Top Queensland trainer, Ian Gurney, was born into an earthmoving family and would never have entered the harness racing game had it not been for his former childhood neighbour, Peter Donahue.
Donahue, who has trained 342 lifetime winners, gave Gurney his start as a 14-year-old boy teaching him the intricacies of standardbreds. Eventually he learnt to drive track-work, and then ultimately, train pacers and trotters.
Gurney is quickly catching up to Donahue with 247 victories. That was as of today (Thursday Dec. 10).
He said his late father Colin, started the family Earthmoving business, which is now owned by himself and his brothers Michael, Wayne, Neal and David.
But Gurney has always had a passion for the horses, and started training his own team on the family property at Chambers Flat, where he is currently based – until March.
He said this opened a door for him to start training with his first wife Anna Woodmansey, while also working in the family business.
After some personal issues about 13 years ago, Gurney said he decided to go out on his own.
“That’s when I really started to get serious about training, and started to build a stable of good horses with the likes of Mach Alert, Our Hi Jinx, Smooth Showgirl, Ideal Scott, Baileys Magic and Avonnova to name a few,” Gurney said.
He said his mates in the harness industry really helped at the time. These included top horsemen, Luke McCarthy, Jack Butler, and Wayne & Shane Graham.
It was the Graham father-son duo and Mach Alert that provided Gurney with his first Group One win as an owner. Shane then became Gurney’s leading driver on many of his champions. They often travelled throughout Australia together.
“This story would be very different if it wasn’t for Shane. He is one horseman I admire a lot. Shane and Jack Butler would be the people I speak to the most outside of my stable, Jack, Shane and Wayne are very astute and very sharp horsemen.”
Gurney is currently training a team of 11 out of his Chambers Flat property with his new stable foreman, Adam Sanderson.
In March he intends moving 65km north-west to his and wife, Angela's, new property at Fernvale.
“We have built a 900m track, a new swimming pool, treadmill area, and 20-bay barn and day-yards. All the infrastructure to make it a nice home for our horses.
"I prefer to train only six to eight horses at a time, so I can do a bit more with them. The new place will be ideal for that,” 58-year-old Gurney said.
Although he said he experienced some marriage and business difficulties early on, Gurney believes he has now bounced back.
“I married my new wife, Ange, and together we have built up a good little barn, where I can train under my own name.
“We have been very fortunate to gain Adam Sanderson to the stable. He is a quality horseman who knows his stuff. He has been a real asset to the team - a great man to chat to and seek advice from. Adam will be staying with us once we move, and we are really looking forward to that,” Gurney said.
The Dalby-born horseman said he sometimes had to prick himself and realise that he is now a trainer of good quality horses.
“Over the years I’ve learnt how to understand and read the horse and get the best out of him or her. It's all about the horse - the horse’s well-being always comes first.
It's still hard to believe I have trained such good horses like Mach Alert (37 wins and $654 801), Our Hi Jinx (20 Wins and $405 252), Smooth Showgirl (25 wins and $373 786), and of course Avonnova (55 wins $967 164).
“I have been lucky to combine with some great drivers like Shane Graham and Mach Alert, Avonnova; and Adam Sanderson with Our Hi Jinx and Smooth Showgirl - along with the rest of our team.”
Gurney said he had recorded some nice wins and placed in several Group races. Two included Avonnova's Group One Win in the 2015 Sunshine Sprint on his home ground, and then his second behind I’m Themightyquinn in the 2014 Blacks A Fake.
“They were both special, but my greatest memory in the sport so far was when Avonnova ran fourth in the $1.3 million Inter Dominion Final at Gloucester Park (2015). I personally thought that was Shane’s best ever drive for me.
“Avonnova finished runner up twice in the heats that campaign - something we will never forget. ’Nova’ was also Queensland Horse-of-the-Year three years running and finished up in the Hall of Fame.
“I pinch myself everyday with that horse and we are lucky to still have him with us. We will never let that horse go.”
Gurney only originally claimed Avonnova for $20,000 to have a Saturday night horse at Albion Park - a purchase that turned out to become ‘a horse of a lifetime’.
"I got lucky and Ange and I enjoyed some of the best times of our racing life with him."
Gurney and his wife have dabbled in breeding over the last few years, but this season have upped their game.
“We have four mares under the care of Peter and Leann Bell at Egmont Park Stud. They run a very professional breeding establishment and are always great to deal with. We know our mares and foals are extremely well looked after there,” said Gurney.
He said he had always enjoyed seeking their advice, and talking to breeding experts like Farm owner, Kevin Seymour.
“I see a real benefit to breeding your own horses. As for Kevin Seymour, well you can't go past him, can you? Not only has he been very generous to our industry, but he is a very knowledgeable man when it comes to racing and breeding. It’s great to have expertise to call on," Gurney said.
The Gurneys are breeding from Cardlemebaby (unraced 2008 McArdle mare), who left the nine-win Cardlesfromheaven (2013 Rock n Roll Heaven gelding); and Jaggers Swagger (2016 American Ideal Gelding), who won his maiden at Albion Park last month.
“Cardlemebaby has also got a 2-year old Mr Feelgood colt named Cardlesfeelgood, and a Gotta Go Cullect filly in the wings. She is currently in foal to Sweet Lou.
“We are also breeding from Just Deal It (by American Ideal). She won six races and is a lightly raced mare with 41 starts.
“Just Deal It is a younger half-sister to Mach Alert and she is in foal to Vincent. Then there’s Justforthegirls (2013 Art Major filly) who is in foal to Ultimate Machete; and Smooth Showgirl (Group 1 winning Art Major mare -113 starts for $373,786) who has been served by Sweet Lou,” Gurney said.
“We are hoping for a nice little crop of foals in 2021 to rebuild our stable and move into the next phase of our racing lives,” he added.