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The racing game was in his DNA

To say that horse racing was in the late Gary Jenkins’s blood would be an understatement.

Riding was in the family DNA, and the Jenkins name is synonymous with horse racing in New Zealand, dating back to the 19th century.

Gary’s great-grandfather William was one of the country’s very first professional jockeys and rode into his 70s. His grandfather Charlie rode his first winner at the age of 13 and rode 728 winners during his career, with 90 of those wins in the 1902–03 season alone.

Gary’s father, Ashley, was the successful jumps rider for four seasons in the late 1930s and early 40s, and his brother Ray [‘Bubs’] was also highly successful as a leading flat rider.

So there was never any doubt about what career young Gary would pursue. When the skinny kid left Opaki School at the age of 15, he followed the family tradition and became a jockey, taking up an apprenticeship with his father at the local race course.

Although teaching Gray to race ride was primarily up to his father, who had been a top-flight jockey and whose claims to fame included a Grand National Steeplechase on Clarion Call, almost as influential was leading Wairarapa jockey Artie ‘Swerve’ Messervy.

It was Messervy who had a long string of successes and was known as a man who had “been there and done that” in every race-day situation.

The first time Gary saluted the judge was aboard Jenny Lou at Opaki. The horse was trained at Carterton by Frank Gough, who had booked Messervy to ride it without realising it was a race for apprentice jockeys.

“Artie talked Frank into putting me on, and we won by 1½ lengths,” Gary told Times-Age reporter Don Farmer in 1996.

“I was very proud and happy, but I couldn’t go to the bar to celebrate because I was only 16.”

Jenny Lou was the first of many flat winners for Gary. His forte was over the jumps.

He won the Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton twice, on Fairhome [1952] and aboard Wotan’s Gold [1956], the Grand National Hurdles on Judge [1957], the Waikato Steeplechase on Yeti [1965], and the 1967 Great Northern Hurdles and Winter Hurdles on Beyond. Gary also won the Hawke’s Bay Steeplechase four times, the Whanganui Steeplechase three times, and the Egmont Steeplechase twice.

It was a fairly ordinary hurdle race at Levin, though, that became an enduring memory for Gary because of its novelty value.

Gary had ridden King’s Mate into third place, had dismounted and weighed in when Awapuni trainer Brian Clements asked him “to have a go for fourth money”.

Several horses had fallen about 1200m from the finish, among them Clements’s own runner Brave Sailor and rider Bill Andrew.

Gary leapt on the horse’s back and took it to the 1200m mark, rode it to the finishing post and claimed fourth money, achieving the rare feat of riding both the third and fourth-placed horses in the same race.

Given that Gary was mainly a jumps jockey and his career spanned so many years, he remained mostly injury free. He dislocated a collarbone, broke a few ribs, and suffered a few concussions but avoided the crippling and sometimes fatal injuries that befell his fellow riders, including the death of one of his best mates, Bren Langford, after he fell and the horse rolled on him during a hurdle race at Tauherenikau in 1963.

Among the falls Gary recalled to Farmer in 1996 was one when he was dislodged from the favourite Amber Wine in the Homeby Steeplechase at Riccarton.

“I was lying on the track just after the rest of the field had gone by, when some old tart got through the fence and attacked me with an umbrella.

“She accused me of jumping off and was screaming that she had put all her money on me.”

The trips south to Gary’s favourite course Riccarton, also had their fun times, with games of rugby played between the North Island and South Island. Gary wisely always lined up at fullback to stay out of the way and avoid injury.

Beyond and Yeti were among the best horses Gary rode, having won nine times on each.

In 1954, Gary married Dawn and had sons Ashley and Glen, who also followed in the family business and became jockeys themselves.

After retiring from jockeying, Gary became a concreter for many years, mastering the trade and becoming a perfectionist. He later worked at the Waingawa meat works in the boning room.

Gary didn’t slow down in retirement, spending his time in his beloved vegetable garden, making swans out of old tyres and many other homemade toys for his grandchildren. At one point, Gary became the doorman at his beloved Masterton Cossie Club.

In his later years, Gary’s health suffered. He had several cancers and half a bowel removed, but his heart remained strong, and he fought through time and time again.

Gary is survived by his wife of 68 years, Dawn; sons Glen and Ashley; daughter Kathy; and his six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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Chris Cogdale
Chris Cogdale
Chris “Coggie” Cogdale has extensive knowledge of sport in Wairarapa having covered it for more than 30 years, including radio for 28 years. He has been the sports guru at the Wairarapa Times-Age since 2019.

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