazing for a woman who might be the oldest active female trainer in Canada at 77.
We couldn’t verify the latter fact, the former we have covered.
I was under a horse with Gray in a stall at Assiniboia Downs in the spring of 1977. And before you get the wrong idea, we were putting polo bandages on the horse. Lorna’s husband Don Gray was the trainer, Lorna was the assistant trainer and the horse was A Society Boy. And he was not cooperating.
Spring training in the snow at Assiniboia Downs is always a bit of rush, and trying to put polo bandages on two hind legs at the same time wasn’t going well with the son of Nashua, so I tapped his belly. That sent the leg Lorna was trying to wrap whizzing by her head and me into the doghouse. I eventually got out after a stern and well deserved scolding, as did A Society Boy. Don and Lorna Gray went on to dominate the training ranks for years with class and winners, but they had already been doing that.
The couple worked together to develop numerous stakes winners and champions at Assiniboia Downs including Island Fling, Intercontinent, Only Dreaming, Coral Prospect, Proven Reserve, Admiration, Body Works, Bold Viscount, Rangatira, Rockcliffe, Irish Dream and more, and led the standings 1975, 1977 and 1978.
Lorna exercised most of the “big” horses, and she also had her own trainers’ license, having taken it out in the early 1970s on trips to Cleveland, Toronto and Montreal. Gray was a trainer at Blue Bonnets in Montreal on September 6, 1971 when the fans rioted over a low Quinella payoff.
“We were in the backstretch,’” said Gray. “Not on the frontside. It was really scary. They threw benches through the windows and started fires. They wouldn’t let anyone in or out of the backstretch. The jockeys feared for their lives.”
Gray was a natural with horses from the beginning. Born in Chatham Ontario, the daughter of Henry and Gwen Young moved to Winnipeg when she was 9-years-old. There was a little racing background in her family pedigree but not a lot.
“My grandmother on my Dad’s side, Margaret, always went to the races at Polo Park,” said Gray. “Later on, my Mom would have horses with me. They were cheaper horses but they did alright. She liked it and supported me in it.”
When Gray arrived in Manitoba she got into the show horse scene and went on to become an accomplished 3-Day Event Rider. She progressed quickly and was one of only two people from Manitoba trying out for the Canadian Equestrian Team and the Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg when disaster struck.
Gray was competing in a 3-Day Event in Boston when her horse crashed into a fence and fell on her, leaving her with broken bones everywhere – shoulder, collar bone and ribs – along with a cracked pelvis. She was 23 at the time.
“I don’t know if I would have made the team or not,” said Gray. “But my horse fell on me and that was it.”
Lorna met Don Gray in the 1960s, before he became a full-time trainer. The couple married in 1963 while Don was working as a schoolteacher. Don also worked as Clerk of Scales and a Steward at Assiniboia Downs before moving on to training horses full time in 1970. Lorna was a natural fit in a barn full of racehorses, having worked as a hot walker for top trainer A. E. “Bert” Blake at Polo Park while also becoming an accomplished rider. She had also graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Science degree.
Lorna exercised numerous stakes winners and champions for the Gray team, but one of her all-time favourites was Admiration, an Australian-bred daughter of Tanzor-Admire by Grey Mop that Phil Kives had purchased in Australia. Apparently Admiration didn’t look like much when she arrived in Canada, but that all changed when the running started.
“She looked pretty plain and she had a big knee,” said Gray. “And she was younger than the horses she was running against due to being born in Australia. We started her in July as a 3-year-old, but she was really only 2 1/2-years-old. And she had little quirks to her. She wouldn’t go through doorways. And when you took her to the track you had to let her just stand and look or she wouldn’t go.”
“Good horses have heart though,” said Gray. “You can’t always tell just by looking at them. Some are morning glories. And there are lots that have ability but many don’t care if they run or not. Of course, some of them have problems that you just can’t see. Admiration was something special.”
Admiration went on to win five stakes and place in numerous others at Assiniboia Downs while compiling a record of 15-8-4 in 42 starts from 1980-1983. She was named Champion Older Mare at Assiniboia Downs in 1982.
Gray sustained numerous injuries while exercising horses over the years, but “nothing major” she said. “Just a broken arm.” Her and Don continued to pile up winners until they divorced in 1983, but they remained friends until Don’s untimely death on in 1993. Gray quit exercising horses a year later.
“I was training 36 horses and while I was out on the horses I was always thinking about what had to be done in the barn,” said Gray. “It’s good to gallop your own horses, because you can learn a lot from them, but that was too much.”
Gray trained the Kives’ horses for a few years and won more stakes, but eventually started to downsize her stable to the point where she now trains for just a few owners and herself. At this point in her life it just makes her happy. She’s already won 405 races, plus a few more outside of Manitoba.
Over the past 10 years, she’s derived great satisfaction from buying older horses at the winter sales in Kentucky, her best to date being the mare Hello (Smoke Glaken-Just a Bird by Storm Bird) a $10,000 purchase by Gray that she developed into a stakes winner and Champion Older Mare at Assiniboia Downs.
Gray has four horses in her barn right now and three are off-season purchases from the winter sales in Kentucky. Victory Call is a 4-year-old Speightstown gelding that ran in England before winning a Maiden Special Weight race at Santa Anita. Paradise Peak is a 5-year-old mare by Congrats that won a Maiden Special Weight and a Starter Allowance at Aqueduct.
And Ski is a 3-year-old Bodemeister gelding that started once at Laurel. Gray’s groom of over 30 years, Wes Jaman, looks after all the horses, and there may be a few more coming.
Gray has trained for some of the big names at Assiniboia Downs over the years, but owns most of the horses herself now along with longtime partners Ingrid Lee and Mary Liggett. It’s a happy and calm situation at the barn. She’ll try to bring out the class in her new charges and if that doesn’t work, she’ll find them good homes. She’s enjoying what she’s doing and has no plans to quit.
“What else am I going to do?” said Gray, who especially loves feeding the horses in the morning. “I’ll be here until I can no longer physically do it.”
“The horses are always happy to see me.”