McKay happy to be back in feature race mode

Sally McKay
Invercargill horsewoman Sally McKay. Photo: Race Images South.

Nearly four years of challenges, toil and determination had their reward for Invercargill horsewoman Sally McKay when Palmetto won the Listed Positive Signs Dunedin Guineas (1500m) at Wingatui last Saturday.

In 2018 McKay suffered serious injuries after a young horse she was riding took fright, threw her heavily and stood on the side of her head. The lengthy recuperation had her questioning her resolve to continue training, but with the assistance of friends and supporters she soldiered on.

Saturday’s feature three-year-old win by the horse she part-owns was her first in a black-type race since the 2017-18 season and hopefully a sign of better to come.

“Training down here is never easy, but what happened made it so much more difficult,” Ascot Park-based McKay said. “I suffered a massive head injury but I gradually came right and now health-wise I’m good as gold.”

While admitting that training a 16-horse team virtually on her own remains challenging, McKay wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

“I’m very lucky to still be able to do what I love. The hardest part down here is finding staff, it’s the same for everyone,” she said.

“In my case it means having to ride every horse in the stable, which doesn’t leave room for anything outside the daily routine. I’m fortunate that I have a couple of people who lend a hand when they can, but for me it’s still virtually 24/7.”

On top of that workload, McKay is also the go-to person for clerk of course duties in the Southland region, which includes all gallops and harness meetings at her home track, Ascot Park, and gallops action at Riverton, Gore and Wyndham.

“I wouldn’t be doing so much of it if they could find someone else, but the problem is there just aren’t the people with either the skills or the right sort of horse, so it falls back on me.”

That stoic attitude makes McKay’s Dunedin Guineas win with Palmetto so much more rewarding. By good fortune she still has the Ghibellines gelding in her team after he was initially given to her by his breeders, former North Canterbury trainer Michael Stokes and Chris and Megan Smith, in the hope of developing him for sale.

“They tried to sell him as a yearling through the Gavelhouse South Island Sale and then they sent him to me to get him up for a trial. I ended up telling Michael I really liked him, so they got a bunch of mates together, I took a share, and we decided to race him,” she said.

“That was early last winter and we couldn’t find a trial, so we took him to Riccarton for a two-year-old race without even a jumpout, and what do you know, he came out and won.

“We backed off him until the spring and he finished fourth close up behind Noverre in an early Guineas lead-up, but then he got crook after disappointing in the War Decree Stakes. I was happy with him heading into last Saturday’s race; he finished fourth in the Gore Guineas when we knew it was too short, and up in distance (to 1500m) it was great to see him come through them and win like that.

“The Southland Guineas is the race he’s been set for all along,” McKay said. “I’d love to win a decent race on my home track. There had been a few feelers out for him but Michael has told me everything’s on hold until after the race, so we’ll just wait and see.

“He’s such a lovely horse to do anything with, which is also the case for everything I’ve had by Ghibellines. He’s an absolute delight to have around, he just wants to please you.”

McKay plans to have up to 11 runners at this Thursday’s Ascot Park meeting and what unfolds then will determine her starter numbers nine days later on the Southland Racing Club’s big day of the year.

“I’ve been purposely targeting the bulk of my team at the meeting,” she said. “We don’t get these good stakes too often down these parts, so you’ve got to make the most of them.”

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