Once an actress in Doctor Who, Gai Waterhouse’s journey to become the leading lady of Australian horse racing is one even the Time Lord might have struggled to conjure up.
The daughter of the trainer Tommy J. Smith, she was seemingly destined for an equine life – but had other plans.
She found her way into the cast of popular sci-fi TV show “Doctor Who,” a series shown in 50 countries and, at its peak in 1979, watched by a quarter of the British population.
Now she has emulated her father by winning one of Australia’s most prestigious races, the Golden Slipper Stakes, for a record-equaling sixth time, her horse Vancouver having achieved the feat in the $2.7 million race in March.
But the 60-year-old, whose horses have won nearly $150 million in prize money, initially tried to avoid horse racing: “I think I was cutting the umbilical cord by doing that.
“I was obsessed with becoming an actress and that was all I wanted to do. I worked in theater and TV and then all of sudden I was doing it in England.”
Like so many other Australian contemporaries, she moved halfway across the world to pursue her acting ambitions and is back on English soil again this week for Royal Ascot with her horse Wandjina entered in Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee.
Now world renowned as a leading trainer, it was on the small screen that she first turned heads.
Arguably her most globally notable role was as Presta alongside the good Doctor, then played by Tom Baker, as he battled to defeat the Sontaran invasion of Gallifrey in a series called “Invasion of Time.”
“I loved doing Doctor Who,” she recalls. “It’s one of the most enjoyable stints I had in England.
“Tom Baker was the Doctor and he was a wonderful person to work with. He was just full of fun plus a very capable actor as well. We had a wonderful crew and stuntmen as well – a real mixture of things.”
Her other high-profile acting role was appearing in the Australian television series “The Young Doctors” but, in time, she could no longer fight her destiny to follow her father’s path.
“I think I realized gradually that acting wasn’t my calling,” she says. “I wanted to go back to my family from England but I hadn’t formulated ideas to get into training.”
A route back to the paddock arrived during her time as an actress, as she traveled to race courses across England, France and Ireland, watching trainers such as Ian Balding and Alec Head.
“I learned from that and found it very stimulating,” she says.
As a young child, Waterhouse used to ride on her pony to the stables to tend the horses with her father.
“It’s funny as it’s like a second skin to me,” she says. “I had this knowledge of the sport by being born and bred into it.
“But it wasn’t a ‘Eureka moment’ getting into it. It was a gradual metamorphosis over maybe 10 years that it happened.”
For 15 years she worked under her father before taking over the reins at Tulloch Lodge stable in 1994 when he became ill.
Getting to that point was not without its problems – Waterhouse was denied a license until 1992, after what she describes on her website as “a prolonged battle with officialdom.”
Though now referred to as “the leading lady of Australian racing,” she was initially forbidden a license because her husband was serving a ban for his involvement in 1984’s Fine Cotton scandal – in which stewards discovered after a race that a sub-standard horse had been illegally switched with another, disguised with paint and hair dye.
Robbie Waterhouse, a bookmaker linked to the scam,and his father Bill protested their innocence but both were suspended until 1998.
Looking back on her battle to get started, she says: “I didn’t have great support when I first started. I had to go out and play catch and kill and that was good for me. I went out and bought some horses and had to sell them and I had to make it work.”
Even with her license finally in hand, it was no easy task for Waterhouse to take over from her father, whose CV included two Melbourne Cup victories, six Golden Slippers, four Caulfield Cups and 35 Australian Derbies.
Of matching that sixth Golden Slipper herself, she says: “I think it shows people that what I do, I do very well and I’m able to turn… what people thought was an average yearling $185,000 Australian dollars into a $40 million stallion in 18 months. I think that shows people the woman knows what she’s doing.”
She confesses she got into the sport as she did not want to disappoint her father. That changed once she began achieving success, although it took her father some time to hand over the reins.
“I think the problem was he didn’t want me to fail,” she said. “That was his big concern. He just wanted me to be successful.”
Smith passed away in 1998 and has not seen the majority of his daughter’s Group 1 winners – which put her third on the Australian all-time list behind her father and Bert Cummings – nor her crowning glory, last year’s victory at the Melbourne Cup with Fiorente edging out Red Cadeaux in a thrilling finish.
In the process, she became the first Australian woman to train the winner of the “race that stops a nation,” and only the second female in history after Wales’ Sheila Laxon, who guided Ethereal to victory in 2001.
Fiorente’s jockey Damien Oliver is among those well aware of Waterhouse’s place in the sport. “She’s done so much for racing,” he said after last year’s success.
Meanwhile, Smith reportedly told her father-in-law Bill Waterhouse “she’s better than me” – although Waterhouse scoffs at the suggestions, merely saying “I wouldn’t put words into my dear dad’s mouth.”
But she readily admits her mind cast back to her father in the moments after the win.
“I think he would have been so delighted to see that,” she says. “We’ve got a portrait of Fiorente and, in it, my father and mother are looking down as well as (four-time Melbourne Cup-winning horse owner) Lloyd Williams, who still says he talks to dad daily.
“Quite often, I think to myself what would dad have done in a certain situation. I can’t tell you how important the advice and horsemanship he gave me was. But it’s harder and harder now to think back in the memory banks for it.”
Fiorente is a difficult horse and one, she argues, her father might not have been able to train. “That’s simply because I’m more patient, that’s the woman in me.”
On the day of the race, she admitted to her husband: “I hope I can win it, if I don’t I won’t be able to face everyone.”
“So when it won It was a relief I hadn’t let anyone down,” she admits, “but also an amazing feeling of satisfaction and achievement, and joy for all the people connected to the horse.”
Waterhouse knows no one trainer is bigger than the $3.2m Melbourne Cup.
But she readily admits there is a fascination among the wider public of her: “I’m the only person who puts the back page onto the front page.
“Whatever it is, people find it interesting and say, “how does she do it? How can she be a mother? How can she be a wife? How can she do this?”
Dr Who’s loss, it seems, has been horse racing’s gain.